A grand house, sleepy villages, green fields, white sheep. This is the England of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989). The protagonist is an English butler, “a myth of England that [is] known internationally” (Ishiguro; qtd. in Rushdie vii), and the depicted landscape is just as mythical, evoking “nostalgia for a time that didn't exist” (Ishiguro; qtd. in Karni 332). Unreliability permeates the narrative: The English butler, Mr. Stevens, is a retrospective narrator and frequently revises inaccurate memories which are intertwined with national history. The artificial quality involved in constructing an individual as well as a national identity is also a prevalent theme in Julian Barnes' book England, England (1998), in which history is mixed with fiction and myth.
This essay aims to compare the mentioned texts with regard to the manner in which they construct and deconstruct England as a nation. In the next paragraph, the term 'nation' will be defined. Then, the subsequent passage will describe the significance of narrative within a nation-state. This is followed by a discussion of national history, individual memory and the significance of myth and nostalgia. All of these aspects are related to the English national identity and prevalent in both The Remains of the Day and England, England.
According to Ernest Renan, it is neither race nor language, neither religion nor geography, neither material nor military interest which is the driving force behind a nation, even though all of these elements play a certain role. For Renan, a nation is “a soul, a spiritual principle” (52). It is a collective that is firmly linked through a common past and a present will to share the future (52). Benedict Anderson follows this line of thought when he describes the nation as “an imagined political community [which is] both inherently limited and sovereign” (6). This political formation is imagined because its members “will never know most of their fellow-members” (6); it is limited due to its boundaries; it is sovereign because “nations dream of being free” (7). Above all, it is a community, because “the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship” (7), regardless of the actual reality. There is much to say about the historical formation of nations, but what is relevant for this essay is that human imagination and a “common […] rich legacy of memories” (Renan 52) are key components. Renan also mentions “[f]orgetting, [or] historical error, [as] a crucial factor” (45); a statement which draws attention to the importance of narrative in nation-building. A nation is, in part, “held together […] by the stories it generates about itself” (Nünning 152).
An abstract concept like Anderson's 'imagined political community' is generally articulated and understood “through the supplement of a plot” (Bentley 488), and specifically through a combination of three types of narrative: “historical, mythical and fictional” (Homi Bhaba qtd. in 488). Myths are especially interesting because they connect history and fiction, illustrate “the way a country dreams [and are] part of the country's fabulized memory” (Ishiguro qtd. in Karni 326). According to Anderson's model, Englishness “is constructed [and has] a form of symbolic existence” (Bentley 486), which can be threatened by reality. When this happens, national tales may be adjusted. For example, narratives about Englishness changed after World War II. Stories about the empire, which evoked notions of the soldier hero, the 'civilizing mission' and superiority, were reworked as the empire ended. They “leaked into other narratives of nation […] especially [into] narratives of the Second World War” (Webster 4). Such a fusion of national tales is also apparent in both literary works which will be analyzed in the succeeding paragraphs, starting with The Remains of the Day.
Ishiguro's novel is narrated by the English butler Stevens whose memories are unreliable. The story takes place in July 1956, eleven years after the end of World War II. This is the time of “Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal […], threatening Britain's passage to its colonies and protectorates” (Thakkar 89), an event which is now perceived as “the symbolic decline of Britain's international influence” (Drag 49). Without acknowledging the Suez crisis, Stevens looks back at England during the 1920s and 1930s. Even though Renan admits that “suffering […] unifies more than joy does” (53), he focuses on the “common glories in the past” (52) when defining the term 'nation'. It is telling that, in The Remains of the Day, Stevens does the same. Past suffering which was eventually overcome may serve the reinforcement of the imagined community, but a present crisis may cause insecurity. In order to maintain stability, both on the individual and the national level, Stevens therefore “divert[s] his attention from the present to the past” (Thakkar 94).
However, this past which he initially glorifies as “the best of England” (Ishiguro 6), reveals itself to be highly complex. Stevens' former employer Lord Darlington, whom Stevens describes as “a truly good man at heart, a gentleman through and through” (57), had Nazi sympathies and was in a “tireless pursuit of a political rapprochement between Britain and Nazi Germany” (Thakkar 92). The butler recalls visits of the German ambassador Ribbentrop to Darlington Hall (Ishiguro 120) and describes anti-Semitic incidents such as the dismissal of two Jewish maids (133). Nonetheless, he continues to defend, excuse and romanticize Lord Darlington.
Stevens' narration resembles certain processes involved in the composition of national history, such as the reconstruction of the past with regard to present circumstances (Renan 53), often “[f]orgetting” (45) unfavorable past incidents. There are “two vexed histories at work in […] Stevens' consciousness” (Thakkar 92): Lord Darlington's past fascism on the one hand and England's present imperial decline on the other. The discourse of imperialism trickles into “narratives of the Second World War” (Webster 4). For example, the novel's portrayal of “postwar political disgrace” (Thakkar 90) may not only refer to the downfall of Lord Darlington, but also to that of the British empire. Similarly, the perpetual feeling of loss in the novel could be the result of Stevens' mourning for Lord Darlington (e.g. Ishiguro 8/17), but it can also be read as nostalgia for the empire which faces decolonization. In this line of thought, Stevens' act of romanticizing the past at Darlington Hall is also an “idolisation of imperial Britain as a paradise lost” (Drag 50).
The nostalgia for “common glories of the past” (Renan 53) also presents itself in Stevens' focus on primal English myths. One such myth is that of the “untouched natural beauty” (Thakkar 91) of the English countryside, which is “generally considered one of the crucial ingredients in the formation of an English national identity” (Berberich 169). In The Remains of the Day, Stevens undertakes a road trip during which he encounters green fields and white sheep (Ishiguro 25). It is significant that Stevens undertakes the journey through the countryside during the time of the Suez crisis, because it is “[i]n times of national crisis [that] the English landscape is conjured up as a place of refuge” (Berberich 169). Importantly, the landscape in The Remains of the Day is not a representation of Ishiguro's real-life experiences; it is imagined by the author (Ishiguro qtd. in Gehlawat 508). This “extra English” (qtd. in 507) fantasy fulfills “conventional expectations by being almost too picture-perfect” (495). The “nationalistic value” (508) of this mythical landscape is emphasized when Stevens connects it to England's “greatness” (Ishiguro 27) and thus with “familiar tropes of the colonial gaze” (Thakkar 90).
Another myth can be found in a story about an English butler in India who calmly shoots a tiger beneath the dinner table (Ishiguro 34). As mentioned in the introductory paragraphs, the very notion of the perfect English butler is a “national myth” (Ishiguro; qtd. in Rushdie vii). This is exemplified by the fact that Stevens and his father model their behavior on the mentioned story, instead of taking an acquaintance as a role model (Gehlawat 499). “[T]he great butler is not real [and] can never be real” (499), but, nonetheless, this figure is of great significance for Stevens' personal identity and English national identity. The imaginative quality of this particular idea of Englishness is for example revealed by the denial of Stevens' human qualities (495). He is polite, formal and professional to a point that he becomes unable to register his emotions (e.g. Ishiguro 94). Furthermore, all of Stevens' actions “must be planned, rehearsed, and performed” (Gehlawat 503), which is the reason why he is incapable of engaging in informal bantering with his current employer, the American Mr. Farraday. It is thus in relation to Mr. Farraday that the performative character of Stevens' Englishness is revealed. Similar to the butler, the “real English lord” (Ishiguro 110) Darlington is also described in terms of rehearsed behavior and charade, for example when he pretends to read books during conversations (e.g. 56/7,74) and speaks with “a false air of nonchalance” (74). By linking the characters to performance, Ishiguro exposes their mythical quality and, in so doing, deconstructs the national myths ascribed to them.
- Quote paper
- Silvia Schilling (Author), 2018, The Politics of Englishness in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" and Julian Barnes' "England, England", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/963327