49 pages 1 hour read

Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Remains of the Day is a novel by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. Released in 1989, the novel tells the story of Stevens, who once worked as a butler at a stately home in England. In his old age, he returns to the house and reminisces about his experiences in the 1920-1930s. Most of the novel is told in flashback. The novel was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film of the same name, released in 1993.

Plot Summary

Stevens is now an old man. He spent most of his life in service to a British aristocrat named Lord Darlington, for whom he worked as a butler for more than 30 years. Following Lord Darlington’s death, he works for an American businessman, Mr. Farraday, who bought the estate. In July 1956, Stevens receives a letter from a former coworker named Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton worked at Darlington Hall alongside Stevens, who now believes that her letter hints at problems in her marriage. Stevens’s time as Lord Darlington’s butler was defined by his unwavering loyalty to his employer and his rigid adherence to the social rules and manners, as defined by the British social class system. Lord Darlington’s aristocratic personality starkly contrasts Mr. Farraday’s less formal mode of employment. He does not enjoy Mr. Farraday’s habit of telling jokes, as he tries to maintain a dignified demeanor. Nevertheless, Stevens always wants to impress and tries to play along with Farraday’s jokes.

Mr. Farraday is now trying to sell Darlington Hall, and the house is perpetually understaffed. Given the potential problems in Miss Kenton’s marriage and the need for someone to oversee the staff at the house, Farraday suggests that Stevens borrow an expensive car and pay a visit to Miss Kenton. Stevens accepts and drives to Cornwall. During this time, he keeps a diary of his trip.

While driving, Stevens thinks about his time working for Lord Darlington. During the 1920s and 1930s, Lord Darlington was an influential figure in British politics. He tried to conduct foreign policy on his country’s behalf, and Stevens witnessed many foreign dignitaries and politicians visit the house. Stevens always considered Lord Darlington a moral person, and by serving his employer, he carried out a moral duty himself.

Lord Darlington’s attempts to solve the growing political crisis of the 1930s caused him to turn to less than estimable people. Stevens recalls the dinner parties and meetings at Darlington Hall, many of which were conducted in secret and without the knowledge of the British government. As Stevens looks back through his memories, the reality of Lord Darlington’s political sympathies becomes clear: he met with and sympathized with many members of the German Nazi party. Lord Darlington’s inability to see the true evil intent behind their political position and his naivety made him a willing tool in the Nazi’s attempts to stall British intervention in their foreign affairs. Even though he ostensibly helped the Nazis to kill millions, Stevens insists that Lord Darlington was not a bad person. After realizing how Lord Darlington was being used, however, Stevens is struck by a morose feeling. He worries that he wasted many years of his life working for an untrustworthy man.

While reminiscing, Stevens also thinks about his father. William Stevens also worked at Darlington Hall. He was a butler long before his son, but as he grew older, he struggled to maintain his own high standards. Stevens secures his father the role of underbutler at Darlington Hall, and he still sees his father as the man he once was. How William taught his son to perform the job has never left Stevens. During his time at Darlington Hall, however, William is frail and prone to mistakes. Stevens finds himself hiding many of these mistakes from his employer. He wants to protect his father’s dignity and reputation. His adamant protection of his father becomes a problem when William can no longer fulfill his duties. His health worsens. Despite Stevens’s admiration for his father, they struggle to talk openly to each other. Even when William lies dying, Stevens struggles to express his love and respect for his father. On the day of William’s death, Stevens carries out his duties as a butler. He believes that is what his father would have done, though others are shocked that he is not at his father’s bedside.

As well as his father, Stevens remembers the time he spent with Miss Kenton. She arrives at Darlington Hall the same year as William and watches Stevens struggle to protect his father’s dignity. They spend 14 years working together, and during this time, they develop a deep affection for one another, hinting at the possibility of a romantic relationship. This possibility is never resolved, however, as Stevens can never bring himself to put aside his butler persona and confess his love to Miss Kenton. He wrestles with his inner conflict but remains the emotionally distant, reserved man he believes himself to be. When Miss Kenton tries to encourage him to confess his feelings, he insists that she remain professional. Eventually, she can wait no longer. Miss Kenton marries and becomes Mrs. Benn, leaving Darlington Hall and Stevens. After her departure, Stevens deals with his regret that he never revealed his love for her.

Stevens drives to Mrs. Benn’s home. They speak frankly, and for the first time, she admits that she wondered what a relationship between them would have been like. Now, however, she very much loves her husband. They have an adult daughter and will soon become grandparents. She turns down the offer to return to Darlington Hall as she is pleased with her life. Her refusal shocks Stevens, forcing him to confront his failure to speak to her many years ago. He realizes how much she means to him and how much he hoped she would return. His heart breaks, but he refuses to share these emotions again. He retains his quiet, reserved demeanor while enduring the devastation privately. They say their goodbyes, and Stevens drives back to Darlington Hall. Now, he has been convinced to embrace his present. He decides to stop looking to the past and hopes that he can work for Mr. Faraday for many years. He even wants to improve his ability to share in Mr. Faraday’s jokes. Perhaps, he wonders, such warmth and laughter might be what he has always lacked in his life. 

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