…the Miss Kenton I saw before me looked surprisingly similar to the person who had inhabited my memory over these years. That is to say, it was, on the whole, extremely pleasing to see her again.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, page 281, Vintage Canada Edition, 2014
The year is 1956. After over thirty-five years of service, Mr. Stevens’s tenure as head butler of the once great Darlington Hall is reaching an endpoint. An unexpected letter from Miss Kenton, former head housekeeper over twenty years earlier, compels Stevens to take advantage of his new American employer’s offer to borrow the Ford and take a few days off to tour the countryside. As Stevens drives across England to reunite with Miss Kenton, he takes measure of the choices he has made in his life and comes to appreciate the impact of his all-consuming professional commitment to his disgraced former employer.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, written as a first-person narrative, provides deep psychological insight as Stevens's mind is laid bare for the reader. Stevens’s self-deceptions and rationalizations serve as a reminder that we are often oblivious to our own motivations and desires. He also demonstrates our tendency to weave false narratives to justify our actions – narratives that are often transparent to others.
At its core, it is a story about vulnerability – Stevens is a case study in emotional repression and the psychological armour that individuals adopt when interacting with the world. Ishiguro subtly conveys that we all have a bit of Stevens in us - that we are all hiding or closing off parts of ourselves – and that our lives are poorer for it. A life dominated by the fear of putting yourself out there is destined to be a tragedy when the bill comes due.
Other themes include confronting the inevitable physical and cognitive decline of professionals who can no longer fulfill their roles, and our tendency to “conveniently forget the true climate” of the past when we judge the conduct of historical figures by today’s standards (p. 167).
The novel also examines the ease with which families pass along their dysfunction, and how these maladaptive patterns of behaviour risk inhibiting the growth of future generations.
The Remains of the Day receives my highest recommendation. I will revisit it regularly in the years ahead and share it widely with others.
- Although I have yet to see the film, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Anthony Hopkins as Mr. Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton.
- “So many areas of our life, if it’s not moving forward, I think we have to confess to ourselves, that it’s because at some level we’re hiding.” — Seth Godin, American author
- “In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon