The Remains of the Day (1989) is the third novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It won the Booker prize in 1989.
Like Ishiguro's previous two novels, the story is told from the first person point of view with the narrator recalling his life through a diary while progressing through the present. Various activities in the narrator's contemporary life make him recall more and more from his past.
The novel was Ishiguro's first not based in Japan or told from the point of view of a Japanese person, although his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was told from the point of view of an elderly woman living in Britain and recalling her past in Japan.
Explanation of the title
1. "The Remains of the Day" refers to evening, when a character finds it the best time of day to reflect on a day's work. Evening is symbolic for older age, when one can look back and assess one's life work.
2. "The Remains of the Day" also refers to the last vestiges of Great Britain's grand houses.
The novel The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an English butler who dedicates his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington (mentioned in increasing detail in flashbacks). The novel begins with Stevens receiving a letter from an ex co-worker called Miss Kenton, describing her married life, which he believes hints at her unhappy marriage. The receipt of the letter allows Stevens the opportunity to revisit this once-cherished relationship, if only under the guise of possible re-employment. Stevens' new employer, a wealthy American, Mr. Farraday, grants permission for Stevens to borrow a car to take a well-earned break, a "motoring trip." As he sets out, Stevens has opportunity to reflect on his unmoving loyalty to Lord Darlington, the meaning of the term "dignity", and even his relationship with his father. Ultimately Stevens is forced to ponder the true nature of his relationship with Miss Kenton. In ever-increasing hints, proof of Miss Kenton's love for Stevens is revealed.
During the course of employment during the years leading up to WWII, Stevens and Miss Kenton fail to admit to themselves and to each other, their true feelings in spite of working closely together under one roof, Darlington Hall, for many, many years. In fact, all of the recollected conversations show a professional friendship, which came close, but never dared, to cross the line to romance. What held back this development? The discussion and discovery of this is what moves the novel from merely a "good read" to fine literature.
Miss Kenton, it later emerges, has been married for over 20 years and therefore is no longer Miss Kenton, but Mrs. Benn. Although she admits to occasionally wondering what her life with Stevens might have been like, she declares that she has come to love her husband, despite having left him three times, and is looking forward to the birth of their first grandchild. The reader wonders if Stevens refuses to admit he has missed his chance at love with Miss Kenton, and eventually realizes that Stevens' first-person narrative memories are naturally biased. Yet, because of Ishiguro's skilled writing, the reader is gradually able to deduce others' perspectives. Stevens is left with powerful self-reflection, feelings of loss and regret, loyalty and confusion, culminating in moving display of emotions at the end of the novel.
Characters in "The Remains of the Day"
Stevens – an English butler who serves in Darlington Hall
Miss Kenton – housekeeper, after her marriage Mrs. Benn
Lord Darlington – the previous, and now deceased owner of Darlington Hall
Mr Farraday – the new American employer of Stevens
Young Mr Cardinal – a journalist and the son of one of Lord Darlington's closest friends
The novel is primarily concerned with the life of a British butler - his terseness and "dignity".
The British aristocracy is portrayed from within (through the butler himself). Lord Darlington holds conferences on international politics with ambassadors and politicians.
Anti-Semitism is expounded, with regards to Hitler. Under the influence of an outspoken Blackshirt supporter, Lord Darlington goes as far as to dismiss two Jewish housemaids, Elsa and Irma. He later regrets this action, and is troubled by his inability to redress the wrong. Later it is revealed that he attempted to improve Churchill's rapport with Hitler.
Conflict is another major theme within the novel, most of the interaction between the main characters, Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton is via the process of conflict and confrontation through their use of arguments.
An important sub-theme is the emotional disorder of the butler, Mr Stevens. As immersed as he is in the emotionally reserved British culture, he is unable to see Miss Kenton's love for him, or his for her, until years later when it is too late to do anything about it. It is only in the "remains of the day", the last years of his life, that he realises the extent of the emotional life that he has missed, and resolves to try to recapture some of it.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
The major theme of the decline of the British aristocracy can be linked to the 1911 Parliament Act, which reduced the powers of the House of Lords, and to the substantial inheritance tax increases imposed after WWII which forced the break-up of many estates that had been passed down for generations.
The pro-Hitler stance of Lord Darlington has parallels in the warm relations with Germany favoured by some British aristocrats in the early 1930s, such as Lord Londonderry.
Awards and nominations
In 1989 the novel won the Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the English speaking world.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The novel was adapted into a 1993 film by Merchant Ivory Productions starring Anthony Hopkins in the lead.
A BBC Radio 4 adaptation in two hour-long episodes starring Ian McDiarmid was broadcast on August 8 and August 15, 2003.