An English butler reflects--sometimes bitterly, sometimes humorously--on his service to a lord between the two world wars and discovers doubts about his master's character and about the ultimate value of his own service to humanity
What is there in the landscape of the land that could justify the use of that ‘lofty adjective’ in the name of Great Britain? That is a question Mr Stevens, the first-person narrator, who is the protagonist of the novel and a butler by profession, asks in the book. ‘It is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart….It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.’ According to Stevens, it is this sense of restraint that makes the land great. But can that ‘sense of restraint’, that ‘lack of obvious drama’ be the focal point of a man’s professional life, nay, his entire life? Ishiguro’s fictional narrative seems to suggest so.
The word ‘butler’ which is defined as the ‘chief manservant of a house’ is derived from Old French bouteillier (a derivation from bouteille or bottle) that denotes a ‘cup-bearer’. How dignified such a profession can be unless the practitioners themselves train their minds to believe that their professional greatness lies in ‘their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost’?
The undercurrent that runs with the narrative is one of professional restraint which involves hiding one’s emotions even at the face of personal disaster. The effect of that restraint on the life of the protagonist is described poignantly in the last few pages of the novel. It should not fill the readers with a sense of remorse, but with a profound sadness that needs to be savoured. The bitter-sweet aftertaste with which this piece of fiction leaves its readers is a vindication of the subtle craft of the writer.
That restraint involves ignoring the travails and tribulations of the professional life of a butler — when to emerge from the shadow of a tree to accost some important person, when to ask a question, how to judge the mood of the employer, when to put forward a proposal. Sometimes, life would appear to be an endless wait for that right moment, that very opportune moment for taking a step or carrying out an action. The pretensions that have been part of a butler’s job have been demonstrated subtly and poignantly in the novel.
On another level, that waiting for the right moment takes another form. Unless he is entirely alone, a butler cannot ‘unburden himself of his role’. He ‘cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume’. When the incumbent is able to play that role perfectly, a ‘feeling of triumph’ wells up in him. When the idiocy of wearing such a garb for one’s entire life ultimately dawns on Stevens, it is too late: ‘After all, there will be no turning back the clock now’.
Thus, the butler’s story is superimposed on a love story that runs thinly and is only perceived by way of hints and insinuations. That the love remains unspoken and unrequited on both sides signals that the two major characters, Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton, remain not only as prisoners of their professions but also of their age and society. Historical allusions, anecdotes related to important political figures of the time, help to keep the narrative firmly grounded in concrete reality. Yet, at the end of it, one is bound to feel the futility of the big events, their inability to bring any change in the life of an individual. That is as true of the life of the villagers whom Stevens visits as it is for his own life, although in an entirely different plane: ‘They want a quiet life….but really, no one in the village wants upheaval, even if it might benefit them’. That is why when the evening of life comes, Stevens, who has been devoted to his profession his entire life wistfully considers ‘what might have been’ if things were different.
A subtle demonstration that Stevens is acutely aware of what might have been is displayed when during his meeting with his erstwhile colleague in the concluding section of the novel where the narrative reaches its emotional zenith, the reader finds Stevens referring to the now married woman as ‘Miss Kenton’ when he is thinking aloud, but as ‘Mrs Benn’ when she is being addressed. The heart-breaking admission at the end of the novel that the butler has given all he had to his employer Lord Darlington and left nothing for himself is one uncharacteristic opening of the heart, probably for the first time in the novel. An admission that came far too late.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a great read. Highly recommended.