Isn’t It a Lovely Day?
Last week, I began our discussion of The Remains of the Day by saying that we’d sniffed out another unreliable narrator—Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall—who is shown narrating the story of his six-day journey by car to the West of England in 1956. During the trip, he presents a labyrinthine tale of his days so far at Darlington Hall, employed in large part by Lord Darlington, a wealthy man, now deceased, who has been vilified as a traitor to Britain because of his activities before and during the Second World War. Mr. Stevens defends Lord Darlington, to himself and to an imagined reader he addresses as “you,” in large part because Stevens himself feels implicated in the mis-behavior of his former employer whom he served with blind devotion.
The style of the book often shows a more complete story to the actual readers than the one Mr. Stevens presents to his imagined one. What we get from Mr. Stevens are at best morally ambiguous doings served with a majestic dollop of denial. It’s as if Mr. Stevens, in presenting his memories, is daring his imagined reader to disagree with his sugar-coated interpretations—that, or he yearns for affirmation. As a result, Mr. Stevens appears increasingly unreliable, although cracks begin to appear in the form of self-doubt. (more on this later).
A fine example of how Mr. Stevens distorts and misreads things occurs in his recollections of the 1923 Peace Conference held at Darlington Hall—notable too because it coincided with the death of Mr. Stevens’ father.
Lord Darlington convened an international conference to try to persuade world governments to scrap the Versailles Treaty, a treaty he believed was too harsh on Germany. The attendees are largely wealthy gentlemen (there are two ladies) who are anxious to allow Germany to regain its power (we all know how that went). Lord Darlington and his colleagues blame France for much of the negative sentiment toward Germany, but they realize to have any real effect, they must have an actual Frenchman at the conference and try to enlist him in their cause—even though they dislike the French. They invite M. Dupont, an official in the French government.
M. Dupont keeps himself removed from the attendees—except for the American delegate, a Mr. Lewis. Mr. Stevens observes the two men having private, possibly conspiratorial discussions. Whenever Lord Darlington or the other delegates try to talk to M. Dupont, Mr. Lewis interrupts them. M. Dupont seems disengaged from the conference, spending his time listening—perhaps so as to be able to report to his government about what these aristocrats believe and are planning.
Then on the final night, at the farewell dinner, Mr. Stevens observes M. Dupont giving a speech to the assembly. He thanks Lord Darlington for his hospitality and says: “Many things of interest have been said in this house over the past days. Many important things…There has been much which has implicated or otherwise criticized the foreign policy of my country.” He paused again, looking rather stern. One might even have thought him to be angry. “But none of them, may I say, has fully comprehended the reasons for the attitude France has adopted toward her neighbor.”
This remark causes some puzzlement among the other delegates who evidently aren’t sure how to interpret it.
M. Dupont continues: “…there is, I believe, an imperative to openly condemn any who came here to abuse the hospitality of the host, and to spend his energies solely in trying to sow discontent and suspicion…My only question concerning Mr. Lewis is this. To what extent does his abominable behavior exemplify the attitude of the present American Administration?…You see, I refrain from outlining just what this gentleman has been saying to me—about you all.”
Mr. Stevens, as well as many of the delegates, reads this as a rebuke to Mr. Lewis, who then gives his own speech, in which he describes Lord Darlington and the others as “gentlemen amateurs” who are headed toward disaster by trying to meddle in politics.
To me, this scene represents Mr. Stevens misunderstanding what occurs and reporting his misunderstanding as if it were the “truth.” I believe the implication of the scene, communicated by the actual narrator, is that M. Dupont and Mr. Lewis have conspired to pretend to have a falling out in order to allow M. Dupont to diplomatically let the delegates know that he has not been fooled by them, and that what he and Mr. Lewis really think is that they’re a bunch of ignorant losers.
However, Mr. Stevens only sees the surface theater, the reflection of what he wants to see. And it should be said that, during the conference, he’s focused on his butler duties, wanting to make the conference a success—which he defines as whatever Lord Darlington thinks. Mr. Stevens does this at the expense of ignoring his father who is upstairs dying.
His father tries to tell him important things—that he loves him, that he’s been a good son, but Stevens chooses his duties as more important—perhaps because he’s unable to respond in a human way.
However, on his car trip into the past, Mr. Stevens shows that doubt has crept in.