Mr. Stevens and St. Peter
Although Mr. Stevens spends considerable time reflecting on the past during his journey, he is at times confronted by people from the present who challenge his beliefs. On the afternoon of the second day of the trip, Mr. Stevens has car trouble and encounters a man identified as a servant or batman, who in the course of assisting Mr. Stevens, learns he was employed at Darlington Hall. “Then his voice changed noticeably as he inquired: “You mean you actually used to work for that Lord Darlington?” He was eyeing me carefully again. I said: “Oh, no. I am employed by Mr. John Farraday, the American gentleman who bought the house from Lord Darlington.”
Oh no, indeed. Stevens adopts St. Peter’s playbook in denying he knew Christ.
This is an important passage and an example of how the story calls for two levels of reading. On the level of his narration, Mr. Stevens describes the encounter in bland, concrete terms. He offers no explanation for his misleading response that no, he didn’t work for or by implication knew Lord Darlington—when the reader knows that he did. Also, the careful reader will note further clues provided by the implied author: the manner in which the man asks Mr. Stevens about “that” Lord Darlington—his voice changes noticeably, he is “eyeing” Mr. Stevens to see his response. The implication here, given weight by Mr. Stevens’ earlier mention of the negative way in which Lord Darlington is perceived, is that the man is raising the issue of Lord Darlington’s tarnished reputation and frankly wondering if Mr. Stevens should be tarnished by it as well. Mr. Stevens doesn’t “let on” if he’s aware of this innuendo, he only relates his response sans commentary. He denies knowing Lord Darlington, a man he claims to have been devoted to.
Mr. Stevens then goes to a nearby pond to sit quietly and view nature. He reflects: “Indeed, but for the tranquility of the present setting, it is possible I would not have thought a great deal further about my behavior during my encounter with the batman…I may not have thought further why it was that I had given the distinct impression I had never been in the employ of Lord Darlington…It could be that a meaningless whim had suddenly overtaken me at that moment…” Then Mr. Stevens recalls a second time when he denied knowing Lord Darlington, and then says: ”It may be that you are under the impression that I am somehow embarrassed or ashamed of my association with his lordship…nothing could be further from the truth…Indeed, it seems to me that my odd conduct can be very plausibly explained in terms of my wish to avoid any possibility of hearing any further such nonsense concerning his lordship…I have chosen to tell white lies in both instances as the simplest means of avoiding unpleasantness…Nothing could be less accurate to suggest that I regret my association with such a gentleman.”
But why then, the reader must ask, the “white lies?” Just to avoid “unpleasantness?”
It’s interesting here that Mr. Stevens must take some “tranquil” time to reflect on what’s happened in order to develop an explanation, saying that otherwise, he probably wouldn’t have thought about it. Personally, I don’t believe him at all. I think he is very aware of what he’s done and is ashamed. Ashamed, aware of the way Lord Darlington is regarded, and unwilling to defend him.
This incident serves to alert the reader that “something is wrong,” and it also contributes to Mr. Stevens’ growing inability to keep denying that “something is wrong.” As he reflects on the past and is confronted by the present, he is faced with the way he’s distorted things and, regrettably, wasted his life.
Mr. Stevens is an unreliable narrator of his experience. Unreliable to himself.
But it takes time and further encounters for him to catch up with the reader on this matter.
Mr. Stevens runs out of petrol and stays the night in the small village of Moscombe at a private home. During this evening, the villagers believe Mr. Stevens is a gentleman, and he does nothing to dissuade them, claiming to have known Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden on a much more equal basis than he actually did. One of the villagers, Mr. Harry Smith, challenges Stevens’ definition of dignity, saying that dignity is a quality all men and women have a claim to as citizens of England who fought and defeated Hitler. Mr. Stevens is disturbed by the idea and tries to privately dismiss Harry Smith’s opinions. An idea he has clung to is that whatever mistakes have been made by he and by Lord Darlington, his service to the man has been justified by his showing dignity, the mark of an excellent butler. Now he’s being confronted by someone who says people have dignity because they take stands and oppose tyrants, risk their lives and survive. These stakes are much higher than those Mr. Stevens played. He must exert considerable energy to shore up his collapsing beliefs.
He says later on:
“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such an event turned out differently? One could presumably drive one’s self to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of “turning points” one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life, but at the time, of course, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as if one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton, an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever unredeemable.”
Profound, beautiful writing.