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  • Alan Bray

Road Running


What is the plot in Remains? Well, what is plot? “The main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.” But this definition leaves a lot out. Do these events flow from the actions of the characters or are they the work of an external entity, like fate? (or the implied author—heh, heh, heh!) Do the characters themselves transform or do they cope with the confines of living in a plot? Is the plot the work of the author or the characters, if you will.

(Please answer some or all of these questions).

The famous Road-Runner cartoons are fine examples of plot-driven stories. For the characters, there is, sadly, no internal change. The Road Runner and Wily Coyote do the same things, time after time. In a sense, they are imprisoned by the plot. The hapless Coyote always loses, the perky Road Runner always escapes. The viewer knows this outcome, but is still entertained to see how it plays out.

The traditional murder mystery novel is plot-driven (and this is not a criticism). A savvy detective must solve a crime—solving the crime is the point of the story, not some inner transformation of the detective. In fact, the detective must remain the same for the series to work. The reader knows the crime will be solved but is delighted by seeing how.

We know that Ishiguro tends to be uninterested in traditional linear plots—where there is a story arc, an interrelated sequence of events that may be separate from the characters. The idea Ishiguro is talking about, of having the associations of the characters lead the narrative vs. something external, points us to his stories as being character driven.

“Character-driven stories deal with inner transformation or the relationships between the characters. Whereas plot-driven stories focus on a set of choices that a character must make, a character-driven story focuses on how the character arrives at a particular choice.”

So, a character-driven tale tends to be more in depth about the inner life of the character.

In Remains, the elderly English butler, Mr. Stevens, of Darlington Hall, is encouraged by his employer to take a car trip. Mr. Stevens is initially reluctant but changes his mind when he receives a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall twenty years before. In her letter, she tells him about a separation from her husband and the sadness she feels over how her life has ended up. Mr. Stevens resolves to meet her near where she lives, perhaps persuading her to return with him to Darlington Hall. He’s been making small mistakes in the management of the house and believes he needs help. There’s a gradually developing subtext of Stevens hoping he and Miss Kenton can become romantic partners, but he denies this to himself and others, saying rather that his journey is purely professional, not personal.

He sets out, and has many memories both of Miss Kenton, and of his former employer, Lord Darlington, now deceased. In the present of the story (post-war), Lord Darlington is vilified as a Nazi sympathizer, and Mr. Stevens, out of shame, actually denies having known him several times. He tries to reconcile his many years of excellent service with the prevailing belief that his employer did bad things. He does this by denying Lord D’s culpability and his own, maintaining to himself and to an imaginary person he is addressing in a sort of diary, that he was “only doing his job,” a job he did well.

He finally meets with Miss Kenton, who is reconciled with her husband and does not intend to return to Darlington Hall. But she does say she has at times wondered what her life might have been with Mr. Stevens. Not only does she make it clear there’s to be no future for them, she also lets Stevens know that there might have been one had he communicated his feelings. His heart breaks, although he hides it all.

In the last scene, he is at a seaside boardwalk and encounters another aged man who was a butler, a sort of embodiment of the “you” he’s been addressing throughout. Mr. Stevens confesses things, and the man tells him he should stop dwelling in the past. The evening’s the best part of the day. After the man has left, Mr. Stevens remains on the boardwalk. He thinks:

“Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day…if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, (to do great things), surely that is in itself…cause for pride and contentment.”

He resolves that he will learn a new language of bantering in order to better serve his new employer.

So, yes—the plot is simple. A road trip, but one in which the traveler ignores the scenery and the people, and is drawn inward and into the past by associations. His past was rather glorious, being the butler of Darlington Hall, having the lengthy “professional” relationship with Miss Kenton. Believing he was serving a worthy employer and doing important things, like promoting world peace. His present life is much more modest. No grand affairs and dinners, a small staff to supervise. Is the best over? He’d hoped to re-capture a part of it with Miss Kenton, but that is not to be.

The journey is essentially inward. There are people he meets along the way who provoke different reactions—like Mr. Harry Smith and Dr. Carlisle. If the question of the novel is will Mr. Stevens re-unite with Miss Kenton and reconcile his conflicted feelings about his past, the answer is no and perhaps.

Now then, you might ask, is Mr. Stevens therefore more like Wily Coyote, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?

Huh. “You” ask the hard questions.

Lemme just say straight out that Mr. Stevens doesn’t fall into a thousand-foot canyon or blow himself up with sticks of dynamite.

In the end, Mr. Stevens does seem to maintain his personality traits of denial and repression. However, the story is about his confronting his feelings concerning Miss Kenton and Lord Darlington. He admits to himself that he yearned for Miss Kenton and that Lord Darlington made mistakes, admissions he was unable to make at the outset. He will transform by learning a new “language.”

#TheRemainsOfTheDay #KazuoIshiguro