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  • Alan Bray

Stevens the Obscure


Remains has an interesting structure. As I have said, the novel is broken up into a prologue and seven chapters, each one identified by a geographic place and by time. Thus we have Prologue July 1956 Darlington Hall, followed by Day One Evening Salisbury, and so on to the last which is identified as Day Six Evening Weymouth. Each chapter begins and ends with at least a sentence or two in the story’s present—the summer of 1956 (which interestingly is the time of the Suez Canal crisis, a diplomatic humiliation for the colonial Britain that Mr. Stevens idealizes). After the story provides a context of Mr. Stevens being wherever he is, he typically digresses into extended memory and association about the past—with some notable exceptions that occur in the present. We will get into those. I promise.

Adam Parkes, in his book The Remains of the Day A Reader’s Companion, makes the point that the England Mr. Stevens journeys through is largely a mythic creation, not unlike Thomas Hardy’s evocation of a timeless, rural Wessex or William Faulkner’s American South. Some of the place names—Salisbury, Taunton, and Weymouth are real, but others—Mortimer’s Pond, Moscombe, and Little Compton—are inventions.

This structure focuses the reader both on the passage of time as well as on a journey that is set outside normal time. It is a mythic time through an older part of England, a time in which Mr. Stevens, freed from his regular duties, is able to reflect and try to organize the past.

The text is written as if it were Mr. Stevens’ making entries in a sort of diary which is written by an “I” and addressed to an unnamed “you,” who is, apparently, imagined as another butler—someone who would surely sympathize and understand Mr. Stevens’ story. So, we get an interesting artifact of first-person narration—the story has two audiences, the imagined “you” written to in the diary, and the actual reader who is unknown and unaddressed by the protagonist. The “you” is privy to what Mr. Stevens tells him/her, the real audience, to all Mr. Stevens relates plus the irony communicated by the implied author.

(An example, if you please).

In the Day Three Evening section, Mr. Stevens sets out in his diary to address “the question of his lordship’s attitude to Jewish persons, since this whole issue of anti-Semitism, I realize, has become a rather sensitive one these days. In particular, let me clear up this matter of a supposed bar to Jewish persons on the staff at Darlington Hall.”

Well, yes, the whole issue of anti-Semitism had become rather sensitive in the wake of the Nazi’s program of genocide. A classic example of Mr. Stevens’ understated and possibly clueless thoughts.

Mr. Stevens goes on to relate how Lord Darlington ordered two maids dismissed because they were Jewish, and how Mr. Stevens—although troubled—made little protest. And yet, somehow, Mr. Stevens is shocked, shocked, that anyone would call Lord Darlington anti-Semitic. He says: “…let me say furthermore that they (Jewish staff members) were never treated differently on account of their race. One really cannot guess the reason for these absurd allegations.”

This is a nice example of the two levels of message: The imaginary addressee of Mr. Stevens’ diary would read about Lord Darlington’s “supposed” anti-Semitism and how shocked Mr. Stevens was that anyone could think he was so inclined. But then the same entry presents his anti-Semitic behavior, which is difficult to excuse unless you are Mr. Stevens. It’s obvious from the text (the implied author) that, in fact, the two maids were treated differently because they were Jewish—the opposite of what Mr. Stevens says.

This structure of two-tiered communication is pervasive. What effect does it have?

Adam Parkes says: “In Remains Ishiguro devises a style that tells the reader something is wrong even as the narrator claims the opposite.”

Something is wrong. Mr. Stevens presents his memories and musings in, as we have seen, a very “sugar-coated” way. He travels through the beautiful English countryside in his employer’s car, stopping at inns and taverns to take the time to ponder how Lord Darlington, whom he served so faithfully, could now be thought a traitor. And perhaps with slightly more insight, he also recalls Miss Kenton, the object of his quest. If he can persuade her to re-join him at Darlington Hall, it might really “solve his staffing problems.”

Indeed.

Is Mr. Stevens simple-minded? Hiding something?

James Phelan in his book, Living To Tell About It, makes a distinction between a story’s narrator underreporting or underreading what he tells the reader. Underreporting means that in this case, Mr. Stevens, does not admit his own personal interest in what he says—something both he and the reader are however, aware of. Underreading, on the other hand, means Mr. Stevens does not consciously know—or is at least unable to admit to himself—what the reader infers about his personal interest.

It’s hard to determine which of these two processes Mr. Stevens is involved with in the passage above. He certainly has an agenda of rationalizing away all objection to Lord Darlington’s actions, as they reflect on his. But, to what degree is Mr. Stevens consciously aware of this agenda? The reader can see it, can he? I think part of the artistry of the book is that an answer to this question is suspended till the end.

#TheRemainsOfTheDay #Kazuo Ishiguro