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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Time Travel

The last chapter of Remains is entitled Weymouth. It begins with Mr. Stevens sitting on a pier, or boardwalk, by the sea, waiting for the evening lights to be turned on. Light and darkness as metaphor for revelation and repression play an important part in the story, and this is a fine example. He then recounts the content of his meeting two days prior with Miss Kenton, which in many ways is the climax of the book. James Phelan, in his book Living To Tell About It, presents a fine analysis of the extraordinary skill Ishiguro displays throughout this chapter.

It begins:

“This seaside town is a place I have been thinking of coming to for many years. …this pier, upon which I have been promenading for the past half-hour…A moment ago, I learned from an official that the lights would be turned on ‘fairly soon’, and so I have decided to sit down here on this bench and await the event. …it has been a splendid day.

It is now fully two days since my meeting with Miss Kenton in the tea lounge of the Rose Garden Hotel in Little Compton…Miss Kenton surprised me by coming to the hotel. I was, I believe, simply staring at the rain on the window by my table.

The light in the room was extremely gloomy on account of the rain. But by and large the Miss Kenton I saw before me looked surprisingly similar to the person who had inhabited my memory over these years.”

What’s of note here is that the chapter begins in the story’s present time, and shows Mr. Stevens looking back two days in time and recalling not only his long awaited rendezvous with Miss Kenton, but also a more recent encounter he’s had with another man on the pier. Thus the character Mr. Stevens knows what’s occurred as he relates the tale and, like a good storyteller, withholds this information until he’s ready to present it.

Actually, I believe this is a trace of the implied author, who is the good storyteller.

Miss Kenton had surprised Mr. Stevens by seeking him out early rather than keeping their appointment. Mr. Stevens quickly learned that she had reconciled with her husband and had no intention of returning to Darlington Hall as he had dreamed might be possible. But what really rocked Mr. Stevens occurs as they wait for the bus which will carry Miss Kenton away. In his awkward fashion, he steered their conversation toward more intimacy by saying he’d been concerned that Miss Kenton’s husband might be somehow abusive. She reassured him that her husband was not abusive but took things further: “I suppose, Mr. Stevens, you’re asking if I love my husband.” She said that she does but, after a period of silence, continued: “But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then—extremely desolate occasions—when you think to yourself, What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life. And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life, you might have had. For instance I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr. Stevens…”

This was devastating for Mr. Stevens, he reports his heart broke. Why though? I don’t think it’s because he’s shocked at Miss Kenton’s pronouncement and acknowledgement that she more or less loved him. I think that’s what he suspected all along and that this news is more confirmation than anything. Confirmation that he blew it, that there’s no time now to make things right. It’s too late, and he felt the tragedy. What a life I might have had.

Also, what she said is central to his own life. The fear of having made a terrible mistake with life, of missing a different, better existence is a driving force in Mr. Stevens’ reality, not just as regards Miss Kenton, but also relative to his service to Lord Darlington.

But the point is that as the chapter begins with Mr. Stevens sitting on the pier, he already knows what’s happened, it’s the reader who does not. His narration doesn’t begin: “I am sitting here, and my heart is broken. I’m an idiot.” Perhaps it is more accurate to say he doesn’t feel this way at that moment. In true Mr. Stevens fashion, he’s covered the pain he feels with denial and focuses on the anticipation of when the lights will be turned on.

Ooh, metaphor.

However, he then relates an equally devastating encounter he’s just had with an older man who was sitting next to him on the pier, a man who quickly discloses he too was once a butler. As I’ve said before, this man is the embodiment of the person Mr. Stevens has been addressing all along in his “diary,” the “you” whom he believes will surely understand him.

The others on the pier are willing the night to fall—Mr. Stevens imagines. (Still in the present—after the encounter). “This confirms very aptly, I suppose, the man who until a little while ago was sitting here beside me on this bench, and with whom I had my curious discussion. His claim was that for a great many people, the evening was the best part of the day, the part they most looked forward to…Of course, the man had been speaking figuratively, but it is rather interesting to see his words borne out so immediately at the literal level. I would suppose he had been sitting here next to me for some minutes without my noticing him, so absorbed had I become with my recollections of meeting Miss Kenton two days ago. In fact, I do not think I registered his presence on the bench at all until he declared out loud:

“Sea air does you a lot of good…The fact is,” I said after a while, “I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now—well—I find I do not have a great deal more left to give…Oh dear, mate. You want a hankie?”

Here, it’s revealed that Mr. Stevens is crying—not by Mr. Stevens who merely says he’s “overtired” but by the reported utterance of the other man.

Mr. Stevens continues:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a particular path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All these years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really, what dignity is there in that?”

The other man replies:

“Now look mate…if you ask me, your attitude’s all wrong, see? Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. And all right, you can’t do your job as well as you used to. But it’s the same for all of us, see? We’ve all got to put our feet up at some point; You’ve got to keep looking forward…The evening’s the best part of the day.”

There’s tremendous irony here. That the evening is the best part of the day is a theme throughout Remains, but of course this sentiment is not true for Mr. Stevens who has managed to hold all the pain of his life at bay until the end when it makes his heart break.

At the last page, Mr. Stevens focuses on the future, listening to the people on the pier talk and trying to pick out if they’re “bantering” with one another. Bantering is the language that Mr. Stevens does not know how to speak but would like to learn in order to better serve his new employer, Mr. Farraday.

I think what this represents is not a complete regression to his old coping mechanism of denial and repression. During the course of his journey and of the story, Mr. Stevens experiences a shattering self-realization but from that, he resolves to transform to someone who can banter—perhaps learning to use humor to soften the tragedy of his own life, a defense mechanism Dr. Freud would approve of, especially over denial.

‘Kay. Next week a new offering, The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. Till then.

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