Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is an intimate portrayal of an utterly English butler through his methodical ruminations on the subjects of greatness and dignity. Stevens, the aging butler of Darlington Hall, performs his job with selflessness and a ruthless suppression of emotion. He is unsentimental, stiffly walking through job and life like an automaton. He presents himself, perhaps unknowingly, as glacially reserved, humorless (when the new owner of Darlington Hall takes over, Stevens finds himself having to practice banter in order to please his American employer), and snobbish.
Out of an unquestioning respect for his “betters” and a misplaced need to repress all emotion, Stevens has managed to rid himself of all sense of identity, creating a blank facade that fools even himself. He is, indeed, as Galen Strawson calls him, “an innocent masterpiece of self-repression” (535). Stevens’s lack of identity is further emphasized by the fact that he is known only as “Stevens”; with no apparent first name, he becomes “unselfed,” possessing no self outside of his manservant role.
Critics have made much of the butler’s namelessness, citing it as evidence of his suppression and lack of humanity.
David Gurewich, for example, points out that for Stevens to have a first name “would be improper, and at odds with … tradition” (77). He is essentially, many contend, worthy of only the surname, lacking the personal identity, as well as any affable qualities, that a given name–the Christian name, the familiar name–might lend. However, a close reading of the novel discovers that Stevens, indeed, has a first name–a name of which he is obviously proud and one that is especially appropriate to his character.
Early in the novel Stevens’s father joins Darlington House; in his seventies, he is too feeble and old to head a household, but he is nonetheless determined to serve someone in some capacity. At one point Stevens becomes miffed when Miss Kenton, the head housekeeper, refers to his father by his first name, William; Stevens demands that she call his father “Mr. Stevens. ” Not allowing his father to be referred to in a personal manner is the same propriety that prevents Stevens from addressing Miss Kenton by her first name and, later, by her married name.
It is in large part a result of Stevens’s own inability to become personable, personal, emotional. Later, obeying his dictum, Miss Kenton comments, “I am sure Mr. Stevens senior is very good at his job … ” (55,italics added), revealing through implication that Stevens is a junior, that his first name is, in fact, William. Stevens is every bit his father’s son and appropriately his father’s namesake. The shared name emphasizes that Stevens is the analogy of his father in both service and dignity.
Stevens has obvious and unmitigated respect for his father, whom Stevens views as the perfect butler: “[I]t is my firm conviction,” Stevens says at one point, “that at the peak of his career … my father was indeed the embodiment of ‘dignity'” (34), the essence of a true butler. Like his son, Stevens’s father demonstrates in his day-to-day life an almost inhuman restraint of emotions, in keeping, they both believe, with the dignity inherent in service. Stevens relates the tale of his father’s having to serve the general whose incompetence was responsible for a son’s death; Mr.
Stevens Senior, denying personal feelings to a disturbing degree, attends to the general with utter professionalism and emotionlessness, an act Stevens later sees as the “personification itself of … ‘dignity in keeping with his position'” (42). Years later Stevens acts with remarkably similar dignity, performing service duties while his father lies dying in an upstairs bedroom. Stevens later considers this to be the epitome of his service, regarding it “as a turning point in my life … as the moment in my career when I truly came of age as a butler” (70).
As his father dies, Stevens continues his duties, serving drinks, maintaining proper order, retrieving bandages for the deplorable M. Dupont, all the while unaware that he is crying, his inner walls crumbling under the weight of humanity, his outer walls standing firm. The act establishes him as the quintessential butler and, more important, as proper heir to his father’s name; further, it is through this act of quelled emotion and staunch repression that Stevens indeed earns his father’s name.
Stevens’s mirroring of his father is further evident in the butler’s most intimate relationships, both of which are virtually emotionless and completely passionless. The relationship with his father is the end result of a lifetime of extreme emotional repression. This is most poignantly illustrated as his father, on his deathbed, tells his son, “I hope I’ve been a good father to you” (97), and Stevens can only reply over and over, “I’m so glad you’re feeling better now” (97); Stevens is helpless to think of a better, more loving response. He has re-created ithin himself his father’s emotional vacuum, ridding himself of all feelings and, simultaneously, his heart. The void he has so painstakingly constructed is there to haunt him when the possibility of love appears in the form of Miss Kenton. Unable to respond to her intimations (often overt) of a desired relationship, Stevens allows the one possible love of his life to escape. His extreme professionalism prevents him from responding emotionally to Miss Kenton on any level, allowing her instead to slip away into marriage and forever away from him.
Encountering Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, years later and discovering the truth of this past opportunity of love (and, subsequently, the possibility of happiness and fulfillment), Stevens is finally overwhelmed by his pent-up emotions and confesses to his pain: “Indeed–why should I not admit it? –at that moment, my heart was breaking” (239). Stevens sacrifices all to service, to dignity, to becoming the perfect butler; his entire existence is founded on his butler’s profession. And in the end, he finds himself alone, lonely–but unequivocally worthy of his father’s name.