The Remains of the Day is narrated by Stevens, a butler in the service of Lord Darlington for over thirty years. In a sequence of recollections, the reader is led through the history of his service, taking in the run-up to the Second World War, the global political events of the time, and his association with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. The book ends with Stevens’ realisation, too late, that by dedicating his heart and soul to the service of Lord Darlington, he has sacrificed his own basic human needs, unacknowledged until the final chapter, for love, warmth and human companionship.
The contrast between Stevens and Miss Kenton is the difference between vertical and multidimensional thinking. Stevens is measured, controlled, unbending, while Miss Kenton, despite her professionalism, is natural and spontaneous. Flowers that Miss Kenton brings into Stevens' pantry – and, metaphorically, into his silent heart – signify an untidy disruption to his private sanctuary of order and precision. The seed has been sown, however, and the romantic novel that she subsequently catches him reading sparks in him a hesitant pleasure, as he contemplates the possibilities suggested by an elegant love story.
Ishiguro skilfully paints a character so driven by the need to serve that he is unable even to imagine his employer might have the compassion to let him be with his father when he falls ill and dies. Stevens battens his feelings down under steel doors in order to put Darlington’s needs before his own, and in retrospect presents his stoicism as an illustration of great dignity. Like father, like son: Stevens Senior was a man of few words who maintained the highest of standards; and yet, when he is close to death, he is released from the constraints of his profession and for the first time speaks fondly to Stevens.
Arriving in Cornwall, Stevens is overcome by the headiness of his new freedom from constraint. He allows himself to read far more into Miss Kenton's letter than is actually there, and when it finally becomes clear that she will not be free to come back with him to Darlington Hall, he is unable to speak. It is left to Miss Kenton to say that she had once wished that she and Stevens could have spent the rest of their lives together. For the first time, Stevens is able to admit to himself the depth of his despair, and yet he still cannot tell Miss Kenton how he feels. The significance of the two-day journey from Little Compton to Weymouth is telling in its absence from the narration. In contrast to Stevens’ eager expedition to Cornwall, now the reader is shut out, excluded from his very private pain.
In the final chapter, the reader becomes a collaborator in a revisiting and reinterpretation of the story. All Miss Kenton's advances, both gentle and defiant, Stevens had completely misread or was unable to respond to. Most poignant of all is his realisation that the years of service to a man he believed honourable might have after all been worthless or even shameful.
Lord Darlington’s betrayal, both of his country and of Stevens, is subtly but masterfully recounted. Salman Rushdie described The Remains of the Day as “a story both beautiful and cruel”: the culmination of Stevens’ life feels like the cruellest of fates, made even more poignant by the reader's foreknowledge of what disappointments he still faces.
Like a bird released from its cage and overwhelmed by the vast freedoms of the outside world, Stevens finally feels the pull of Darlington Hall and his rigidly defined role as Mr Farraday’s butler. It is the only home he knows. Perhaps the one pleasure he might now enjoy is to learn to banter as Mr Farraday would wish.
What can Stevens do but resolve to make the most of the rest of his life, and look forward with optimism rather than dwell on the past and live each day with regret? Watching the lights come on along Weymouth pier, Stevens finally accepts his lot, makes plans for the immediate future to give him purpose, and faces with forced equanimity the slowly dying light of the remains of his day.
“A tour de force--both a compelling psychological study and a portrait of a vanished social order.'' – Publishers Weekly
“A profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading insular world in postwar England. "One of the best books of the year."-- The New York Times Book Review.
“The novel rests firmly on the narrative sophistication and flawless control of tone…of a most impressive novelist.” – Julian Barnes
“Brilliant…A story both beautiful and cruel.” – Salman Rushdie