The Remains of the Day is not simply about English butlers
and manor houses. It is a deeper and sadder story about the pain of self-denial.
Alan A. Stone
Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.
-- William Blake,
"The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"
STEVENS, the tragicomic butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Remains
of the Day, illustrates Blake's observation perfectly. The film role,
however, was given to Anthony Hopkins who has recently been making a career
of proving Blake wrong. Hopkins has successfully played the same kind of restrained
but intense personality in Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and
Shadowlands. He is variously an exploitive entrepreneur, the ultimate
butler, and C.S. Lewis. But in each role he is the same self-possessed Englishman
on the other side of middle age. Hopkins makes these stiff upper-lipped characters
come alive because in his person and demeanor he conveys both remarkable restraint
and the undercurrents of desire that are too strong to be completely controlled.
The irreverent Emma Thompson who played opposite Hopkins in both Howards
End and The Remains of the Day is a perfect dancing partner. Together,
they generate electricity on screen and their performance in The Remains
of the Day is diminished only because it seems so much a reprise of their
even more remarkable performances in Howards End. Emma Thompson had
the much better part and earned an Oscar for the earlier film but The Remains
of the Day belongs to Hopkins. As one film critic aptly remarked, Hopkins,
with his jaw jutting forward in the very first scene, has literally transformed
himself into the quintessential English butler.
His English bulldog intensity, though impressive as an acting feat, bears
little psychological resemblance to the butler in Ishiguro's novel. Nor does
the period piece film have much in common with the delicate texture of the
work on which it was based. Nonetheless, the film, Hopkins, Thompson, Director
James Ivory, and Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were all nominated for
Oscars. By Hollywood's professional and commercial standards their efforts
are a success. Only when compared to Ishiguro's novel can we see the film's
serious limitations. Ishiguro is a Proustian writer with a sense of humor
and an extraordinary capacity to involve readers in the life of his protagonist,
an antiquated English butler. American law professors, for example, seized
on the novel as a parable about the practicing lawyer. In Stevens, the butler
who faithfully serves the Nazi-sympathizing Lord Darlington, they saw the
lawyer who loses his own moral compass in the advocacy of a corporate client.
Ishiguro's novel won high praise as a useful case study of the lawyer's basic
professional dilemma and was assigned by some law professors as required reading.
Law students who were too young for Watergate pondered The Remains of the
Day as they worried, "Do I have to sell my soul to my clients in order
to become a successful lawyer?" The novel of an English butler's wasted life
became a cautionary tale for them. The Remains of the Day also won
rave reviews in Great Britain where it was awarded the prestigious Booker
Prize. One critic wrote that Ishiguro had cast a line into "the core of history
and English character." It was widely described as both a comedy of manners
and a tragedy. Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in all this praise was the
judgment that the novel was an authentic portrayal of English aristocrats
and their servants between the two world wars as seen from the innermost circle
of the chief butler who served both as the gentleman's gentleman and the manager
of a large household and staff.
The novel described in exacting detail the vocational calling of the butler,
a religion of efficient service to the master. The extraordinary aspect of
this novel, with all its recondite and supposedly authentic particulars, was
that it could have been written by a man named Ishiguro who was born, and
spent the first six years of his life, in Nagasaki. We are constantly reminded
these days of the difficulties in communicating across the ethnic divides
that have shattered the canons of shared human understanding. The award of
the Booker Prize to Ishiguro suggested that an ethnic outsider had found the
right accent in which to speak to an English audience about their own past.
Ishiguro's first ambition was to be a rock star and there is no doubt that
this inventive and interesting man has many talents. But I am no longer confident
that he can be accepted as the consummate English historian of British manners
as viewed from inside the manorhouse. After seeing the movie, I went back
and reread the novel. But my rereading was influenced by a chance remark,
the gravamen of which was that Anthony Hopkins's impressive performance failed
because his character, Stevens, was simply not believable as an historical
personality. The idea -- convincing if reductionistic -- had it that Ishiguro
brought Japanese order and hierarchy to the crumbling disorder of social reality
in post-Edwardian England and made the butler into a kind of Samurai figure
for whom honorable service was more important than life. In short, it was
an idealized and Japanese line that had been dropped into the core of English
character and history.
The remark stayed with me -- like a fishbone in my throat -- as I began
to reread the novel and found that my understanding of every sentence was
influenced by it. I could not dislodge the impression that the supposedly
quintessential English butler who approached every duty in a ceremonial fashion
had the soul of a Samurai. Just as one remark can destroy a friendship, this
chance criticism made me distrust the novel's authenticity. If one imagines
the butler to be a Samurai in tails, then passages that had seemed tragic
and pathetic become ludicrous.
For example, there is a critical scene in which Stevens presides over the
service at a grand banquet for diplomats at Darlington Hall. During this all-important
evening, Stevens's ailing father, an underbutler, has a stroke and is dying
in his room. Stevens, who places his public duty as a butler above his private
duty as a son, is implored by the chief housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson),
to come to his father's side. He grudgingly spares only a moment and quickly
returns to his butlering. The father dies while Stevens tends to a self-pitying
French diplomat complaining about his sore feet. Miss Kenton later comes to
inform Stevens of his father's death. Of course, he will not leave his duties
and in what I now take to be a Haiku moment she delicately asks his permission
to close his father's eyes. We imagine the dead father with his eyelids still
open and her gently chiding question makes us believe that it is the son's
ceremonial prerogative and obligation to close them. The Japanese have imposed
traditional ceremonies on many aspects of everyday life, but is this an English
practice? One begins to wonder if The Remains of the Day truly tells
a story of English life and sensibilities.
This Samurai-in-tails criticism is quite unfair to Ishiguro who has written
a brilliant psychological study of servant and master. Novelists, after all,
are not required to tell authentic historical stories. The best, and Ishiguro
is one, create universal worlds in which readers find their own particular
realities. That American lawyers were able to recognize themselves in the
butler demonstrates the power of the work.
It is nevertheless intriguing that knowledgeable British readers accept
the butler as the genuine article. The film, which is so much less than the
novel, may provide an insight into this eager acceptance of what is arguably
an exaggerated, if not counterfeit, portrait. A spate of period piece films,
like The Remains of the Day, have recently come out of England. (This
one, however, was a Hollywood production with Mike Nichols as coproducer.)
Most of these films cannot compete with Hollywood at the British box office
but do well on the uppercrust BBC television channel and with the many Americans
who are still Anglophiles. Even for these audiences no producer would risk
making a film that openly idealized the upper classes of England in its last
days of Empire. The trick is similar to those films that show how terrible
pornography is by using full frontal nudity to attract an audience. So from
Brideshead Revisited, through Upstairs, Downstairs, on to Howards
End, and now The Remains of the Day, British directors have given
nostalgic Englishmen and their Anglophilic American cousins frontal shots
of wealth and aristocratic privilege displayed in all their luxury and opulence
along with a message about moral decay and decadence. The team of Ivory/Jhabvala
specializes in such period piece films and no matter how intriguing Jhabvala's
plot line is, Ivory's images of wealth and splendor are what really endure.
Ivory knows how to feed an appetite for nostalgia among American Anglophiles
and The Remains of the Day is a banquet. Nostalgia is always the past
remembered through rose colored glasses. The Anglophile's version of nostalgia
is colonialism without oppression, masters with servants who love them, lower
classes who know their places. The Remains of the Day is a memory palace
of wealth and its privileges -- footman filled dining rooms and fox hunters
riding through beautiful countryside, all of it owned by the Lord. These lasting
images are the medium which overpowers any message about fascism in this gorgeous
film. Perhaps nostalgia is also at work in those who pronounce the novel so
authentic. After all is said and done the butler of the novel is redeemed
by knowing his place and demonstrating the same restraint of desire that made
him waste his life. If it is unfair to criticize a novel because it is not
historically authentic it is equally unfair to criticize a movie because it
does not replicate a novel. Jhabvala's screenplay was, in fact, faithful to
most of the important events of the book. But the novel takes place almost
entirely inside the butler's mind and readers must imagine the grandeur of
Darlington Hall. The film takes place in Darlington Hall and viewers must
imagine what is going on in the butler's mind. Kant thought that it was impossible
to tear away the "veil of self-love" that obscures all self-judgments. The
novel is constructed so that we witness the butler's struggle to lift a corner
of the veil. Ishiguro takes us through layers of rationalization and self-justification
as Stevens circles around the painful truth. The butler is like a patient
on the couch reminiscing and then reflecting on the past and the reader becomes
his psychoanalyst. The butler is in trouble and has come for help but, as
with patients, only when things are looking up and the most painful matters
are still the most difficult to discuss. The reader, like the experienced
therapist, knows almost at once where the troubling memories are buried. Stevens
is at the same time proud of his connection with Lord Darlington and too ashamed
to admit it. His sense of personal dignity hangs in the balance as he tries
to rescue his integrity. We are aware of Stevens's plight from the very first
The butler of the novel seems most vulnerable when he lies, for it is then
that we realize how fragile and insecure he is. Making an almost child-like
stretch to justify himself with his hand still in the cookie jar, he engages
the reader's sympathy. It is this child-like transparency, so essential to
the novel, which the film lacks.
The film, like the novel, begins after World War II. Mr. Farraday, a wealthy
American played by Christopher Reeves (who will never live down being Superman),
has purchased Darlington Hall and has hired Stevens, the authentic English
butler, to help return it to some small part of its previous splendor. Stevens
has been given a second chance, but there are certain annoyances. He must
devise a "staff plan" to operate the establishment with four instead of 28
servants, and must deal with a master who does not adhere to the formal boundaries
that should exist between master and servant.
Stevens is nonetheless buoyed up with hope. He has a letter from the former
housekeeper, Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, and he hopes that he can convince
her to rejoin the staff of Darlington Hall. The contents of her letter are
ambiguous and the film at least temporarily preserves the ambiguity of the
novel. We do not know for sure whether Mrs. Benn is hinting to Stevens that
she wants him to rescue her from an unhappy marriage, simply telling him her
troubles, or some uncertain mixture of the two. But there is no doubt that
the restrained and circumspect Stevens is thinking of her as something more
than a housekeeper.
In a generous if inappropriate gesture, his employer, Mr. Farraday, has
offered to lend him his vintage automobile so that he can get out of the house
and see the country for a change. With the arrival of Mrs. Benn's letter,
Stevens resolves to take up his master's offer. He sets out on a journey to
the west country and to Weymouth where she now resides.
Stevens's reminiscences are dealt with as flashbacks in the film, but without
his reflections on them which are essential to the energizing genius of the
novel. As a consequence, the character of Stevens never really unfolds and
the pomp and circumstance begins to drag. Each chapter of the novel marks
out the stops in Stevens's journey to the west country and each chapter circles
back to new and more enlightening reminiscences and reflection. Stevens is
on a voyage of introspection that we never sense in the movie. Early on in
the novel, in a scene omitted from the screenplay, he tells about his baldfaced
lie when he could not admit to one of Mr. Farraday's American guests that
he had been Lord Darlington's butler. This dishonesty proves an embarrassment
to his new master who has touted him as authentic. Readers are therefore onto
the fact that Stevens is troubled by his past and because of Mrs. Benn's letter
is anticipating a more promising future. Readers can appreciate, as film audiences
cannot, each new layer of reminiscence and reflection as another piece of
the emerging picture. And we can also appreciate Stevens's attempts to justify
where he has been and where he is going in the moral adventure of life.
The tone of the novel, however, is far from serious. There are many light
touches in this comedy of manners, most of which are unrealized in the screenplay
and in Hopkins's restrained but intense performance. Ishiguro's butler is
sometimes foolish and impulsive while Hopkins is always severe and cautious.
Thus, in the novel, we sense during his automobile trip that the butler is
really a fish out of water, as removed from the commonplace world as Lord
Darlington would have been. Hopkins never gets beyond the gravity of the character
he has created in the very first scene; unlike Ishiguro's butler, he has no
weaknesses. He does not tell lies. He is all dignity and duty.
The man-servant is a familiar character in literature, and from Figaro to
Jeeves he has typically been quite aware of his master's foibles. Stevens,
by contrast, is the butler playing priest to his master's pope. His credo
is "this employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter
devote myself to serving him." The problem is that Lord Darlington's gentlemanly
values lead him to sympathize with the Germans as they labor under the retributive
terms of the Versailles treaty. Then, from his aristocratic perspective, he
sees fascism and Hitler as bringing order and progress to the uneducated and
unwashed. Finally, he becomes the pawn of Nazi diplomats. A friend and active
supporter of Ambassador von Ribbentrop, he betrays Europe and his own nation.
True, as Stevens reminds us many times, his Lordship had only the noblest
intentions. But, after the war, in his own country, Lord Darlington has become
infamous as a Nazi traitor and Stevens has become ashamed to admit that he
had been Darlington's butler.
The American, Mr. Farraday, had participated in that great meeting of diplomats
at Darlington Hall -- the occasion during which Stevens's father dies while
he serves the noble gentlemen handing Czechoslovakia over to Hitler. Farraday
had in most ungentlemanly fashion on that occasion told Lord Darlington he
was an amateur out of his league and doing the wrong thing. Farraday is the
only one who understands the truth of the matter. For that very reason he
can forgive Lord Darlington and be the salvation of that gentleman's gentleman.
Perhaps no other master in England could have given Stevens a better chance
for a fresh start in his chosen profession.
As we gradually learn of Stevens's former life at Darlington Hall we discover
that the moments in which he takes greatest professional pride involve situations
when he restrained every personal emotion and self-interest in the cause of
service. These are the scenes best realized in the film. Hopkins is quite
convincing as the butler who believes he reached the acme of professional
accomplishment when he successfully butlered the great diplomatic banquet
while his father died. When Miss Kenton makes it clear that another man has
proposed marriage but that she prefers Stevens, he is too busy to pay attention.
Later that evening when he hears her weeping behind her door he pauses only
to hurry on to his post. But what is missing from the portrait in the film
is the butler's description of how his momentary downcast mood over Miss Kenton's
departure from Darlington Hall is assuaged by a "deep feeling of triumph"
that wells up within him. Unlike Hopkins, Ishiguro's Stevens is William Blake's
exemplar -- a person with desires weak enough to be restrained.
In the film, as in the book, Miss Kenton and Stevens are clearly drawn to
each other but his formality and restraint make any show of affection impossible.
His vocation requires the repression of any personal feelings. Miss Kenton
tries to reach him but the intensity of their interest in each other reveals
itself perversely in the unnecessary quarrels which are the only way some
people can express their positive feelings.
The closest thing to a love scene is played brilliantly by Hopkins and Thompson.
Stevens is in his pantry reading a book and when Miss Kenton discovers him
there she insists on being told what he is reading. Clearly she has crossed
a threshold in the boundary of formal manners that divide them. Her insistence
has the emotional intensity of a sexual overture and he resists. She presses
on -- questioning him, intruding on his privacy, teasing and provoking him
as she demands to know what "racy" book he is reading. She advances on him
physically until she actually wrestles the book out of his hands and is herself
embarrassed to find that it is one of those romantic novels only ladies read.
He finally sends her away, insisting that in the future she must respect his
privacy. But she has found him out. Behind all his restraint there is buried
sentiment and perhaps even romantic desire.
It is a scene that lingers in memory long after more passionate film encounters
Their virtuoso performance, however, cannot entirely compensate readers
of the novel where, after that wonderful scene, Stevens justifies his choice
of this reading material as improving his vocabulary with words and phrases
to be used when attending to ladies. This absurd self-justification makes
the butler of the novel endearing and ridiculous, which is not what Hopkins
Although Miss Kenton has her moments of pique she is generally on the side
of humanity, and Stevens on the side of duty, in their quarrels. When she
objects to Darlington's decision to fire two maids -- a decision based solely
on the grounds that the maids are Jewish -- she confronts Stevens with the
moral consequences of his blind obedience; he stubbornly refuses to question
his Lordship's judgment. But Stevens's greatest failure is his rejection of
Miss Kenton's offer of love, and that is what he now seeks to remedy.
As he draws nearer to Weymouth where Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, lives,
the full picture of their past life at Darlington Hall has taken shape and
we know how important his mission is to him. To be sure, in reflecting on
the past, Stevens keeps trying to justify himself and Lord Darlington. Ironically,
we learn that Darlington's ultimate public disgrace came only after the war
when he insisted on suing for defamation a newspaper that had called him a
traitor. The ill-advised lawsuit, of course, increased the paper's circulation
and made Lord Darlington a household name as a Nazi sympathizer. Stevens,
like his Lord, is unable to see the truth. In the penultimate stage of his
journey Stevens runs out of petrol and walks to a village where he is mistaken
for a gentleman and treated with deference and courtesy. In the novel, pretending
to be a gentleman and pronouncing himself familiar with foreign affairs, he
relishes the spotlight and impresses the villagers with his personal acquaintance
with England's leaders and diplomats. The local doctor sees through his impersonation
but, being a gentleman himself, spares the butler the shame of being exposed.
While impersonating the Lord, Stevens has had a discussion with one of those
little Englishmen who insists that dignity is a matter of human equality.
His imposture and this conversation are not adequately captured in the film,
however. In the novel we are reminded once again that Stevens's dignity was
purchased at the price of ignoring the moments of indignity that were his
lot as the perfect English butler. Indeed, Lord Darlington's friends, who
share his admiration for Hitler and Mussolini, humiliate Stevens to settle
a bet by proving the stupidity of the common man who -- like Stevens -- deserves
no voice in the nations' political decisions. Stevens accepts this indignity
as one further test of his virtue as a butler. Hopkins is magnificent in this
scene as we see his anger being visibly restrained. The screenplay gives Hopkins
a line in which he tells the kind doctor of the village that he intends to
set his life right. Stevens seems to understand his failings and the indignities
he has suffered. We realize as he reaches Weymouth that he is now prepared
to propose more than employment to Mrs. Benn who, according to her letter,
is separated from her husband.
As we reach this moment of potential human redemption we feel the restrained
but intense passion that Hopkins has brought to the character of Stevens.
Then, suddenly, fate snatches away his last possibility of love.
Mrs. Benn unexpectedly learns that her daughter is to have a baby and that
opening door of grandparental love is enough to reconcile the housekeeper
to her husband. Now Stevens's habit of formality and good manners, which have
always restrained his passion, serve him in good stead. He stifles any impulse
to propose or importune her and passes off his visit as a mere stop along
the way to another destination. The film ends with Stevens and Farraday back
at Darlington Hall. A pigeon has flown down the chimney and Farraday, still
unaware of his role as the master, nimbly steps past Stevens to capture the
trapped bird and set it free. This ending is symbolic and ambiguous, unlike
the novel's ending which -- though far more complicated and subtle -- could
not be more psychologically convincing.
In the novel, no outside fate resolves the possible connection between Stevens
and Mrs. Benn. When Stevens finally presses her about the significance of
her unhappy and enigmatic letter, she takes it as an inquiry about whether
she loves her husband. Her answer has a wrenching poignancy because she tells
Stevens without equivocation that he had his chance, that she much preferred
him, but has now grown to love her husband. The butler will get no second
chance in the moral adventure of life. Freud commented that the only time
people see themselves honestly is when they are depressed, when the veil of
self-love is torn asunder by self-loathing. Stevens has such a moment of depression
and honesty. After putting Mrs. Benn on her bus he sits in the rain on the
Weymouth pier and strikes up a conversation with an elderly man who had served
in a great house as a footman. This elderly man, having indicated his admiration
for the know-how of butlers, leads Stevens to reveal his "identity." He finally
pours out his unhappy feelings: how he "trusted in his lordship's wisdom."
"I can't even say I made my own mistakes. . . . What dignity is there in that?"
The elderly man comforts and reassures him and tells him not to look back
so much. He urges Stevens to enjoy "the remains of the day." For the English
butler who takes this kindly advice, enjoyment will come by hurrying back
to Darlington Hall to practice his bantering skills so that he may better
serve his American master. Stevens's journey of introspection ends with the
same denial of self with which it began. He has once again wrapped himself
in the religion of service. This sad story may not be authentically English,
but it is all too human.