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Human, All-Too-Human

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 chapter.

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 are forgotten.

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 conveys.

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.

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