Many of us have seen the Merchant -Ivory movie adaptation of The Remains of the Day (1993) where Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson play the leads. Hopkins is firmly tattooed for me as Stevens, the butler of a great English house - Darlington Hall. He has spent his entire adult life in the first half of the 20th century in the absolute and complete service of Lord Darlington. He has tried his utmost to strive to be the greatest butler he can be (all the while knowing that he is not among the “greats”) and to do everything he possibly could for the Lord. His repression of his entire personality and feelings is paramount to him as his only concerns are the orderly efficiency and operations of the house. He thinks that his work as a butler is his life’s purpose but it is at the expense of his emotional life. Thompson played Miss Kenton, the head of housekeeping, and she often butted heads with Stevens and brought him the only sparks of feistiness and an opportunity for love.
The novel begins with a prologue in 1956. The house has recently come under the control of an American, Mr. Farraday. Stevens is baffled by him and by his desire to banter with him. Farraday offers Stevens the use of his car so that he can go on a driving holiday and the butler takes him up on it so he can go and visit Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn. She has hinted in a letter to Stevens that she has left her husband and might want to return to the house. The journey sparks memories for Stevens. He feels that he has contributed to world events as so many prominent Europeans and British leaders met at the house to discuss important matters like the possible appeasement of Germany. Lord Darlington was engaged in a futile attempt to negotiate with the Germans before WW2. All of his efforts fail and he is vilified in the press. Stevens always puts all matters of the house first and ignores his dying father upstairs when these important visitors need him downstairs. His stoic repression is something he perceives as “dignity” and he is proud of his place in the scheme of English society. Because of his rigid nature Stevens misses all the cues for love with Miss Kenton and cannot open himself up for any opportunities for a relationship with her or even his dying father.
The car journey allows Stevens a chance to ruminate upon his life and he finally evaluates whether he has done the right thing or not. One incident is particularly telling as he relates dispassionately the time when the Lord had him fire two Jewish workers. Miss Kenton vigorously defends the two workers but is unable to carry out her threat of leaving based on her principles. He keeps on teasing her about when she is going to leave and she finally tells him that she has no family or other support in life.
At the end of the journey he meets Mrs. Benn for a short interlude at the end of the day. As they are both nearing the ends of their lives – the evening time is an apt metaphor and one which recurs in the novel. The film version ends quite differently with the motif of a bird symbolically flying in the great house. I liked the quiet “end of journey” motif in the novel where Stevens promises himself that he will work on his bantering skills with Mr. Farraday when he returns from his trip. This resolution is true to the very core of Stevens’ persona and outlook and also speaks to the challenges of another day for him.
At first I found the way Stevens speaks to the reader to be very stiff and pretentious. But I soon realized that his character is a mirror reflecting all of the major events and themes of the 20th century – the Great Wars; anti Semitism; the decline of the upper class in Britain; the ascendancy of America after the war as exemplified by the change in ownership of the house; the rise of Realpolitik; and the changing relationships with women and in the workplace and much more. Stevens becomes a fascinating character who illuminates the first half of the century through his observations and gives us a chance to reflect upon the decisions which rule our own lives.