The Remains of the Day (1993)

After Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club chose The Remains of the Day for April 2018, I decided I was going to skip out on reading it. I read it half a lifetime ago, and remembered enough not to want to read it again. (It’s poignant, not my preferred mood for fiction.)

Among the DVDs I bought second-hand from a neighbor over a year ago was a copy of the 1993 Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film version, so I figured I could just watch the movie instead of reading the book. (Normally that’s cheating, but like I said, I already did read the book. Also, it was a particularly well-made movie.)

I remembered that the book was about a butler who passed up his opportunity for love because he was too busy doing his job, and that there was something wrong with his master’s politics, such that the butler’s devotion was somehow even more thoroughly wrong-headed than it would have been otherwise.

The wistfulness of looking back on a wasted lifetime is nicely captured in a poem by Edgar Lee Masters called “George Gray”. Even more succinctly: A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

Although I did not re-read the book, and in some ways found the movie painful to watch, I very much enjoyed the book group meetup. See below for some of the themes and scenes we discussed.

Hungry Hundred Book Group Discussion of The Remains of the Day

There were between 15 and 20 people at the meetup. The question we each answered when going around and introducing ourselves was: Could Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton have had a successful relationship. The answer was, overwhelmingly, no. Why?

Mr. Stevens is married to his job at Darlington Hall. His priority in life is to accomplish his duties as head butler to Lord Darlington with as much dignity as possible. He strives not to let emotions or personal relationships get in the way of his duties. To put dignity above all else is what his father taught him, but he has pursued the idea of dignity with a single-mindedness even his father could not have predicted.

On his deathbed, Mr. Stevens, Sr. asks if he has been a good father; Mr. Stevens, trying to maintain his own and his father’s dignity, doesn’t really respond. We believe that he does feel for his father, because he gave him a job, deferred to him, and covered up for his lapses, but he consistently refuses to acknowledge his feelings for him. Later, when told that his father has passed away, Mr. Stevens continues in his duties because an important event is underway and he does not feel it would be right to take any time off, even though everyone else fully expects him to absent himself.

Those who read the book noted that Mr. Stevens, the unreliable first-person narrator of the book, reports that the guests asked him repeatedly whether he was all right, and that he responded that he was, even though one noticed that he seemed to have been crying.

The movie cannot use the technique of the unreliable narrator. We see things much more objectively when they are visible on screen than when we read the words of one character. During the movie, we are not told directly what Mr. Stevens is thinking, but we do see Anthony Hopkins portray a very stubborn man who refuses to react with genuine emotions to circumstances that should elicit them.

Miss Kenton, the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, is in love with Mr. Stevens, but is perpetually thwarted by his impersonal attitude. When she receives a proposal of marriage from a former colleague and tells Mr. Stevens she is considering accepting it, he acknowledges this information but carries on as if she has made a comment about something of no consequence, such as the weather. He doesn’t even react when she subsequently tells him that she has accepted the proposal and will in fact be getting married.

We know that Mr. Stevens is not an unfeeling psychopath, that he has emotions, and that he has romantic feelings towards Miss Kenton. He compliments Kiss Kenton’s work a little too emphatically, and chats with her in the evenings about their duties. She catches him reading a romance novel, but he does not allow her to tease him about it, insisting that he reads a wide variety of books so as to improve his mind. We know that this is nonsense. He is lonely, but, judging from his actions, in some sense he prefers to be.

After the master’s house is sold and a new master takes over, Mr. Stevens, having received a letter from the former Miss Kenton, goes off in his master’s motorcar to recruit her to help out at Darlington Hall. On the way, he casually rubs elbows for perhaps the first time with members of his own class, who, on account of his car and his stuffy manner, mistake him for a gentleman. He has no idea how to extricate himself from the misunderstanding without a loss of dignity.

The book goes into detail about how the new master expects Mr. Stevens to be able to engage in casual banter, something he has never had to do and does not know how to do. Mr. Stevens strives to improve his skill in this area, since he wishes to carry on in his role as butler par excellence.

When Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton (or rather, Mrs. Benn) are reunited, it is clear they still care for one another. Mrs. Benn, having learned she is needed elsewhere in the role of grandmother, declines the offer of a job as housekeeper.

Mr. Stevens took pride in his work, and would have found it fulfilling to sacrifice everything to it, except that Lord Darlington was not as wise as he had assumed. Lord Darlington was a well-meaning amateur politician who, intending to help Germany get back on her feet after World War I, wound up being branded a Nazi sympathizer. Though intelligent in fulfilling his managerial duties, Mr. Stevens had delegated his critical thinking to his employer, trusting that he knew best on most topics, especially those in the realm of international affairs. All along, Mr. Stevens felt he was contributing to greatness by preparing Darlington Hall for great events, but the events his master hosted were all for nothing in the end.

It wasn’t just that Lord Darlington was unsuccessful or misled, he also made at least one serious error in moral judgment which Mr. Stevens failed to question. Lord Darlington employed two Germans as maids, but although they worked very well, he became convinced he should fire them because they were Jewish. Miss Kenton threatened to quit if they were fired, and then backed down from her threat, but Mr. Stevens did not voice any personal moral objection, even to Miss Kenton. We never find out exactly what happened to the two Jewish maids, but it’s quite possible they were sent back to Germany, where they would have been killed.

Who is more admirable, Mr. Stevens or Miss Kenton? Mr. Stevens was acting in strict accordance with his chosen principles. He believed it was his place to serve with dignity, without questioning the master’s decisions, which were he had no doubt were based on a much deeper, better informed understanding of world affairs. This  attitude makes some sense in context: Lower class British men would not have had as much education or as much leisure to contemplate world affairs as upper class men. However, the extent to which Mr. Stevens clings to his job role is extreme when compared to all of the other servants with whom he comes into contact. Moreover, Miss Kenton, despite her social class, has and expresses a definite opinion about the two Jewish maids. However, she does not adhere to her principles. She admits to being a coward, to remaining at her job for an entirely practical reason: she needs the money. We may believe that Mr. Stevens has chosen the wrong principles to guide his life, but we cannot accuse him of ever betraying them.

When Lord Darlington’s guests and godson quiz him on his personal political opinions, he responds politely but refuses to give any opinions. The godson holds him accountable for his unwillingness to exert any moral pressure on Lord Darlington, and the guests take his ignorance as a sign that the proverbial man on the street, being extremely ignorant and perhaps also stupid, should not have any say in affairs of state.

Mr. Stevens’ constant refusal to even try to relate to people on a personal level—regardless of whether it is inherited, instilled in him by his father, due to his social class, or chosen freely—is what prevents Mr. Stevens from embarking on a love affair. Miss Kenton, though she does not initially love the man she marries, comes to love him because she has the capacity to do so. Mr. Stevens may have the capacity to feel, but absolutely lacks the ability to express his feelings, and so could never have had a loving relationship with Miss Kenton.