The novel tells, in the first-person narration, the story of Mr. Stevens, an English butler, who has dedicated his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington. Although Mr. Darlington is recently deceased, Mr. Stevens doesn’t hesitate to describe him in flashbacks, at every turn, holding him in his regards and admiration.
Action in “The remains of the day”
1956 is the year the novel begins when Mr. Stevens had just received a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper of the house.
In her letter, she hints at her married life as being an unhappy one. Since Darlington Hall is a bit short-staffed, Mr. Stevens finds it convenient to ask Miss Kenton about the possibility of returning, hoping to bring, even in a small way, Darlington Hall to its former greatness.
The timing couldn’t be greater. Mr. Stevens’ new employer, a wealthy American by the name of Mr. Farraday, encourages him to borrow his car and take a well-earned vacation – a “motoring” trip. Stevens accepts and sets out for Cornwall, where Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) lives, hoping to bring her back.
During his journey, Stevens gives an account of his unshakable loyalty towards Mr. Darlington, who had hosted lavish meetings between German sympathizers and English aristocrats. By doing so, Mr. Darlington was hoping to influence international affairs in the years leading up to World War II.
A journey of self-discovery
Mr. Stevens, though a man of few words, explains the significance of the word “dignity” as the true foundation not of a lifetime spent in servitude but as the drive behind every course of action.
Being forced to take a moment to himself, Mr. Stevens ponders not only on the character and reputation of Lord Darlington as well as on the nature of his relationships with Miss Kenton.
Duty before everything is what guides his steps. Having failed to act accordingly on various occasions, he now hopes he can find forgiveness in Miss Kenton’s acceptance of the housekeeper position. Solitude can be a great companion for the one, who feels words were left unsaid, to try and put things in perspective.
Although not all seems lost, time is of the essence. The time Mr. Stevens failed to seize those crucial moments is the same time he secretly hopes to get back, despite a change in circumstances.
While they were working together, Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton failed to admit their true feelings towards one another. Their conversations seemed merely professional, though, at times, seemed to blossom into something more. Stevens, never yield, even when Miss Kenton tried to draw closer to him.
What remains of Darlington Hall is not the building itself, but the memory of a great presence in the person of Lord Darlington, kept alive through Mr. Stevens’ admiration for the man.
Mr. Stevens becomes aware of the changing of times and learns how to take each employer as they are: unique in type and character. He understands that Lord Darlington can never be replaced, admitting that he has to work harder to get accustomed to his new employer.
Despite being married for twenty years, Mrs. Kenn meets Stevens. Before and after writing her letter, there have been times when she wondered if she made a mistake. Admitting to failure is a hard thing to do. In her weak moments, she runs away from home, only to come back and find love and support in her husband. Her lack of decision and persistence is something she seems to have regretted from the moment they met, till that day.
Although it was hard at first, Miss Kenton learned to love her husband and be grateful for their life together.
What remains of Mr. Stevens is the regret of not having seized opportunities, burying himself into the ideal that was his service. Having gone through an introspection process, he now understands “dignity” does not revolve around the man he serves but in the manner in which he serves, no matter the time and setting.
Characters in “The Remains of the Day”
- Stevens, the narrator, an English butler who serves at Darlington Hall; a devoted man with high standards who is particularly concerned with dignity (exemplified by the fact that the reader never learns his first name)
- Miss Kenton, the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, later married as Mrs. Benn; an extremely capable and dignified servant who helps Mr. Stevens manage Darlington Hall. As time passes, she and Mr. Stevens develop a long-lasting bond
- Lord Darlington, the owner of Darlington Hall; a conference he holds between high-ranking diplomats is ultimately a failed effort toward appeasement talks between English and German powers; this causes his political and social decline
- William Stevens (Mr. Stevens senior), the 75-year-old father of Mr. Stevens, serving as under-butler; Stevens senior suffers a severe stroke during the conference at Darlington Hall; his son was divided between serving and helping him
- Senator Lewis, an American senator who criticizes Lord Darlington as being an “amateur” in politics
- Young Mr. Cardinal, the son of one of Lord Darlington’s closest friends and a journalist, he is killed in Belgium during the Second World War
- Dupont, a high-ranking French politician who attends Lord Darlington’s conference
Takeaways from “The Remains of the Day”
It’s difficult to establish one major theme as ruling over others. The novel revolves around words such as loyalty, politics, banter, dignity love and relationships, memory, and perspective.
Mr. Stevens’ is the embodiment of them all. Though, if it were to find his fault, it would be his sense of dedication pushed to the limit and bordering on self-sacrifice. His sense of duty makes him inhuman, at times, as the time when he chose to finish his service instead of seeing his dying father. To his mind, having done his duty is what made him a great son as well as a great individual.
Self-respect doesn’t come from a position pushed to the point of inhumanity, but from the mistakes we make and the humanity we derive from them.
We are not what our jobs make us but what we make of the jobs we have. Our worth is not set by the standard we set for ourselves but by the way, we choose to do things, all things, not just one in particular. For who are we without our jobs and what are we to other people when we cannot hide behind those jobs?
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