The Butler: A Representation of Englishness in 'The Remains of the Day'
The word ‘England’ brings many different ideas to mind. Some people think of tea, while others picture the Beatles, pubs, the Queen, etc. The English people are identified in many different ways, but it is difficult to define what 'Englishness' truly means. Not even the English people or their academics are able to provide an exact definition of this term. The professor of drama at De Montfort University, Simon Featherston, explains the complications of this term: “the English who read about being English also like to be told how hard it is to say who they are...[this] suggest[s] the continued relevance of an English national identity to the English and the difficulty of its definition and expression” (2009, p.2). 'Englishness' encompasses all that it means to be 'English' - from their mannerisms and rules of etiquette to their longstanding history - and is such an important topic to the country's people that it is one of the grander themes in their art. One such work of art is the novel The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The story is told from the perspective of Mr Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall. It takes place during the first half of the 20th century, a time when England was in the spotlight as part of many historical events, such as the first and second world wars. The novel is written in the form of a diary that Mr Stevens writes while travelling through the countryside to visit an old colleague. His diary revisits moments of his time at Darlington Hall when the manor was in its glorious years. The Remains of the Day could be considered a ‘country house novel,’ a literary genre meant to represent the greatness of England, especially during the time in which the novel is set, as it reminisces about the greatness that was slowly fading away. As the doctor Katherine C. Henderson states: “Images of the country house were used to contest, as well as create, the exclusive national identity cohering around these provincial spaces” (2015, pp. 94-95). The fact that this story focuses on the butler augments this idea of England's archaic greatness as this position represents the old aristocracy. The novel suggests that this position is now seen as a collector’s item for younger and richer countries as in the time the story takes place, Mr Stevens is working for an American who does not see the importance of the house or the English traditions. As mentioned before, the novel is set at a time when the greatness of England was fading away. The author also uses the concept of 'gentlemen' to represent that change, as Mr Stevens, a true gentleman, is the only one who remains as a reminder of the house's former greatness. The reader can see the transformation through Steven´s image in the novel.
The Remains of the Day tells the story of the greatness and downfall of Darlington Hall and reflects the breakdown of English ‘greatness,’ an idea that can be understood in many ways. One such way would be to consider English greatness in connection to the concept of the 'gentleman.' Novelist Christine Berberich states regarding the word:
"When we hear the term, we might think of Englishness; of class; of masculinity; of elegant fashions; of manners and morals. But we might also think of hypocrisy; of repression; of outdated behaviour befitting the characters of a Victorian novel, but which no longer holds any value in today’s society." ( 2007, p.3)
As Berberich explains, Englishness (as the novel's characters understood it) is no longer alive. Ishiguro represents the 'gentleman' behaviour through the characters, primarily through the protagonist, Mr Stevens. He represents in one way or another what it means to be a true gentleman. Mr Stevens, as a butler, is fully aware of how he must behave. He bases his actions on dignity, a quality related to the concept of being a gentleman. Mr Stevens finds his dignity in being the perfect butler, but he takes this idea to the extreme, as he dedicates his entire life to serving others. Professor Zuzana Fonioková explains that dignity is so essential to Mr Stevens that it becomes his priority in life: “The profession of a butler then includes repression of all wishes, emotions and opinions that – according to Stevens – do not fit in with the profession. He calls such repression of oneself ‘dignity’” (2006, p. 90). The key moment when this notion is displayed in the novel is when his father is about to die, yet Mr Stevens refuses to leave his work position as he was serving at an important event for Lord Darlington. At the end of the night, his father dies, but still, he feels proud of himself: “whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph” (Ishiguro, 1993, p. 110). Mr Stevens uses the word ‘triumph’ to describe that night as he feels he fulfilled his duties by doing the best he could in his work, even though it was an emotional situation.
In this story, Kazuo Ishiguro condenses all these relevant ideas for England and shows the changes it experienced in the last century. He offers a perspective into a time period which now seems far away, all through the vision of a butler who is uncertain of what is right or wrong but still tries to do his best. As mentioned before, the Englishness presented through Mr Stevens' actions has become outdated, but this concept is important for understanding English culture as it is part of their history. Stevens came from a generation that believed it essential to look presentable at all costs and ignore heavy emotions. Still, as the reader sees in the novel, this makes him lose a loving relationship with his father. His entire identity was in being a butler; that was all he thought he needed to be.
Berberich, C. (2007). The image of the English gentleman in twentieth-century literature. Ashgate.
Featherstone, S. (2009). Englishness: Twentieth-Century popular culture and the forming of English identity. Edinburgh University Press.
Fonioková, Z. (2006). The butler's suspicious dignity: Unreliable narration in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Brno Studies in English. 55. 87-98.
Henderson, K. C. (2015). Claims of heritage: Restoring the English country house in Wide Sargasso Sea. Journal of Modern Literature, 38(4), 93–109.
Ishiguro, K. (1993). The Remains of the Day. Faber & Faber.
Figure 1: [Dyrham Park where the movie “The Remains of the Day” was recorded]. (n.d.). Movie-Locations. http://movie-locations.com/movies/r/Remains-Of-The-Day.php
Figure 2: The Remains of the Day (1993). [Movie poster]. IMBD. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107943/
Figure 3: Author Kazuo Ishiguro (2017). [Photograph]. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-41510740
Cover: Vettriano, J. (1992). The singing butler [Painting]. Totally History. https://totallyhistory.com/jack-vettriano/