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In The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro exemplifies English identity from the perspective of the butler of a prominent estate, Mr. Stevens of Darlington Hall. Ishiguro uses Mr. Stevens’s account to establish English identity, allowing Mr. Stevens’s conservative perspective to be a commentary on that identity as it relates to professionalism and integrity. Ishiguro’s rendering of English identity privileges service (though not necessarily professionalism) over all, and other facets of humanity like pride and integrity are expected to yield to service; however, Stevens’s conservative nature slightly exaggerates these aspects of English identity as the society around him gradually begins to liberalize its Englishness, relaxing its privileging of professionalism.
Mr. Stevens is both the protagonist and the narrator of the text, and as the narrator, he communicates to the reader in such a way that evinces Ishiguro’s authorial intent to establish his account as unreliable. Stevens’s unreliability only applies, however, to certain contexts, and in many other contexts, the reader is led to trust his explanations. Broadly, one of the reasons Ishiguro does this is to make it easy for the reader to ultimately view English identity as slightly different from what Stevens exemplifies. Specifically, the reader easily sees Stevens as an old-fashioned representation of Englishness.
One way Mr. Stevens’s old-fashioned nature is made apparent to the reader is by way of Stevens’s many stories about his father who was also a butler; Stevens lives to be like his father for whom the profession was life, nearly in its entirety, and Stevens’s strict adherence to his father’s model and, perhaps, even greater conservatism strongly suggests that Stevens is, indeed, old-fashioned—fashioned after a previous generation. The arguably most reliable commentary on Stevens’s conservatism, though, typically comes from Miss Kenton who worked closely with Stevens at Darlington Hall for many years prior to the start of the novel. Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton reminisce together about an incident in which Lord Darlington fired two Jewish maids for no other reason than that they were Jewish, which greatly upset Miss Kenton at the time. Stevens was also disturbed by this, claiming in his account to be as disturbed as Miss Kenton, but he deemed it requisite of a butler not to question Lord Darlington’s decision, even in a private conversation with Miss Kenton; consequently, she assumed Stevens agreed with the decision until a year later when they discuss it all and Stevens informs Miss Kenton that Lord Darlington regretted firing the maids and asked Stevens to find them again. Miss Kenton’s reaction is not to Lord Darlington’s regret but to Stevens having withheld his true feelings about what transpired. She says, “Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” (Ishiguro 154). Her response confirms somewhat late in the novel that Stevens’s old-fashioned view of his profession is not representative of Englishness for everyone, even if it was once so.
For Mr. Stevens, English identity allows itself to be defined and stationed by one’s profession. Pride is irrelevant with regard to where one belongs, and those who would challenge their stations out of pride are deviant. Stevens does not vocally empathize with Miss Kenton’s reaction to Lord Darlington’s firing of the Jewish maids solely because he believes his station both does and should restrict him from doing so; he considers his own opinion undeserving of representation outside of his personal privacy. Even at the risk of Miss Kenton believing that he lacks integrity, Mr. Stevens maintains this notion.
Mr. Stevens’s Englishness is so contingent upon his professionalism, in fact, that he speaks of his professional development the way one would personal development as from adolescence to adulthood, which makes professionalism more encompassing of human identity. When discussing Lord Darlington’s convivial gathering of prominent figures who sympathized with Germany to discuss ways to loosen the Treaty of Versailles, Stevens says, “Let me make clear that when I say the conference of 1923, and that night in particular, constituted a turning point in my professional development, I am speaking very much in terms of my own more humble standards. […] For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph” (Ishiguro 110). Stevens’s words establish professionalism as the cornerstone of his identity as an Englishman because Ishiguro uses his father’s mortal illness to show what shapes Stevens the most.
Ishiguro expects that, for most people (including the implied reader), the death of a close parent or guardian would have the most profound effect on one’s personal development, but for Stevens, the most profound effect comes from his performance on the job under such unprecedented pressure; his father’s death is, in fact, reduced somewhat to being merely the ultimate challenge in performing his duties as a butler.
Since Ishiguro uses Mr. Stevens to depict English identity, Englishness forms in the text from its conservative fringe first and then expands to position that starting point relative to other, differing representations of Englishness. Because Stevens is a subaltern character (unlike Mr. Farraday or Lord Darlington), Ishiguro is able to create a rather reliable, thick description of the mid-twentieth century in England. He captures the discourse of the day (that which “remains” after observing Stevens’s angle) as growing less conservative and, perhaps, reducing professionalism’s ability to define an Englishman or Englishwoman in favor of, at the very least, integrity and a modicum of pride in that integrity.
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