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The most crucial moment in the text of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, The Remains of the Day, does not occur until almost the very end of the book. The tragic implications of everything that has taken place before can only be put into the proper context for the reader by situating his consciousness within the timeline of the awareness of the story’s protagonist, Mr. Stevens. That timeliness has revealed him to be a personification of the concept of leading a life of quiet desperation as his passivity and inability to act upon either his emotions or his intellect has kept him virtually unchanged throughout the revolutions taking place in the early part of the 20th century. His sense of duty, loyalty to his employer and unquestioned acceptance of social customs and historical traditions has resulted in his being seemingly bereft of even the capacity to act as time has passed him over, the evil of his employer has been revealed and the only woman he loved married another. Situating the most critical moment in the life of Mr. Stevens an emotionally devastating climax which is experienced simultaneously by reader and character removes the element of irony from the story and thus succeeds in transforming the Ishiguro’s simple butler into a modern tragic figure of almost mythic dimension.
This transformative moment commences at the point at which Mr. Stevens finally decides to make an inquiry into the present state of the marriage of the former Miss Kenton. His very language which is marked by a propriety verging on quaintness is indicative of his detachment from emotional engagement. “I simply wondered if you were being ill-treated in some way. Forgive me, but as I say, it is something that has worried me for some time” is all surface and lacks the deeper meaning that he simply cannot bring him to explicitly state. The terminology is directed toward the reasoning behind Miss Kenton having temporarily left her husband on a number of occasions. Tragic implication can be found in the fact that even at this late stage of his life when he has been so terribly disappointed, Mr. Stevens cannot help but retain his proper and studied sense of reserve. What he is really asking here is not whether her husband has mistreated her, but whether her husband has given her adequate reason to leave him permanently and come go to the man who has loved her so deeply and so longingly from afar. The discipline continues with his reply upon learning that her husband has not, in fact, been particularly ill-treating toward her. His reply that this knowledge “does take a load from my mind” is betrayed by emotions so raw and close to the surface that all his training and commitment to emotional distance cannot keep them entirely hidden.
In that instant, Miss Kenton detects a note of humanity within Stevens despite his best efforts to suppress it. Her inquiry requires a follow-up that cannot be ignored. The question “Do you not believe me?” is one that his well-constructed sense of dignity could never possibly have allowed to go unanswered. Within that question lies an aspect of suspicion of his motives and a distrust that he has been entirely truthful. A man who has committed a lifetime to engendering trust and remaining truthful to this position to the point of that position obliterating every other aspect of his personality has no choice but to respond. So he does respond, but in a way that has to be excruciating to most readers, his response retains his sense of decorum at the very moment when his emotional state of being most requires that decorum be damned. Instead of opening up and delivering the full truth of how he feels, he couches those feelings behind a syntactical wasteland of confession to merely being “rather mystified as to the cause of [her] unhappiness.”
And yet, Miss Kenton, fully in touch with her own emotional state and doubtlessly aware to some extent of his, still manages to give him one more chance. After admitting that her marriage is hardly borne of uncontrollable desire and passion, but is one based more on mutual trust and comfort, she admits “I’ve grown to love him.” Then she remains silent. She give him that moment of silence to break free from the suppression of all his desires. She allows him just that one moment of silence upon those hardly inspiring words of devotion to her husband to let Mr. Stevens do something for once in his life that won’t push him toward dying from that life of quiet desperation.
His failure to seize the day seals his doom. If only all those repressed emotions and if only a lifetime of dedication to being something rather than someone had so gripped him within a shroud of fear and an inability to act, Mr. Stevens might well not have ended up the modern tragic hero he becomes. Instead of speaking up, he lets that moment of silence lapse for long enough that Miss Kenton fills the void. She even comes close to making the full confession herself when she muses that she has thought about what a terrible mistake she’s made with her life. She doesn’t come right out and admit that, however, and her confession ends up being only the most dreaded words in the vocabulary for Mr. Stevens: “There’s no turning back the clock now.”
Mr. Stevens does make a full confession. Not to Miss Kenton, to whom he should have made it, of course, but to the reader. At the words “my heart was breaking” he makes the transformation fully into modern tragic hero. He has sacrificed all for duty and that duty sacrificed nothing for him. He becomes situated as the person who gives everything to his ambitions without gaining anything from having those ambitions realized. The perfect butler, Mr. Stevens ends up weeping in his only genuine show of emotion as he becomes the most imperfect of humans: the human who does allow himself to experience the full gamut of the emotions extended only his species among all the species populating the planet.
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