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There is a quality that every individual strives to achieve and possess in his lifetime. This quality is dignity. In The Remains of the Day, a novel written by Kazuo Ishiguro, many themes are presented throughout the narrative of the main character, Stevens. Of the themes, the most prominent is that of dignity and greatness. However, there is also another underlying theme throughout the story which is loss and regret. It may seem odd for the two almost antithetical themes to be present in one novel. However, Ishiguro, with the help of Stevens’s narrative, uses the contrast between the two themes to express his thoughts on the topic of dignity.
Throughout the story, the theme of dignity and greatness is first considered when Stevens tries to consider “what is a great butler?”. Stevens then quotes the words of the Hayes Society, saying “the most crucial criterion is that the applicant be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position’”. Stevens concludes his thought by addressing two major incidents, one being related to his father, Mr. Stevens Sr. and the other being related to himself.
Mr. Stevens Sr. was a butler at Loughborough House, with Mr. John Silvers being the employer. Mr. Stevens Sr. had served Silvers for fifteen years and had become what Stevens considers to be a great butler. According to Stevens, Mr. Stevens Sr. had demonstrated his greatness at a driving incident with three guests of Silvers. After becoming drunk, the three guests had asked Mr. Stevens Sr. for a drive around three specific towns. However, during the drive, Mr. Stevens Sr. had made a mistake concerning the order of the drive, and two of the guests proceeded to make rash remarks to him. Even with these remarks, Mr. Stevens Sr. proceeded to calmly keep his composure and drove to the next town. However, annoyed with his indifference regarding the remarks, the two guests proceeded to make hasty remarks about Silvers. This was when Mr. Stevens Sr. stopped the car, opened the back doors, and calmly but solemnly stood in front of the two guests until they apologized about their actions. The third guest in the car, Mr. Charles, was amazed at how although Mr. Stevens Sr. had not displayed any signs of anger and simply stood, the two guests “. . . seemed to cower back like small boys caught by the farmer in the act of stealing apples.”
The second incident was regarding Stevens’s time at Darlington Hall. There was an important international meeting at Darlington Hall that could affect the fate of Germany. After WWI and Germany’s economic fall, Lord Darlington, the previous owner of Darlington Hall, viewed the Treaty of Versaille as cruel and unfair to the people of Germany. So, to make changes to the treaty, Lord Darlington had invited influential people from various countries, especially France, to encourage their participation in the change. However, during this important event, Stevens’s father, who had also been working at Darlington Hall, unfortunately suffered a stroke and eventually passed away. Although Stevens was informed about his father’s death and deeply grieved for it, Stevens prioritized his service to the guests and the importance of this event to Lord Darlington and attended his father after the event was finished.
There is one thing that these two incidents have in common. No matter what happened, both butlers remained professional and kept to their task without becoming emotional and impulsive. This is why Stevens states in the novel that true dignity “. . . has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits”. If the novel was finished here, this novel would just be about what dignity is. However, this is merely the beginning of the novel. As the novel proceeds, it takes on a darker tone as Stevens recollects other memories, and the theme shifts into that of loss and regret.
In the novel, there is a romantic interest of Stevens named Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton was the head housekeeper of Darlington Hall and was not in good terms with Stevens at first. They actually had various fights with one another even to the point where Miss Kenton refused to talk to Stevens. However, after some time at Darlington Hall, the two seem to develop feelings for one another. Although Miss Kenton displays her feelings towards Stevens, Stevens, worried that any type of romantic relationships will hinder his work as a butler, refused to allow his relationship with Miss Kenton to develop into something more than that of a professional one. Later on, Miss Kenton approaches Stevens with the news of her acquaintance’s marriage proposal. However, Stevens is unable to express his true feelings because of the same reason as before, and Miss Kenton leaves Darlington Hall for her marriage. After several years had passed, and the story approaches its end, Stevens meet Miss Kenton for the final time, and Miss Kenton tells Stevens that she wonders what her life would be like if she had been with Stevens. After she leaves for the final time, Stevens breaks down in tears regretting his past decisions regarding Miss Kenton.
With the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton, the story is finished with the theme of loss and regret, and this is where Ishiguro conveys his message. In the beginning of the novel, Stevens seem to be satisfied with his professional career in Darlington Hall. However, as the novel progresses, Stevens is reminded of losing Miss Kenton because of the stubborn ‘dignity’ of his and, in the end, regrets in tears. Using Stevens’s memories, Ishiguro throws his questions. Is the dignity that is valued by so many really worth it? Is the dignity that everyone values truly dignity or is it just a self justification of one’s stubbornness?
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