Ishiguro’s unreliable narrator

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a story settled in a 1950’s England whose main character is Stevens, a butler in a traditional English country house.  At the time in which the narrative is set, the house’s owner is an American gentleman called Mr Farraday. Stevens, however, has served the house, Darlington Hall, since the times of its previous owner, Lord Darlington, to whom he had absolute devotion. Throughout the book, we are made aware of the political tendencies and importance of Lord Darlington, both this fact and Stevens’ own beliefs and ideas give social, political and ideological depth to the book.

Stevens is more than a pre-war English butler with difficulties to express his emotions. He is a representative of the notions of unwavering loyalty and devotion of one’s self to one’s role or position. A mode of thinking that goes back to the Knighthood of medieval times and also their oriental counterparts, the Samurai. His dilemmas are the dilemmas of a whole society that is forced to review its way of thinking through extenuating times. Times in which the ‘old ways’ are ultimately considered obsolete and incompatible with the ruthless politics and ideas of the new age, as the American Mr Lewis puts in the dinner scene (Ishiguro, 1989: 106-7). The fading of the ‘age of innocence’ and the beginning of the ‘age of impiety’ is pioneered, most obviously, by the Second World War Germany and also by, the arguably less so cruel, post-war American capitalism. Capitalism in which the smartest and most capable are the ones able of ‘rising above’ ‘mundane’ levels of loyalty and honesty in order to improve not only their own social position, but their capitalist society as a whole by means of their personal ascension, thus, questionably, remaining loyal to society and the capitalist ideology in its entirety, even if it means trampling on individuals.

Stevens’ ordeals in the book mirror such complex sacrifices in the benefit of something else. His constant sacrifice of emotions in order to remain a ‘true professional’, as he says, is shown even in the way he writes his diary, for he is painfully aware of his own opinions, but does not dare to put them on paper, at least, not directly.  Whenever these feelings are put forward, even in an indirect way, he quickly and apologetically counters them with an overwhelmingly professional ‘explanation’. This can be clearly seen in his account of the expulsion of the two Jew girls at the beginning of Day Three-Evening (pp. 153-8). The concealment of one’s opinion from one’s self in order to serve with unflinching loyalty is a concept that can be traced to the Bushido or Way of the Samurai, which Kazuo Ishiguro, being Japanese born, most probably has come in contact with in his life. Being absolutely professional, in his own terms, Stevens forsakes his political responsibilities for his social and personal ones of being a ‘great’ butler.

The social responsibilities of the times in which Stevens was raised could be summarized as knowing one’s place in the social ladder and acting accordingly to such position, never directly interfering with the political affairs of Lord Darlington and the other ‘great gentlemen’. These responsibilities would change during and after the wars in order to include political responsibilities more directly within them, as means to avoid another event like a World War to ever happen again. Therefore, Stevens is a person who would be considered, by some people, a socially aware individual in the pre-war era, for he knows not to meddle in things that do not fit his position, as can be seen on his questioning by the gentlemen (pp.204-6) and Lord Darlington’s response to the event(pp.206-7). In the post-war era, however, he is to be considered not only politically but also socially naive and therefore a failure. Yet, his position is a personal choice, even if a misinformed one, as is Lord Darlington’s choice for the ‘amateurism’ mentioned by Mr Lewis, as shown in the following extract,

‘What is more, sir,’ his lordship went on, ‘I believe I have a good idea of what you mean by “professionalism”. It appears to mean getting one’s way by cheating and manipulating. It means ordering one’s priorities according to greed and advantage rather than the desire to see goodness and justice prevail in the world. If that is the “professionalism” you refer to, sir, I don’t much care for it and have no wish to acquire it.’ (p.107)

Lord Darlington’s choice, although apparently good hearted, would eventually lead to the disaster that was World War II in the same way that Stevens’ choice for ‘loyalty to the end’ leads to a lack of a fulfilling emotional life and regrets over his professional one, due to the failures of his employer and, therefore, also his own for not having acted in the preventing of these failures or disassociated himself from the Lord. His regret over this can be seen when he speaks to the man in the pier, in the last pages of the book,

‘Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?’ (pp. 255-6)

This self-realisation, however, could be said to be short-sighted, for his mistakes are his own. Choosing to trust was the path that he chose in life, being it a conscious or unconscious choice, it was, nonetheless, made by himself. Proof of this can be found in his own words, for in saying that he found pride in being capable of ‘keeping in his position’ and maintaining his ‘dignity’ even in the event of his father’s death (pp. 114-5) he shows us, though maybe unaware of it, that his life of absolute servitude was a personal choice, and not only something brought about by his father and society’s influence.

Thus Stevens’ mistake is not his blind loyalty to Lord Darlington; it is that he presumed that by aligning himself with the Lord, who he considered to be one of the ‘great gentlemen’ of his time, he would be fulfilling his ideal of serving humanity as a whole (pp. 122-123). This ideal and his belief that to be a ‘great’ butler one has to be associated to a ‘distinguished‘  gentleman clash with the unquestioning loyalty that Stevens applied to his life. It is this conflict of ideals within him that   brings about the tragedy of his position. This mirrors Lord Darlington’s tragedy, for his belief that a gentleman should always be forgiving and keep his personal honour collide with his desire to see goodness and justice prevail in the world, at that specific point in history, due to his relationship with Herr Bremann.

Therefore, it is through these conflicts and tragedies that the text gets the reader to reflect about the implications of personal belief to society and humanity as a whole. Lord Darlington and Stevens are both very much responsible for their own personal ‘misfortunes’ as they are for their wider implications. Their true ‘sin’, so to speak, is not their trust and or beliefs but the failure to take into account the possible implications and failure of the path that they chose, leading to their unduly regret.  Unduly for it does nothing to make their situation better, it only makes for more suffering which in turn brings more suffering creating a never ending spiral. Stevens’ error is brought to light by the man in the pier (p.256,) who makes him realise that he must only take the past as an example in order to make for a brighter future, even if the sunset is already upon his life.


Ishiguro, K. (1989) The Remains of the Day. London: Faber and Faber.