Literature / The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is an acclaimed 1989 novel by Japanese-born English author Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted into a 1993 James Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

The novel is set in 1956 and narrated by a butler, Stevens, who recalls his career and considers the nature of his profession as he drives through the English countryside to visit his old colleague, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) for the first time in twenty years to ask her to return to her old job. Darlington Hall, where they worked together, is now owned by a rich American; through Stevens's memories of working there over the decades, and through his way of telling them, we learn not only about the Lord Darlington who used to live there and how his downfall came about, but also about Stevens's character, his relationships with Lord Darlington, Miss Kenton, and his father, and what's left for him after a life of completely devoting himself to the service of another person.

This novel and film includes examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Ruth and Sarah become Elsa and Irma in the film. They're also German instead of presumably being English.
  • Arc Words: "dignity"
  • Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: The film got a U in the UK, but the MPAA gave it a PG rating for "themes".
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Stevens and Miss Kenton.
  • Big Fancy House
  • Breaking Speech: Senator Lewis attempts to deliver one to Lord Darlington and the guests at the conference, pointing out that they're "amateurs" in over their heads, but nobody listens to him.
  • British Stuffiness: Deconstructed.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Stevens wouldn't spit it out if you paid him.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the film, Miss Kenton is the only one of the staff who ever wears anything even remotely colorful, while Stevens sticks to black, white and grey.
  • The Comically Serious: Stevens is only just coming to realize that in certain situations he's expected to come out with "witticisms," and is studying a radio program called Twice a Week or More ("which is in fact broadcast three times each week") for ideas. Every time he has to make a joke, he dissects the subject before and afterward in a typical Wall of Text.
  • Composite Character: Mr. Farraday is combined with Congressman Lewis for the film.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Stevens' inability or refusal to express deep feelings, despite Miss Kenton's warmth and interest, drives her away from him.
  • Dirty Coward: How Miss Kenton views herself for not leaving Darlington hall after Elsa and Irma were fired.
  • Downer Ending: Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, decides to return to her husband when she gets the news that their daughter is expecting, leaving Stevens alone. He never learns to think or behave in any way but as a dignified servant.
  • Dull Eyes of Unhappiness: Mrs. Benn in the film.
  • For Want of a Nail: One of the ways in which Stevens argues that the role of a butler to a man like Lord Darlington is a noble contribution to the world is by explaining how the performance of household staff can affect the meetings that take place in houses like his. At one point he claims with pride that Lord Halifax once called the silver at Darlington Hall "a delight," and that Darlington later told him it had "put him into quite a different frame of mind altogether."
    These were — I recollect it clearly — his lordship's actual words and so it is not simply my fantasy that the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening.
  • General Failure: Stevens' older brother was killed in the Boer War thanks to one of these. When the ex-general came to visit William Stevens' (Stevens' father) employer some years later, William not only refused to take time off, but voluntarily served as the ex-general's personal valet.
  • The Ghost: In the novel, Mr. Benn.
  • Happily Married: Mrs. Benn turns out to be this... most of the time.
  • Hates Being Alone: Miss Kenton:
    "All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me."
  • Head-in-the-Sand Management: Lord Darlington is actively involved in appeasing the Nazis. He has Chamberlain himself at the house at one point, with Ribbentrop and Halifax, to persuade him to meet with Hitler (and to have the king meet with him too).
  • Historical-Domain Character: Joachim von Ribbentrop, Lord Halifax, Oswald Mosley, Neville Chamberlain, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw are mentioned by way of proving that not everyone Lord Darlington had at his house was a shady political figure.
  • The Jeeves: What Stevens aspires to be. Lengthy passages are spent on the subject of what does and what doesn't make a butler "great." Stevens believes that the crucial quality is dignity.
  • Last Name Basis: Stevens and Miss Kenton. He also insists that she refer to his father as Mr. Stevens Sr. although she would normally be entitled to use his Christian name due to being in charge of his duties.
  • Married to the Job: Stevens is, to the point where he believes he shouldn't be seen off-duty by anyone, at any time.
    • As was his father. Stevens doesn't even mention his mother's existence.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Various characters espouse the belief that the ruling class are the only people equipped to handle political problems. Stevens tells himself and others that his only responsibility is to Lord Darlington, and that he has no business having opinions on Darlington's political activities. At the end, after realizing he's spent his life effacing himself for the sake of being as perfect a butler as possible, he understands that in doing so he's robbed himself of dignity, the very thing he thought he was pursuing. However, the man he's talking to tells him to think of his future instead of his past, and he concludes that such demoralization is Inherent in the System, and that the best thing he can do now is work on improving his "bantering skills" before Mr. Farraday comes home.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Stevens claims that Lord Darlington disliked the British fascist movement and was not an anti-Semite. He did, however, like a certain member of the British Union of Fascists quite a bit, enough to start talking about "Jewish propaganda," stop giving money to a Jewish-run charity and tell Stevens to fire two Jewish housemaids.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Mr. and Mrs. Benn.
  • No Hero to His Valet: Stevens insists all along that the criticism that has been heaped on Lord Darlington for his connections to the Nazis is overdone and unfair, and that Darlington was motivated by honor and generosity. As more and more details of those events come through, it becomes clear, and Stevens is eventually forced to acknowledge, that Darlington was at best extremely naive and misguided, and that he himself was worse in a way for relinquishing his responsibility to make his own moral judgements on his employer's actions.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Enforced by Stevens; he does not approve of romance on the job and complains that too many of the servants marry each other and leave.
  • No Name Given: Stevens, Miss Kenton and Mr. Benn don't have any first names in the book. In the film, they are James, Sarah and Tom respectively.
  • Nouveau Riche: Mr. Farraday.
  • Old Maid: Miss Kenton, at least as far as Lizzie's concerned:
    "[S]he's old. She must be at least 30."
  • Old Retainer: Stevens.
    • And his father, William Stevens.
  • The One That Got Away: Miss Kenton.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The only two times when Stevens' stoic and neat professionalism takes a drop occur after he is informed of the death of his father and of the marriage of no-longer Miss Kenton.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Miss Kenton attempts this when she tells Mr. Stevens that Mr. Benn has proposed to her.
  • Precision F-Strike: Stevens does let out a curse once, when he drops a wine bottle after hearing that Miss Kenton is leaving to marry Mr. Benn. Emma Thompson also executes one in the DVD commentary.
  • The Reason We Suck Speech: At the end of the book, Stevens at last can articulate the truth about Lord Darlington and himself. Lord Darlington played Head-in-the-Sand Management for the Nazis, and at the end of the day, he could admit he was wrong and take the responsibility like a man. Stevens never did anything for himself, and he cannot say even that.
  • Serious Business: Everything. Everything is serious business. Including "banter," frothy romance novels and giving The Talk to the boss's best friend's twenty-three-year-old son.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Miss Kenton.
  • Spock Speak: Stevens's characteristic style. This is funny at some times; at others, not.
    I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow in me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.
  • The Stoic: Stevens, so very much.
  • The Talk: Lord Darlington asks Stevens to give one of these to Reginald Cardinal, with amusingly awkward results.
  • Title Drop: Not quite, but in the last scene Stevens resolves to forget the past and "try to make the best of what remains of my day."
  • Twice Shy: A truly painful example.
  • Unreliable Narrator: A repeated device has Stevens placing a detail or a bit of dialogue in one scene, then wondering if he's not misremembering that, and offering a different scene in which the same detail fits similarly, creating a Meaningful Echo. More generally, Stevens's repression of his emotions in all situations results in many moments where even as it's incredibly obvious what he must be feeling, he refuses to acknowledge having any feelings at all — his father's death, for instance.
  • Unwanted Spouse: Mr. Benn. Mrs. Benn leaves him a few times over the course of their marriage but she doesn't manage to make it stick.
  • Wrong Guy First: Subverted. At first, Mr. Benn seems like a much better match for Miss Kenton than Mr. Stevens - he's friendly, talkative and has some aspirations for his life beyond service. The only problem is that they don't love each other, or even like each other very much: Mr. Benn is looking for a business partner for his guest house and Miss Kenton is using him to make Mr. Stevens jealous.
  • You Need to Get Laid: Probably a factor that drives Miss Kenton into the arms of Mr. Benn. Could even be a case of Nature Abhors a Virgin given the time period.

Alternative Title(s): The Remains Of The Day