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Literature / The Remains of the Day

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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, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Christopher Reeve.

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.

A pre-stardom Lena Headey has a small part in the movie as a pretty servant girl.

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.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Such as it is. But, while Stevens and Miss Kenton's ages are never specifically named in the film, Anthony Hopkins has a good 20 years on Emma Thompson in real life.
  • Apologizes a Lot: Stevens is constantly apologizing to other characters for various minor slights. In fact, he often apologizes to the reader for not telling the story well enough.
  • Arc Words: "Dignity". Stevens believes it is the defining quality of a "great" butler and spends much of the book ruminating on just what "dignity" truly means.
  • Artistic Licence – History: A minor example: David Cardinal tells Stevens that the meeting Lord Darlington is hosting between Lord Halifax, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the Prime Minister is intended to persuade the latter to visit Hitler in Berlin, and possibly to arrange a similar meeting between the Fuhrer and the newly-crowned king, who is regarded as pro-Nazi. The implication is that the Prime Minister is Neville Chamberlain and the king is Edward VIII,note  but Chamberlain became PM five months after King Edward had abdicated in favour of his brother. Either the Prime Minister was actually Chamberlain's predecessor, Stanley Baldwin, or Cardinal is implying that King George VI was pro-Nazi (which he definitely was not), or Ishiguro is engaging in a bit of artistic licence regarding dates. And that's not getting into the fudging of the dates of Lord Halifax' tenure as Foreign Secretary...
  • 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: Darlington Hall, Stevens' place of employment for most of the book, is a typical English nobleman's country house, having employed a staff of several dozen (but down to just four since Lord Darlington's death) and being lavishly furnished and decorated.
  • 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.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: The book and movie both bounce between interbellum and post-war settings.
  • The Ghost: In the novel, Mr. Benn is frequently mentioned, but never actually seen.
  • Grammar Correction Gag: When Lisa, a housemaid who worked under Miss Kenton for a few years, runs away with a footman to get married, Stevens comments on the "misspelled, ill-formed sentences" that made up her letter of resignation, seeming just as offended by her crimes against the English language as by her offences against the duties of her position.
  • Hard-Work Montage
  • 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.
  • I Don't Pay You to Think: Deconstructed; Stevens is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful man, but rationalizes his master's political naïvete away for propriety and decorum's sake and offers no counsel or opinion of his own on such matters, making him appear polite but vacant. One elitist guest, Spencer, tries to quiz him on diplomacy, and comes away vindicated in his belief that the lower class cannot be trusted with political power just because Stevens declines to answer.
  • In Vino Veritas: Stevens' last reminiscence of his service to Lord Darlington involves David Cardinal suddenly showing up on their doorstep asking if he could be put up for the night. The fact that his visit coincides with a secret meeting Lord Darlington is hosting between Neville Chamberlain, Lord Halifax, and Joachim von Ribbentrop arouses Stevens' suspicions, and eventually Mr. Cardinal has had enough to drink that he admits to Stevens that he is there in his professional capacity as a journalist to report on this latest development in the appeasement policy. He tells Stevens that, thanks to the Nazis' manipulations of him, Lord Darlington is trying to persuade Chamberlain, and even the newly-crowned King Edward VIII, to visit Hitler, but Stevens simply isn't interested.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: In Stevens' view, Congressman Lewis commits high impropriety by attempting to sow discord between M. Dupont (who he is friends with) and the rest of the international guests by privately informing him of the truth: that the Englishmen present all loathe the French due to their treatment of the Germans after the war, and only invited him as part of their machinations. When exposed, Lewis calls out the members present, slamming them for their naive idealism, which turns out to be true as the plot wears on.
  • Last-Name Basis: Stevens and Miss Kenton; in the book, we never even learn their first names. He also insists that she refer to his father as Mr. Stevens Sr. although she would normally be entitled to use his Christian name, William, due to being in charge of his duties.
  • Lawful Stupid: Stevens is just plain unable to see things in a critical way and applies no personal logic... He just sees Lord Darlington as My Master, Right or Wrong, and even after the latter's death, he remains blindly loyal to him despite having discovered he wasn't exactly a good man.
  • 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, Mrs. Carolyn Barnet, 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.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: Stevens repeatedly underestimates the severity of his aging father's condition and, despite Miss Kenton imploring him to stay with him when he's obviously dying, Stevens continues to carry out his duties, only seeing his father briefly after the latter loses consciousness. Stevens insists to Miss Kenton, himself and the audience that his father would have wanted it that way.
  • No Accounting for Taste: Mr. and Mrs. Benn's marriage has never been a happy one (it is implied she rushed into it after losing patience with Stevens' emotional repression), and she admits to having left him several times, but she always returns to him, and she claims she has grown to love him.
  • 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, such as his decision to fire his housemaids Ruth and Sarah simply for being Jewish.
  • 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.
  • Not So Above It All: Miss Kenton discovers the books Stevens has been reading are simple romance novels.
  • Nouveau Riche: Mr. Farraday, the rich American who buys Darlington Hall (and its staff, including Stevens) after the death of Lord Darlington. Stevens never relates how Mr. Farraday made his fortune (it is implied he is from Boston, so he could be from old New England money, or he could be a Self-Made Man), but however it happened, he would have been considered "new money" compared to the English aristocracy.
  • 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.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: When Mr. Stevens is tasked with giving the young Mr. Cardinal a talk on the "birds and the bees," the latter assures him that he knows everything about it, thinking instead Mr. Stevens is referring to getting all the details on M. Dupont.
  • The One That Got Away: Miss Kenton is in love with Stevens during their service together at Darlington Hall, but he is too Married to the Job to act on his own feelings for her (he also has a dim view of household staff who are not so professionally devoted). At the end of the book, Mrs. Benn (as she now is) says she has often regretted the lost opportunity for a happier life with Stevens instead of the merely adequate life she has had with her husband - a confession which breaks Stevens' heart, as he is forced to privately acknowledge that not telling her how he felt has proved a terrible mistake.
  • 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.
    • When Stevens' father is on his deathbed, he asks his son if he were a good father and tells him how proud he is of him. Stevens has no idea how to take this.
  • 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 You Suck" Speech:
    • Directed inwards; 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.
    • Lewis delivers one towards the guests at Darlington's international conference, calling them out for being naively optimistic and so deeply rooted in the old ways that they can no longer see that the wealthy, privileged gentry no longer have any business meddling in political affairs they no longer understand and are not qualified to discuss, and that being "honorable" is a meaningless, obsolete characteristic. Needless to say, Darlington brushes this off, though the second World War ends up vindicating everything Lewis had argued.
  • 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.
  • 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 views a lack of outward displays of emotion as central to the definition of "dignity" by which he has defined his entire life. He accepts Lord Darlington's insistence that his father's duties be scaled back due to his declining health without a word of protest, and even his father's death does not interfere with his service during a summit meeting between assorted European and American diplomats at Darlington Hall (although his lordship does notice that Stevens has been crying).
    • Mr. Stevens senior is just as stoic as his son. Even when acting as personal valet to the General Failure whose botched commands resulted in the death of his elder son during the Boer War, he is never anything less than polite and professional, despite being regaled with tales of the general's military exploits. The only time he displays any emotion is when two drunken guests of one of his employers, John Silvers, say rude things about the man while Mr. Stevens senior is driving them around the countryside, and he stops the car, pulls the back door open, and gives them a Death Glare that subdues them into silence for the rest of the journey.
  • 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. Stevens and Miss Kenton are clearly in love with each other, but Stevens is too emotionally repressed (seeing it as part of the "dignity" central to his job description) to act on his feelings, leaving Miss Kenton to wait in vain for him to make the first move. Eventually, when it becomes clear he never will make the first move, she gives up and rushes into a whirlwind courtship and marriage with Mr. Benn. It isn't until she makes an offhand remark during her reunion with Stevens at the end of the book that she thinks she could have had a much happier life with him than she has had with Mr. Benn that he realises what he has lost by letting her get away.
  • 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.
  • Upper-Class Twit: How Lewis ultimately views titled English gentlemen such as Darlington, making foolish decisions with serious consequences because their sense of duty, honor and tradition clouds the cold reality that the world is changing and making people like him obsolete.
  • Verbal Tic: This may just be how people spoke back then, but characters address each other by name or title in nearly every line of dialogue. This is especially noticeable in the long conversations between Stevens and Miss Kenton, which have a kind of name-based rhythm: "...Mister Stevens..." "...Miss Kenton..." "...Mister Stevens..." "...Miss Kenton..." "...Mister Stevens..." "...Miss Kenton..."
  • Wrong Guy First: Subverted in the film. 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