‘The Remains of the Day’ [Kazuo Ishiguro]: Essay Three [‘B’ grading, 2001/2002]

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How does Ishiguro use the conference of 1923 to develop some of the themes of the novel?

{CONTENTS: Characters representing changing social and political beliefs; ‘Englishness’ and ‘Americanism’; Miss Kenton and Steven’s uneasy relationship; Confrontation [ideological, emotional]; Pampered vs professional; Stevens’ search for self-actualization; Stevens’ war-based lexical set; Stevens’ attainment of ‘dignity’; Stevens’ development by the end of the conference; Disguise and deception; Upper-class society’s communication ineptitude; Imagery mirroring conference proceedings; Conclusion.}

Through the use of the 1923 conference, Ishiguro is able to emphasise the changing social and political beliefs of that time. His characters Lord Darlington and Stevens underline the clinging to ‘old ways’ and trusty thinking in this time of change – what Lord Darlington likes to call ‘honour’. Mr Lewis challenges the methods employed by Lord Darlington, seeing them as acts of ‘amateurism’. Thus, Mr Lewis suggests that different social measures need to be taken in order to achieve their shared political goals. This highlights the theme of ‘old ideas versus new ideas’.[^]

It could also be argued that Lord Darlington and Stevens are symbolic – the very personification of ‘Englishness’. Indeed, Ishiguro says himself that Stevens is an emotional metaphor, “recognised throughout the world… this emotionally cold person who deliberately erases the human aspect of himself, to put on this kind of persona.” Contrasted with this ‘Englishness’ is the definite ‘Americanism’ of Mr Lewis and Mr Farraday. I think Ishiguro uses this contrast to underline the difference between the routine and honour of the English and the progressive thinking, cynical mentality of the Americans. A positive example of the American mentality can be seen through Mr Farraday’s attempts to initiate ‘banter’ with Stevens (trying to allow Stevens to drop the cloak of professionalism and express his true self); Mr Lewis’ behaviour at the conference can be seen as a troublemaking negative.[^]

Miss Kenton can be seen as a forward-thinking ‘opponent’ of the old school when she offers (inexplicably, in Stevens’ opinion) ‘a large vase of flowers’ to the butler, adding “Mr Stevens, there is no need to keep your room so stark and bereft of colour.” Their relationship (another theme of the novel) isn’t always a smooth one, and the forced respect they show to each other throughout the conference shows the uneasy nature of their partnership – which is punctuated by…[^]

confrontation. This particular theme is developed through the ‘them versus us’ mentality which develops between Lord Darlington – plus his fellow conference supporters – and Mr Lewis. The conference indirectly highlights another confrontation (non-physical) between Mrs Mortimer and Stevens, concerning their reactions to Mr Stevens Snr’s death. Mrs Mortimer – the cook – expresses her emotions very openly, “she began to cry.” Stevens, however, as the son, merely continues with his butler role – “This is most distressing. Nevertheless, I must now return downstairs.” Stevens is so repressed he appears to be more concerned with making observations such as, “I noticed she reeked powerfully of fat and roast cooking.”[^]

Another confrontation of attitudes comes between Monsieur Dupont and Stevens. M. Dupont is a man who knows what he wants, and knows how to get it. He gives “an authoritative rapping of knuckles upon wood” before his speech, and “a hush” immediately falls over the room. Dupont is very respectful of Lord Darlington, and confidently rejects Lewis’ attempts to convert him to cynical ways of thinking. M. Dupont appears to be very id-driven – wanting immediate gratification -, as demonstrated by his persistent pestering of Stevens when his feet are hurting (!), “Butler, have you seen to my arrangements?… What do you mean, butler? You’ve run out of basic medical supplies?” This could be a statement of Ishiguro’s that pampered, upper-class ‘gentlemen’ don’t see the full picture. Meanwhile, Stevens, in the midst of a personal tragedy, carries on being subservient and dutiful with barely a trace of anything but professionalism. Therefore, it could be said that le Monsieur lives on a superficial level, whilst Stevens demonstrates a much more profound nature. This nature has been perfected by the butler during another theme of the novel…[^]

…Stevens’ search for self-actualization. During the conference, William Stevens dies – the death of one’s father is enough to induce depression in most people, but Stevens digs deep and carries on as normal. When Lord Darlington expresses his concern to Stevens, “You look as though you’re crying”, the butler laughs off his inner turmoil, “I laughed and…quickly wiped my face.” This juxtaposition of mourning/laughter highlights the tragi-comedy of the scene.[^]

The personal importance that the conference holds for Stevens can be seen through Ishiguro’s use of war-based lexis: “I thus set about preparing…as…a general might prepare for a battle”; “I analyzed where our weakest points lay and set about making contingency plans…”; “I even gave the staff a military-style ‘pep-talk’…”; and “History could well be made under this roof.”[^]

Lord Darlington’s covert international conference of 1923 is very important to Stevens’ development as a butler, as he himself modestly says, “the conference of 1923, and that night in particular, constituted a turning point in my professional development… you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display…’dignity’.” “In the face of everything”, I believe that most readers would not begrudge Stevens his claim to that abstract, refined quality, so essential to becoming a ‘great’ butler: ‘dignity’.[^]

By the end of the conference, Stevens is well on the way to self-actualization and finding his true self. He is certainly permitted to reminisce on “that evening today…with a large sense of triumph.”[^]

Another theme which Ishiguro develops throughout the conference is that of disguise and deception. For instance, Mr Lewis manages to win “the confidence of his lordship’s ‘home team'” with his “genial smile”, “engagingly informal manner” and manufactured statements such as “the United States ‘would always stand on the side of justice and didn’t mind admitting mistakes had been made at Versailles'”. He provokes Lord Darlington into an out-of-character outburst against the French, then smiles “with contentment…through the clouds of tobacco smoke…hanging thickly across the table”, safe in his knowledge that he will use these words to troublemaking effect with Monsieur Dupont. What at first glance appears to be a friendly gentleman (in the truest sense of the word) is actually a conniving back-stabber, with Ishiguro using the cigar-induced smoke cloud imagery as a metaphor for the smokescreen which Lewis puts up, hiding his real motives and preventing the other guests seeing through him.[^]

Sir David Cardinal, a powerful and influential figure (and “invaluable in organizing the…conference”), ought to have come to terms with the demands of being a father (especially when you come to realise that ‘young’ Reginald “is now twenty-three”!) and should certainly be prepared to tell his own son the facts of life, rather than burdening Lord Darlington with the duty; Lord Darlington promptly passes the task on to poor old Stevens. Thus, a seemingly respectable gentleman is actually somebody who shirks the basic responsibilities of parenting. This is, of course, a device used by Ishiguro to underline the paucity of communication skills at Stevens’ disposal, as he fumbles for an adequate explanation and draws an analogy with the “geese…flowers and shrubs” to leave Reginald somewhat bemused! Stevens’ attempted explanation provides a touch of humour to lighten the relatively heavy conference description, the comedy stemming from the ambiguity of Stevens’ meanderings.[^]

As the conference draws to a close, the ‘smokescreen’ imposed by Mr Lewis has given way to “subtle, quite soft light pervading the room”. The changing imagery mirrors the change in clarity of the conference proceedings – thicker and less clear at the start, gradually giving way to beautifully defined beams nearer the conclusion.[^]

In summary, Ishiguro uses the conference of 1923 to subtly develop some of the themes of the novel inside a plausible plot. The conference increases the pace of the novel, and sees Stevens revisiting a crucial time in his career. As the story seems to develop naturally – nothing seems contrived – the reader is left to infer Ishiguro’s messages… the conference, like Stevens, can be taken on many levels.[^]

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34-year-old father of three wonderful children [William, Seth, and Alyssa]. Works as an Assistant Technical Officer in the Sterile Services Department of Treliske Hospital, Cornwall. Enjoys jogging, web design, being a bit of a geek, and supporting Arsenal FC. Obtained a BA degree in English from the University of Bolton in 2008, and has continued to gain qualifications in a diverse range of subjects thereafter.

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