‘The Remains of the Day’ [Kazuo Ishiguro]: Essay Two [‘A’-grade, 2001/2002]


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“Examine the methods used by Ishiguro to establish the character of Stevens in the early stages of the novel.”

{CONTENTS: Convoluted syntax; High register; Life manufactured by others; Use of archaisms; Social awkwardness; Butlership vocation; Tautology; Contrast: Stevens/Mr Farraday, England/USA; Insecurities; Believable contradictions; Metaphors in the Prologue; Likeable character; Sympathy for Stevens’ isolation; Conclusion.}

From the beginning of the novel, Stevens uses convoluted syntax in his attempt to justify and qualify everything he does. For example, his desire to see Miss Kenton again is purely down to a “preoccupation with these very same professional matters”. He also admits that he has “been responsible for a series of small errors in the carrying out of my duties” – his wish to sound respectable prevents him using a more vernacular description of his failings. In this way, Ishiguro appears to be building up a character that is very insecure of himself and is worried about what others think of him.[^]

Stevens’ high register musings could be a reflection of the fact that he doesn’t usually have the opportunity to voice these thoughts, and his writing of a diary may be a kind of cathartic release.[^]

The metaphorical declaration, “But then there is one lounge suit, passed on to me in 1931 or 1932 by Sir Edward Blair…” could be a technique employed by Ishiguro to reflect the fact that Stevens – as a butler – has had his entire life manufactured by others: his fashion sense, his personality… his whole identity. In the same way, the fact that the second-hand clothing is an “almost” perfect fit could reflect the idea that Stevens is almost so many things – a gentleman, for example – but doesn’t quite fit the roles which he would like.[^]

“… a new costume”, and, “don”, are archaisms used by Stevens which demonstrate his retro-style of thinking and talking. One couldn’t really expect him to be a progressive thinker when practically his whole life has been lived under others’ rule, inside an old English house.[^]

Stevens is unable to ‘banter’ (casually chat) appropriately with Mr. Farraday, showing himself to be socially inept and unable to act flexibly and quickly. The fact that he psychoanalyses this ‘bantering’ highlights his social inadequacy – he appears to view it as a foreign language, which he must learn and become fluent in.[^]

The way Stevens describes the meeting of fellow butlers to discuss “every aspect of our vocation”, might suggest that Stevens aspires to be thought of as better and more important than he actually is. By using the term, ‘vocation’, Stevens appears to be saying that he has found his calling in life, which – to the objective observer – appears unlikely; he is merely a pawn in a bigger, upper-class game.[^]

Another method used by Ishiguro to convey the character of Stevens is his undoubted tautology. This is illustrated by the fact that it takes the full 20-page prologue for him to decide whether or not to go on his ‘expedition’.[^]

Ishiguro uses many literary and linguistic features to establish Stevens’ image. The contrast between Stevens and Mr. Farraday can also be seen in terms of a USA/England difference: Mr. Farraday tries to banter with Stevens as if he is on the same level – in a jokey, light-hearted manner – whilst Stevens appears to conform to the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ Englishman role – he feels uncomfortable with these exchanges, and would rather go about the job quietly without too much ‘unnecessary’ emotion.[^]

Stevens comes across as a real character because he has many insecurities {for example, his reluctance to “change too much of the old ways”}, and he appears to be a deep and profound person in the way he is always thinking about something.[^]

The many contradictions in Stevens’ nature make him all the more believable. This can be seen in terms of: being very articulate, yet unable to banter; his wisdom in some aspects of life, and his complete ignorance in others; and his air of a professional, yet an obsessive.[^]

It could be said that the prologue is full of interesting metaphors relating to Stevens’ life. Stevens’ use of archaisms and his leafing through 20-year-old volumes to gain information show how he clings desperately to the past for security. Miss Kenton appears to represent a missed opportunity in Stevens’ life, which is why he is so keen to get in the car {symbolic of the future} and go on a journey {which has many connotations, both abstract and concrete: geographical; emotional; spiritual…} to see her. Stevens’ second-hand ‘costume’ could represent his lack of self-identity and self-knowledge.[^]

The novel is written in such a way that many readers feel sympathy towards Stevens. I don’t believe this was Ishiguro’s primary aim, but when people read the book they draw their own inferences and conclusions. Stevens’ awkwardness when Mr. Farraday attempts to banter with him show him to be a bit pathetic, but Ishiguro does establish empathy between him and the reader. Stevens seems to be a genuinely nice and likeable guy, but – according to conventional wisdom – ‘Nice guys finish last’.[^]

Other areas where one feels sympathy for Stevens are: when he ’embarks’ on the ‘expedition’ alone, showing that he has never made any lasting friends; his emotions are covered up by complex prose {his desire for a ‘professional’ meeting with Miss Kenton, for example}; the way in which he overworks himself on the ‘staff duty plan’, believing it to be a crucial task; his naivety in thinking that England won’t have changed in 20 years since the 1930s; the reader’s realisation that his life has up to now been lived almost exclusively in the second and third person; his apparent paranoia of what his boss thinks, resulting in him being unable to raise the matter of the holiday “for some days”; and his time spent preparing for the expedition, “many minutes examining the road atlas”. All these factors add up to give the impression of somebody with too much time on their hands, who has been alone for too long![^]

In conclusion, Ishiguro makes use of many literary and linguistic techniques to richly and finely construct the narrative voice of Stevens as a likeable but insecure and mollycoddled man with little life experience.[^]

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Forty-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, learning programming languages, 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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Posted in A Level English [A2]

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