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


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How far and in what ways does the episode with the Wakefields (pp. 128-129) advance our understanding of Stevens and his situation?

{Essay CONTENTS: Episode overview; Focused professional; Emotionally closed; Use of tentative language; Insecurity, crisis, disguise; Preoccupation with ‘dignity’; English-American contrast; Symbolism; Lack of self-awareness; Conclusion.}

In this section of the novel, Mr and Mrs Wakefield visit Mr Farraday to inspect his “acquisition”, Darlington Hall. Mrs Wakefield questions the genuineness of the “arch” in the hall, proceeds to tap Stevens for information concerning Lord Darlington, and leaves Mr Farraday disappointed, “Mrs Wakefield wasn’t as impressed with this house as I believe she ought to have been.” The ‘incident’ which advances our understanding of Stevens is his blatant denial of ever working for Lord Darlington, “I didn’t madam, no.”[^]

A strong theme of the novel, Ishiguro makes certain language choices in this section to help our understanding of Stevens develop. It is clear that Stevens is a no-nonsense worker – not one to indulge in idle conversation – as he attempts to get by Mrs Wakefield by ‘muttering’ a simple “excuse me, madam”. He is a task-committed, job-orientated individual.[^]

His ‘woefully inadequate’ communication skills are evident when he says, “Is that so, sir?”, and, “Indeed, sir?”, in response to Mr Farraday’s emotive declarative sentences, such as: “She kept asserting everything was ‘mock’ this and ‘mock’ that. She even thought you were ‘mock’, Stevens.” One would expect to show more sympathy, interest, or any relevant emotion, than Stevens demonstrates. This highlights the fact that he is an emotionally closed person, without enough character or identity to be capable of engaging in social intercourse successfully.[^]

Reflecting the muddled nature of Stevens’ personality – in that he doesn’t appear to have a defined identity – the language he uses is tentative and unsure, “I venture to say you do, sir… a slightly misleading…”[^]

Stevens denies a part of his identity by stating that he has never buttled for Lord Darlington; a further sign of inner insecurity and crisis. This builds on another theme of the novel – disguise – as he pretends he has never worked for anybody but Mr Farraday. Mrs Wakedfield isn’t the only person to question Stevens’ identity; Miss Kenton later demands, “Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” In both these episodes, he fails to come up with anything other than a half-baked excuse for his actions. He doesn’t know himself; his self-knowledge is lacking.[^]

A common occurrence in the novel, Stevens starts trying to define his actions in terms of ‘dignity’ after the relaying of the incident. It appears that he is still in denial, as he says “Lord Darlington was a gentleman of great moral stature” – why would he really deny working for him if he was such a great, noble gentleman?! This shows that Stevens uses the abstract noun ‘dignity’ as a kind of ego safety net – whenever a particularly difficult memory resurfaces he retreats back to his ‘how-to-define-dignity’ world, rather than let the memory destroy the precious little self-worth he has.[^]

Stevens’ obvious Englishness is contrasted in this episode with the Americans Wakefield and Farraday. His stiff-upper-lip persona, betraying no emotion, coupled with his bumblingly inept social skills, are typical of both butlers and the lay population (to a lesser extent) of England in those days; Ishiguro juxtaposes Stevens’ English uncertainty and lack of identity with Mrs Wakefield’s critical, forceful, ‘I-know-what-I-want’ attitude. These are strong themes throughout the novel.[^]

I believe Ishiguro has used a certain amount of symbolism in this section, using Stevens as the main vehicle. The way in which the chapter ends – with Stevens linking his past ‘incidents’ to dignity – is typical of the way Stevens thinks. It is, of course, also the end of “DAY TWO – AFTERNOON Mortimer’s Pond, Dorset”, before the beginning of day 3. I don’t think that it’s purely coincidental that as the day draws to a close – the remains of the day – Stevens is pondering a crucial theme in the novel – dignity.[^]

One thing that this episode highlights clearly is Stevens’ lack of self-awareness. He denies his past and doesn’t know why; he fabricates a wild explanation (using ‘Englishness’, and its associated customs, to his favour) that he admits is “inadequate”; and generally comes across as a subservient nobody. This is demonstrated by his meek acceptance of certain traditions peculiar to England, “If a divorced lady were present in the company of her second husband, it is often thought [by others, so I will obey, sheep-like] desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all.”[^]

In conclusion, the episode with the Wakefields greatly advances our understanding of Stevens and his situation – even if he doesn’t seem to gain any personal insight from it – by drawing out, and building upon, the important themes in the novel. Through analysing the themes of: communication; disguise; dignity; Englishness; Symbolism; and self-awareness, we have a deeper understanding of Stevens and his situation. Through these reminiscences, Stevens is standing on the early threshold of self-acceptance, self development, and, eventually, identity establishment.[^]

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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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