The time is 1956; Darlington has died, and Darlington Hall has been let by an American businessman. As Stevens begins a solitary motor trip to the west country, traveling farther and farther from familiar surroundings, he also embarks on a harrowing journey through his own memory. What he discovers there causes him to question not only Lord Darlington’s greatness, but also the meaning of his own insular life. The journey motif is a deceptively simple structural device; the farther Stevens travels from Darlington Hall, it seems, the closer he comes to understanding his life there.
But in Stevens’s travel journal Ishiguro shapes an ironic, elliptical narrative that reveals far more to the reader than it does to Stevens. The butler believes, for instance, that he makes his trip for “professional” reasons, to persuade a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, to return to Darlington Hall. But through deftly managed flashbacks and Stevens’s naive admissions, the reader sees instead that the matter is highly personal: Stevens had loved Miss Kenton but let her marry another man; he now wishes to make up for lost time, to correct the mistakes of his past. More important than that veiled love story–but intimately connected with it–is the matter of Lord Darlington, and the degree to which Stevens’s sense of self is founded upon his belief in Darlington’s greatness.
It becomes clear enough to the reader, though Stevens is long in admitting it to himself, that Darlington had been a political pawn of fascism and the Nazis–unwitting perhaps, misguided no doubt, but hardly the “great man” that Stevens had deceived himself into believing he served. These revelations are made through a delicate and powerful process: as Stevens’s journal shifts between travelogue, personal memoir and reflections on his profession, his memory slides continually between Darlington Hall in the ruined, empty present, the height of Darlington’s influence (and Stevens’s pride) in the 1920s, and the tense, disturbing pre-war 1930s. Carefully elided from consideration, repressed and hidden, are the war years themselves and their immediate aftermath. We know they are there, of course, and we may guess what they meant at Darlington Hall, but Stevens’s memorial archaeology leaves that particular tomb unexcavated. In the end, Stevens must come to some sense of resignation and resolution, both about Darlington and about himself. The source of Stevens’s pride is also, after all, potentially the source of his shame.
He was willing enough to shine in the light of Darlington’s greatness, and now must either share in his disgrace, or–what is perhaps more difficult–admit that his own dedicated and deeply considered “professionalism” has had no real part to play on the stage of world history. Like all great novels, The Remains of the Day is an organic work, its parts perfectly integrated, every scene imaging the whole. In his carefully controlled prose, so perfectly suited to his narrator, in his effortless movement among several different time settings, in his almost magical evocation of simultaneous humor and pathos, Ishiguro proves himself a masterful artist in full command of his elements. And in this novel, those elements combine to form a profound psychological and cultural portrait that reveals the author’s great abiding theme: the art and artifice of memoryBibliography: