Ishiguro and Imitation in The Remains of the Day

Elora Lee Raymond (English 27, 1997)

In The Remains of the Day, Stevens seeks to be the perfect butler. After a series of mistakes, he decides that he needs Miss Kenton, a former colleague, to return to Darlington hall and fill the gap in his staff plan. However, Miss Kenton is not the only piece missing from Steven's "well ordered staff plan". Throughout the novel, he finds many things missing from his conception of his life and being a butler. It is difficult to incorporate qualities like banter into his butler-persona, because they question the foundations of his philosophy of life.

Stevens attempts to embody his role as butler. However, we are lead to believe that this ideal which Stevens attempts to embody can never be more than a performance, and no matter how hard he strives, he can never actually "be" a butler, but only pretend to be one. This contradiction is shown in Stevens discussion of the time when Miss Kenton interrupts Stevens in his pantry as he is reading a feminine romance novel.

The fact is, I had been "off duty" at that moment Miss Kenton had come marching into my pantry. And of course, and butler who regards his vocation with pride, any butler who aspires at all to a "dignity in keeping with his position", as the Hayes society once put it, should never allow himself to be "off duty" in the presence of others.. A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume. There is one situation and one situation only in which a butler who cares about his dignity may feel free to unburden himself of his role; that is to say, when he is entirely alone. You will appreciate that in the event of Miss Kenton bursting in at the time when I had presumed, not unreasonably, that I was to be alone, it came to be a crucial matter of principle, a matter indeed of dignity, that I did not appear in anything less than my full and proper role. (169)

Stevens describes his "proper role" like clothing; something that can be taken on and off, and that one can "appear in." Similarly, he defines dignity, that elusive concept at the center of his concept of a butler, as a "rather hard thing to explain in a few words sir, but I suspect it comes down to not removing one's clothes in public" (10). At the same time, Stevens speaks of the need to absolutely embody that role. Stevens reaffirms this belief in his conversation with Miss Kenton in the greenhouse. After discovering that Stevens agreed with he that the Jewish employees should not have been dismissed, Miss Kenton says, "Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend? I gave another laugh at the ridiculous turn the conversation had suddenly taken. "Really, Miss Kenton," I said, "I'm not sure I know what you mean. Pretend? Why, really." Ishiguro's strategy of describing the role of a butler as a performance and a construction, something like clothing that can be chosen, is similar to Desai's criticism of Deven's ideal of poetry. By denaturalizing these concepts and therefore emphasizing the fact that they are constructions that must be created for a reason, and then chosen, the two authors make it easier to make people like Stevens and Deven, who choose to use these concepts, responsible for their actions. Like Imtiaz's efforts to broaden Deven's stifling, gendered definition of a poet in In Custody, Miss Kenton attempts to poke holes in Steven's self imposed butlerhood by revealing it as a false construction or performance. Unlike Imtiaz, who calls for the inclusion of women into Deven's concept of poetry, Miss Kenton seeks to bring traditionally feminine qualities like love and sentimentality into Stevens concept of himself.

The qualities excluded from Stevens life as a Butler are generally feminine. The flowers Miss Kenton tries to introduce into the pantry, the romance novel, sentimentality, compassion, expressions of love, and even Miss Kenton herself, are things Stevens rejects and places outside of his role as a butler.

Stevens role as a butler also precludes the possibility of heterosexual love. Like the Pine Block Maoris in Once Were Warriors, in The Remains of the Day, societal wrongs coincide with the absence of healthy heterosexuality. Stevens makes his role as a butler and his ability to love Miss Kenton mutually exclusive. At the beginning of Miss Kenton's relationship with her future husband, she asks Stevens whether, having succeeded as a butler, there was anything missing from his life. She implies that she hopes he is missing human companionship. However, he replies that he is determined to do all that he can to further Lord Darlington's goals. Miss Kenton announces her intentions to be married at the time of the meeting Darlington has organized for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, and the German Ambassador when Stevens takes his firmest stand on his role as a butler by refusing to admit that he has any responsibility to be concerned about the events taking place. Finally, after Stevens refuses to admit that he ever worked for Darlington, thus confirming that he was a real English butler and the estate was real, not mock, he rationalizes this move by comparing himself to a remarried woman. He says " If I may put it this way sir, it is a little akin to the custom as regards marriages. If a divorced lady were in the company of her second husband, it is often thought desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all " (124). This metaphor simultaneously expresses Steven's inability to fall in love with Miss Kenton -- because he is married to Lord Darlington, or to his role as a butler -- as well as his sense that he has wasted his life. We see from Stevens reactions after hearing that Miss Kenton's marriage has failed that he thinks divorce means being alone, desolate, and deeply regretful, having lead a wasted life.

Ishiguro uses gender difference to dramatize the personal and political problematic implications of Stevens's ideas about butler-hood. He also uses Steven's failure in his personal life as a metaphor, explaining his failure as a politically responsible human being in the vehicle of his failure to fall in love and marry Miss Kenton. Indeed, the very structure of the book is based on a traditional narrative form of journeying to find or rescue a woman, which Stevens fails to complete.

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