I know I’m late to the game with this one. Until this month, I had neither read The Remains of the Day nor watched the movie.
Kazuo Ishiguro won both the Booker Prize and The Nobel Prize in Literature for his 1988 novel, The Remains of the Day. The book gained even more notoriety in 1993 when James Ivory turned it into a movie where Anthony Hopkins immortalized the stoic Mr. Stevens, for which Hopkins received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. The film was nominated for 8 Academy Awards in total, and the tableau of Hopkins and co-star Emma Thompson at the window used as the primary photo of the movie poster is one of the most iconic of its sort. (Even though I haven’t seen the movie, I couldn’t help but visualize Anthony Hopkins as I read it.)
While fairly simple in structure, The Remains of the Day has to be one of the most beautiful and poignant character sketches I’ve ever read. It uses the classic motif of journey as its frame and layers in, through flashbacks, the themes of love, duty, and of course – dignity – one of Stevens’ favorite topics.
Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall, a home of great prominence before the second Great War. Now his former employer is gone, replaced by an American, and Stevens has set off on a week’s journey to visit Miss Kenton, the prior head housekeeper who served alongside Stevens during the period of Darlington’s preeminence. While on the journey, Stevens reflects on his life and many years of service to the home and it’s masters.
When I closed the book – and of course well before I finished it – I was overwhelmed by just how sad this story is. To the modern and maybe the modern American reader, it is just so tragic for one to have given his entire life to the service of someone, something else while completely sacrificing personal pursuits. While he would not see this as heartbreaking as his readers, that, too is part of the pathos – that he’s unable to see what he’s missed.
But he isn’t completely blind emotions. Stevens demonstrates keen intuition regarding Miss Kenton’s feelings about her life post-Darlington in the few letters she sends over a span of years. But ironically, he was oblivious to them when they had daily personal interaction.
And so this novel is also very much a story about loss. The loss of a chance at love. The loss of relationships. And, the loss of a world where men like Stevens are valued or even needed.
The Remain of the Day is rich for discussion, and I was lucky to read this for Book Club where I had at the ready a group of smart women to dive into it with. And now, for the movie!
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