Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is very good, if sad, story. It is the story of Stevens, a butler on his way to visit his former housekeeper Miss Kensington, and the flashbacks that he has of their life together serving at Darlington Hall.

Kasuo Ishiguro, the author, says that he starts a book by writing about themes, and with this book wanted to write about someone who has dedicated himself solely to his work, and at the end of his life only to find that his life has been a total waste. “Remains of the Day” means both that Stephens is reflecting back on his life at the end of it, and also ‘remains’ in terms of a wreck; meaning that his life has been a waste.

Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall in the years leading up to WWII. Lord Darlington is a right-wing extremist; he at one point tells Stephens that he must fire two Jewish women who are working on the staff. Stephens has a strong sense of duty to his Lord and of the dignity of serving as a butler, and so makes no objection to Lord Darlington’s request.

Stephens also developed a warm relationship with his housekeeper Miss Kensington, but the relationship never becomes anything more than professional—thought they both act as though they might have wanted something more—due to Stevens’ strong sense of professional duty.

“Stephens has a very parochial vision, which is why he gets things wrong in his life. He is quite myopic,” Kasuo says.

Stephens is quite out of touch with his feelings, to the point that he is delusional. In the course of his drive to see Miss Kensington, Stephens references the letter that Miss Kensington has sent to him, and he has read between the lines to think that she is terribly unhappy in her marriage and that she hopes to return again to Darlington Hall to work as the housekeeper.

When they meet, we realize that these are really only the hopes that Stevens harbors for Miss Kensington. She is actually fairly happy in her marriage and also has no intention of returning to Darlington Hall.

The movie gets some of these details different. In the movie, Miss Kensington is separated from her husband, and truly did intend to return to Darlington Hall, until she discovers that her daughter is going to have a baby. It’s a pretty good movie, with a great caste; Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Reeve, and Emma Thompson; but the book is better since it is told from Stephens point of view, and so we get a really good glimpse into his mind.

Kasuo says that when he writes, he is more interested in the character’s interpretation of events than in the events themselves. Stephens is so dedicated to his duty as a butler that even when his father dies, he thinks that it is not appropriate for to mourn or even visit his father on his deathbed since it would be interrupting a great party that he is working hard to orchestrate.

It is a story of lost dreams and lost causes, and in some of the closing scenes we get an idea of how much Stephens and Miss Kensington (now Mrs. Benton) enjoyed one another’s company, though the possibility of a relationship no longer exists.

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