Stevens, the narrator of Ishiguro's novel, is the head butler to Mr. Farraday, the Lord of Darlington Hall. The story opens with Stevens prepared to take an 'expedition,' for which he has full permission of Mr. Farraday - including the use of his Ford car - and for which he has been planning quite some time. Mr. Farraday is on his way to the United States for five weeks in August and September and has encouraged him to take a break, and drive off somewhere in the country.
At first, Stevens is a bit incredulous, assuming there is little behind Mr. Farraday's suggestion. But his employer presses him, saying he should take a break from the big house - and he'd even foot the bill for gas. Still, Stevens does not take the prospect of a 'vacation' seriously - until a letter arrives for him. The letter is from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, who he has not heard from in seven years. In the letter, Stevens believes he picks up subtle cues from Miss Kenton that she would like to return to her work at Darlington Hall. And it is for this reason that Stevens plans to undertake the expedition to fully convince her that such a return would be fully welcome.
Indeed, Stevens has been troubled by his own performance of late. He considers his recent work patchy - riddled with the smallest of errors that suggest that he is overworked, and may soon make an even bigger error. At present, there are only four staff members in the house - Mrs. Clements, the new housekeeper, and Rosemary and Agnes, the two girls that help her. But he believes they are woefully understaffed and that he has given himself far too much to do. The return of Miss Kenton would save them and the house from inevitable catastrophe.
Stevens takes up the mundane details of planning the trip with extreme care. He fusses about the cost of gas, hotels, snacks and meals; what to wear, since most of his outfits are formal suits; and a course of itinerary, carefully divined from an encyclopedic book called The Wonder of England. It is in reviewing the latter - a seven-part photographic epic about the country - that Stevens sees great possibilities in not only meeting Miss Kenton, but also exploring the England he hasn't seen. He also has quite a bit of curiosity to see where Miss Kenton ultimately moved in order to get married and live as a wife.
Stevens decides to bring the matter up again with Mr. Farraday. He worries that when his employer brought up the idea earlier, it was just a momentary impulse, but settles upon broaching the subject during afternoon tea. When he explains the purpose of his trip, Stevens mentions the plan to visit Miss Kenton, but suddenly loses his conviction, realizing he hadn't cleared with his employer his plot to add to the staff once more nor made any advances to Miss Kenton to ensure that she did desire to return to Darlington Hall. His awkwardness produces a single response in Mr. Farraday: 'My, my Stevens. A lady-friend. And at your age?' Stevens is aghast and embarrassed but secures the necessary permission to go on his trip.
Stevens makes note of his employer's quick wit with words and his ability to banter and make jokes. Stevens himself wishes he had such facility. He regularly finds himself before Mr. Farraday, the butt of a joke, unable to come up with an appropriate response. He is sure that bantering is just a sign of friendliness - and there's never any harmful or mean-spirited ribbing involved. But it requires a sense of casualness which he is not used to, nor has practiced.
Stevens himself, believes that only through practice can he appropriately be up to standards with rejoinders to Farraday's bantering. He notes that he is quite sure that Farraday is not satisfied with his responses, and even notes that his employer makes even more stinging barbs these days in an effort to provoke a response. Simply put, Stevens notes that he cannot think of witticisms quickly enough. He vows to work on his bantering. And with that, he sets out on his trip to meet Miss Kenton in West England.
Remains of the Day is a remarkable novel for its sheer force of point of view. This is a story told entirely through the protagonist Stevens' eyes, and is thus one of the most in-depth character studies that classic literature claims - and one the reasons for its vaunted status. The prologue, then, besides establishing the basic narrative devices that will drive the story forward, does more to introduce us to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the butler of Darlington Hall. Stevens is, to put it mildly, quite detail-oriented, and certainly obsessive about his duties. But what we first notice about him is a remarkable lack of shame or resentment about his position. This is not the story of a butler who wants to ascend ranks or secretly despises his master - or ever sees himself equal to his Lord. Rather, Stevens has one goal and one goal only - to serve the wishes of Mr. Farraday and to do his job as best he can.
But immediately, we begin to see cracks in the facade that suggest that Stevens cares about nothing else but his job. For one thing, Mr. Farraday is quite adamant that Stevens take a vacation from Darlington Hall, perhaps implying that one might be necessary for Steven's mental health. Moreover, Stevens seems preoccupied with a letter that's arrived from Miss Kenton - so much so that when Mr. Farraday alludes to his potential crush on the former Darlington Hall housekeeper, he's simply stating the obvious subtext of Stevens ruminations on Miss Kenton. Stevens seems particularly regretful of a number of small errors that he's made in the house, of late, but underneath it is the feeling that he's incredibly lonely - that the absence of Miss Kenton has left him in a giant manor with no one to talk to. The replacements - Mrs. Clements and the two assisting girls - are simply his employees and he manages them and thinks of them as nothing more. The idea that Stevens regrets his treatment of Miss Kenton, then, offers the reader foreshadowing for what will most likely be the climax of the novel - a meeting between the two of them to address the unfinished business of the past.
As a reader, it's crucial to view Stevens' surface narrative as highly unreliable. Everything he says is weighted with the utmost subtext. He may extol the The Wonders of England as his inspiration for his trip to the west country, but then a small blip reveals the truth - that he's curious where Miss Kenton has taken up her married life. He might pontificate about his awkwardness when bantering with his master, and then offer the quick commitment to becoming better at witticisms - revealing a profound insecurity, and an even deeper fear of being abandoned or unloved. Miss Kenton has left Darlington Hall to start a new life, to become married, but Stevens, perhaps out of desperation, perhaps out of desolation, resolves to bring her back and sets out with hope and fervency. The tone, then, of this opening section is one feverish with hope, buoyed by a sense of renewal and possibility for Stevens.
The prologue also has a melancholy undertone to it because we realize that Stevens is quite advanced in his years - and perhaps has reached the twilight of life (or at least the beginning of sunset). Somehow, despite his relentless pursuit of perfection, his commitment to serving his master, his quest to become a great butler and a great man... it's all not enough. There is an emptiness in him, a void that he must fill - and one that takes him away from the house and on what may likely be a futile journey. But in the end, it is for the cause of something he has never had - love.
Besides the rigorous control over point of view, Ishiguro also employs a subtle use of time jumps that suggest a deep 'stream of consciousness' feel to Stevens' recollections. As the novel continues, pay close attention to how often Stevens takes detours in his memory, to beef up an assertion or to question one of his own conclusions. What Ishiguro seems to be after is the sense that this man has come to live his entire life in his mind -- to have lost the desire to engage people, to find true love -- and rather embraced the narratives of his own head. Only after these narratives have failed to satisfy him does he realize that he is unfulfilled. And so with that, the journey begins.