The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day Themes

Duty vs. Desire

Perhaps the deepest theme of Ishiguro's novel involves the conflict between Stevens' duties and his personal desires which in his mind are in profound conflict. Stevens always believed that a dignified butler never let his facade go - never let go of the professionalism no matter the circumstances. Thus, though he is deeply in love with Miss Kenton, Stevens cannot express it - both because he believes it improper to fall in love with one who serves below him in the staff hierarchy, but moreso because he believes that such love would be a distraction. The other thing to note is that Stevens is so determined to hold onto his dignity that he creates a straightjacket for himself that prevents him from feeling emotions or even recognizing them. Indeed, Stevens takes pleasure in his own asceticism - in his ability to ignore his dying father and focus on the sore foot of a visiting French ambassador, or in his ability to accept his employer's pro-Nazi sympathizers. What's created, then, is an inverse relationship between duty and authenticity, leaving Stevens emotionally bankrupt by the end of the novel. At the end, he has nothing but duty and must finally sacrifice his desires entirely.

Dignity vs. Authenticity

One of the more compelling aspects of Stevens' philosophy involves his definition of dignity. According to Stevens, a butler has dignity if he is able to maintain his professionalism no matter what the circumstances. According to Stevens, dignity is holding on to one's duty no matter what's happening around you. But he finds others with competing definitions. At the Taylor's house in Moscombe, he meets a man who believes that dignity comprises quite the opposite - namely the ability to express oneself fully, authentically. In this man's definition, a person who represses his own feelings and opinions in the name of professionalism would be considered "undignified". Thus part of the point of Ishiguro's story is to lay out the basis for two different understandings of what dignity means and offer a character stranded between them. Ultimately, of course, Stevens follows his own definition, but suffers the consequences of finding his deep feelings sublimated, crying out for acknowledgment. In the end, he loses his dignity by recognizing his feelings and discovering that he indeed had followed the wrong definition all along.

Formal vs. Informal Relationships

In the course of the novel, we're exposed to a slew of different social interactions - many of which demand formal interaction and others which can subsist on more casual engagement. All are dictated by class hierarchy, specifically associated with the British aristocracy in the time the novel takes place - namely the early twentieth-century. Stevens is extremely fastidious about the formality of his interactions. We sense that he learned this from his father, who treats his son with the utmost formality. Even close to death, Stevens' father is concerned with his duties - only able to acknowledge his relationship with his son as he takes his last breaths. Stevens, meanwhile, is so tied to his own formal nature that he is unable to 'banter' or joke with his new employer, Mr. Farraday, without having to practice incessantly. Stevens even goes so far as to try out his new bantering skills when he visits Moscombe, but finds that in his new context as an individual, not a servant, his bantering is taken differently. Stevens, upon leaving Darilngton Hall, suddenly realizes that there is a world outside rigid formality.

Aspiring vs. Settling

By the end of the novel, we find ourselves with characters that much choose between seeking to fulfill their dreams or settling for what's most readily available. In the case of Miss Kenton, for instance, she always loved Stevens and fully gave him the chance to intervene in her marriage before she accepted her husband's proposal. When he doesn't, however, Miss Kenton makes the choice to marry a man she doesn't necessarily love. But at the end of a twenty-year journey, when Stevens finally does find her again, we discover that Miss Kenton never did come to terms with her settling - but only recently has accepted that she will never find the passionate love to which she aspired. Stevens ultimately makes the same decision when faced with Miss Kenton's story of the last twenty years. Instead of confessing his love for Miss Kenton at this pivotal moment, then, he agrees with her and tells her to go back to her husband. He heads back to Darlington Hall, settling for his duty and renouncing love.

Upstairs vs. Downstairs

Stevens inhabits two worlds. There is the 'upstairs' world which involves serving Lord Darlington and Mr. Farraday and all their guests -- a world in which he must maintain rigid formality and attentiveness at all times. Stevens sees himself fully as an extension of Lord Darlington at this point - without his own desires or identity. In the 'downstairs' world, however, Stevens is not subservient, and instead fully in charge of his own staff. In one world then, he is acquiescent, while in the other he takes the reins. These two worlds come into conflict precisely because they require different conceptions of identity. Upstairs, Stevens must learn to let go of his own ego, feelings, and desires in order to do his job as professionally as he can. Downstairs, however, Stevens finds his feelings constantly stirred by human events - the death of his father, falling in love with Miss Kenton, the firing of two maids because of their religious faiths. Upstairs, then, he wears a mask, while downstairs he takes it off. The question is whether Stevens can reconcile these two worlds - a feat which he ultimately fails to achieve.

Ego vs. Subservience

Perhaps one of the more compelling moments in The Remains of the Day comes when Stevens has dinner at the Taylors' house in Moscombe and details the stories of his time at Darlington Hall without revealing that he was a butler during the time. At this precise moment, then, we see the conflict between a man who still preserves his own sense of ego and integrity and a man who's given his life over to another. Outside of Darlington Hall, Stevens finds power in appropriating the power of an aristocrat, if even fleetingly. To be his own man, even for this brief moment, is enough to give him an intoxicating feeling of freedom. When he's discovered, however, he feels relieved - as if finding his place as a butler again reminds him of the truth and makes him feel less ashamed. Indeed, there is a deep part of Stevens that is afraid to come into his own as a man and make his own decisions. Taking orders and executing them to the best of his ability is what gives him his self-esteem.

Sexual Desire vs. Sexual Repression

Miss Kenton has managed to find a balance between her duties and her own human qualities - specifically her ability to temper human sexual desire with her ability to remain a professional. On her vacation days, she visits with a man, and sees a future as a servant not in conflict with that as a wife. Stevens, however, cannot speak in terms of love or human desire. Every time he wants to compliment Miss Kenton or reach out to her romantically, he can only do it in the context of their work. Miss Kenton grows increasingly frustrated by his limitations and subtly begs him to just confess his love for her so they might both live their lives to fulfillment. But Stevens cannot separate his human desire from work - and cannot find any other way of framing his own identity or sexuality without contextualizing it in work. Ultimately, this enables Miss Kenton to leave Darlington Hall and find life as her own person - as a wife and mother - while Stevens is condemned to spend the rest of his life alone at Darlington Hall, as if he's a prisoner.