…in which an aging butler reflects upon his career and the direction his life has taken. The Remains of the Day takes the form of a travel journal kept by Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall. Stevens is writing this journal as he makes a several day road trip to meet Miss Kenton, previously the housekeeper of Darlington Hall during the glory days of Lord Darlington. Ostensibly he is going to gage her interest in returning to her post years after she quit it, but gradually reasons of a more personal nature begin to appear. As Stevens crosses the English countryside, he recalls his relationship with Lord Darlington, his philosophy and goals as a butler, and his past interactions with Miss Kenton.
The journal is written some time after World War II, when Stevens is deep into middle age. At this point in time, Lord Darlington is dead and Darlington Hall has been bought by an American man. However, most of the incidents related in the journal take place in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. In this period, Stevens is at the height of his career. He is a butler of the highest caliber, and unflinchingly dedicated to his work. His philosophy is that he can best serve society by serving one of the great men whose duty it is to shape society, and this is who he believes Lord Darlington to be. Some time after Stevens is taken on, Miss Kenton is hired as the new housekeeper. Her status in the house is on par with Stevens’; she is the head of the female staff members. While Stevens is very serious, reserved, and traditional, Miss Kenton is something of a spitfire. Though their personalities occasionally clash, the two develop a strong professional relationship.
In writing his journal, Stevens remains very detached and is consistently deferential to his employers. He rarely if ever steps out of his role as a butler, even when he is writing in his own journal. This is related to Stevens’ philosophy on professionalism and dignity, which he discusses as the book progresses. For the reader, it mostly means that significant themes and events are hinted at rather than stated outright. Gradually Stevens reveals more and more about Lord Darlington, but the most telling revelations come through in the subtext. That being said, it’s not all that hard to figure out what Stevens is getting at. He won’t acknowledge anything negative outright, but you don’t have to look that far to figure out what’s going on.
Stevens’ journal gives an account of the very narrow world in which he lives. Darlington Hall is Stevens’ life, and the concerns of a butler occupy nearly all of his thought. However, Stevens is not simply a servant; his role confers some prestige along with considerable responsibility. Throughout the novel, there aren’t that many defining events, just a lot of household anecdotes. But they add up to create a deep and rich portrayal of the world of the English gentry prior to World War II, as well as the world of the people who served them.
This novel is incredibly subdued and understated. If you’re looking for an action packed read, this would be entirely the wrong thing to choose. Still, without any melodrama, it pulls you into another time and another place. The characters are well developed and their stories are moving. The writing is amazing; the tone of the novel is consistent and the dialogue seems very authentic. As a whole, The Remains of the Day is a marvelous work of fiction. I still don’t entirely understand how such a sedate story could pull me in so completely.