Until he sets off on a six day trip through England's West County, Stevens hadn't considered the idea that his years of dedicated "service" have left him lifeless. His career caring for the Darlington Hall residents robbed him of family, love, individuality, humor, emotion, opinions - all things that make us human. In a most telling scene, Stevens leaves the bedside of his dying father to tend to the needs of a group of Nazi supporters meeting at the estate. The dying wish of the elder Stevens is to talk with his son - to get assurance that he had been a good parent. Instead, the younger Stevens politely excuses himself, promising to return in the morning. When his father dies soon after, it is the rest of the downstairs staff that hold vigil, sharing tears and offering prayers until Stevens finishes his butler duties.
Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize the upstairs/downstairs dynamics as Stevens narrates his story. But, unlike Downton, there are no fancy fashion parades, spirited dinner parties, or spicy, clandestine affairs. Instead, Stevens experiences humiliation by a group of Fascists who taunt him to reveal personal political opinions. Instead, he maintains the dignity expected of a butler, and continues to assume the position of invisible manservant. His sad dedication to his master also results in unrealized love and the knowledge that the remains of his life will be spent in much the same way - quietly betraying his own wants for the desires of others.
Politics figure strongly in Ishoguro's novel, but the profound story of unspoken love is a heart breaker. Funny, our book discussion group recently read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a fairytale like offering with a similar theme. We all agreed that this theme has been done better, with greater significance in works including The French Lieutenant's Woman, Memoirs of a Geisha, and (to the chagrin of my friend Karen) Love in the Time of Cholera. Now I can add The Remains of the Day to the growing list a sad, but not sloppy love stories.
Reading this book made me wonder why so many people gravitate to heart breakers. I suspect that people who have grown up on that genre began with Charlotte's Web, moved on to Little Women, perhaps Jane Eyre or just about anything Dickensian. If these readers have discovered John Fowles, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there's a good change we won't find any Danielle Steele on their bookshelves.
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