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The question of dignity and being a ‘people pleaser’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”

Book cover The Remains of the Day.

It has already been said that Ishiguro’s novel is a beautiful study of Englishness. The book for me, like all of Ishiguro’s works I have read, is extremely soothing to read. Somehow, Ishiguro has a way with words that not only calms, but also excites the reader. The book spans not only six days of Mr Stevens’ travels, but also Mr Stevens’ life as a butler. With many monologues from Mr Stevens’ himself, the reader is made privy to his thoughts and repressions (even if these repressions are barely whispered throughout the book).

I felt that Mr Stevens’ notions of dignity – what it is, who has it, how to get it – spoke not just of problems in Englishness, but I would also argue that they spoke of problems in humanity. Mr Stevens says that no matter what is going on around you, you should never take off your “suit”. His meaning being that you should always maintain an air of professionalism, even when off duty. Throughout the book, Mr Stevens conceals most of his emotions and inner thoughts to the reader, and it is only through slips or allusions that one begins to see what Mr Stevens might be besides a butler. His service to Lord Darlington and to the house in unwavering. This kind of loyalty, Stevens argues, is one of choice: pick someone you like and stick to them like glue. Making no decisions for oneself is, I believe, the cowardly way to go about life. It is also something that you see Mr Stevens struggle with throughout the book. Befehl ist Befehl is a famous phrase from World War II used by many German soldiers who explained and justified their actions: orders are orders, is the translation. Mr Stevens lived in this manner as well, and it is only as an aging man that he might regret such rigid loyalty.

Mr Stevens seems to become whatever the people around him want him to be. When he is called upon by Lord Darlingtons’ guests to answer complex political questions, Mr Stevens remarks that he knows they want him to play dumb, so he does just that. Similarly, when he is in the small village and is mistaken for a Lord, he goes along with the farce. He says that he did not have time to correct the people before it went on for too long, but one would argue that he was fulfilling the role of Lord simply to please the people around him.

The biggest issue with people pleasers, like Mr Stevens, is that they never seem to quite get what they want. Indeed, the end of the book reveals that when he is presented with the opportunity to tell his love, Miss Kenton, how he really feels, he doesn’t. His reasons behind this silence, is because he thinks that Miss Kenton would not like him to tell her how he feels because it would ruin her marriage and her twilight years with her grandchildren. Mr Stevens presumes he can read minds and that he knows what is best for the people around him. Whether this is true for every case is questionable, but the important thing to remember is that in times he is wrong, it result in Mr Stevens suffering a great loss.

Ishiguro’s novel is a great study into the human character and it is very nostalgic and grey, much like how I imagine and remember the English countryside. As always, I find Ishiguro’s writing to be very soothing and easy to read. As always, it is a pleasure to read his novels.

Have you ever read The Remains of the Day? If so, what did you think of it? What do you think dignity is, and how do you find a good balance between being true to yourself and loyal and caring to the people around you? As always, share the reading love.

4 thoughts on “The question of dignity and being a ‘people pleaser’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day”

    • Yes, this is the book. In fact, two of Ishiguro’s works have been transformed for the big screen. I haven’t seen the movie either, but I am curious to see how someone might portray Mr Stevens for on-screen.