By Gabriel Xu, V Form
Make Peace With the Day to Enjoy the Evening: Remains of the Day
There’s an old Chinese idiom that roughly translates to, “The person on the spot is baffled, the onlooker sees clearly”. Surely, this applies to the case of Mr. Stevens. As the aged butler in Remains of the Day travels farther away from the house he has been in service of for decades, he starts to see the truth of his former employer more clearly — a truth so dark and ugly that Stevens has tried very hard to escape. Although Mr. Stevens is forced to learn the tragic truth about his former lord and consequently his own small, yet undeniable contribution as butler to the evildoing his master was conducting, the meeting with Ms. Kenton, a former housekeeper, allows him to see value in his decades of service, to make peace with his past, and eventually to move forward into a hopeful future.
Even though Stevens maintains a great level of respect towards Lord Darlington in the first stage of his trip, the basis of such respect is rarely explained, which hints on Stevens’ ignorance of his master’s wrongdoings and the struggle he would experience when later informed of them. Even at the beginning of the book, Mr. Stevens comes out as a three-dimensional character after the readers have learned about his opinions on various topics — why the scenery in an English countryside is the best in the world, what qualifies a “great” butler, and how much effort one must put in in order to banter at a satisfactory level. Polite, conserved, extremely humble of himself, and equally proud of his country, Mr. Stevens gives the impression of an old-school British gentleman – maybe not a gentleman by rank (due to his occupation as a butler), but definitely a gentleman in heart and in action. When a true gentleman like himself talks about Lord Darlington in a manner filled with such enormous admiration, it is almost impossible for the audience to question the character of this “gentleman through and through”. Moreover, it is clear through Mr. Stevens’ tone and style of narration that he is writing to someone who shares a similar value — possibly another “old school” English butler who knows Lord Darlington, as well. Therefore, Stevens does not need to explain to his peer the root of his trust and respect, but it is this mutual understanding Stevens assumed he would share with his audience that might also lead the readers to take Lord Darlington’s respectable status for granted. Consequently, first-time readers must find it very easy to overlook such a detail when Stevens mentions the “great deal of nonsense spoken and written concerning his lordship”. However, it is obvious that Stevens dismisses such “nonsense” not after a research of his own to confirm the falsehood of these claims, but simply because his master’s quality was too revered in his eyes to be questioned. In fact, if one is to dig deeper into the foundation of such a high-level of veneration Stevens holds toward Lord Darlington, one will discover that it is hardly based on any solid evidence. As Stevens puts it himself, “A butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own ‘ strong opinions’ on his employer’s affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty.” Indeed, Stevens claims that it is against his professional code as a butler to question his master’s conduct. Furthermore, Lord Darlington was much more than a long-term employer to Mr. Stevens, because according to Stevens, he “has given his best years of service to [Darlington].” Therefore, through the lack of solid evidence for Darlington’s laudable character combined with Stevens’ decades of dedication to a single person, a single household triggers the readers to ponder, even at the early stage of the story, if Stevens’ strong confidence in his master being a respectable person simply relies on the fact that the alternative possibility will be too massively horrendous for him to even consider, not to mention accept.
As Mr. Stevens proceeds in his road trip farther and farther away from Darlington Hall, his confidence in the integrity of its former master begins to sustain more and more cracks and fractures. On the second day of his trip, Stevens reveals the close relationship his master used to keep with a German officer — Herr Bremann. However, the intent of introducing such a connection is only to emphasize the chivalry of Lord Darlington. Stevens recalls a conversation between his employer and his German acquaintance, where the former comments, “we’re enemies now and I’ll fight you with all I’ve got. But when this wretched business is over, we shan’t have to be enemies anymore and we’ll have a drink together”. Undoubtedly, Stevens intends to present such a noble way of thinking that his employer holds on to as an explanation of his still intimate connection with the Germans leading to the second World War. Similarly, he proudly records Lord Darlington’s response to the drunken American politician who has accused him of being “amateur,” saying, “What you describe as ‘amateurism’, sir, is what I think most of us here still prefer to call ‘honour’”. It is becoming more and more apparent in his writing that Stevens is in fact well aware of the magnitude of accusation against his former employer, and even with his usually strong defense for him, he has to admit that Lord Darlington was at one point involved with Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, such a confession is immediately followed by another defense which argues that “in fact, the most established, respected ladies and gentlemen in England were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders”. It is quite unusual for someone like Stevens to satisfy himself with excuses that rely on the base that “everyone else was doing it”. However, it would be more reasonable to see such a weak defense not as Steven’s effort to justify his employer’s actions, but simply to seek confirmation that his service to him was not towards a bad mean. It is evident in multiple occasions in the story that Stevens takes enormous pride in “being able to say with some reason that one’s [his] efforts, in however modest a way, comprise a contribution to the course of history.” His job as a butler might be humble in nature, but Stevens “feels a satisfaction” that the master he serves is involved in the determination of the future of his nation, and possibly even the world in large. As he states in his “prep talk” to his staff before an important dinner, “History could well be made under this roof”. It is a call for extra diligence and vigilance, but also an affirmation on the importance of their jobs as servants. In fact, Stevens directly “shows off” his achievement of polishing the silverwares to such a perfect extent that it prevents a potential conflict between two important roles in “history.”
Farther into the trip, Mr. Stevens has learned more and more about the darker side of Lord Darlington, which leads to an inevitable, full-scaled, and painful epiphany that brings into question not only the meaning and consequence of his master’s life, but also of his own. At this point – the third day of the journey – the readers will be quite convinced a major source of pride in Steven’s profession comes from his subtle, indirect yet simply undeniable participation in the international events his job has allowed him. If this is the case, the readers will be most certainly shocked when, on the same day, Stevens struggles to clear his own name by denying any possible responsibility he might shoulder for the wrongdoings of his master. He eventually acknowledges the existence of such wrongdoings, but asks rhetorically, “How can one possibly be help to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish?”, and later answers himself “It is hardly my fault if his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste”. Clearly, what Stevens says here is in direct opposition to what he had believed earlier. However, the readers have to keep in mind that instead of dodging a responsibility never really placed on him, Stevens is more likely trying to assure himself that the decades of diligent service he has provided to his former employer, completely trusting his integrity and character during the whole time, were not a “sad waste” in itself. Sadly, Stevens cannot avoid the ultimate realization that if he is to consider the “contribution to the course of history” a major achievement in his career, he should in fact be ashamed of being in the service of someone who had almost succeeded in undermining the future of his nation. And the saddest part of such tragedy is that the mistake Stevens has made was forced upon him, with him not able to acknowledge it for years, not to mention correct it: “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom… I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?” One can hardly imagine the depression Steven is experiencing at that final moment of the painful realization when he is forced to doubt the meaning of his “best years of service”. Being a good butler seems to be the only thing Stevens is capable of doing, and learning at the dusk of his career that being good at his job for decades only contributed negatively to his country – which he takes enormously pride in belonging to – not only denies his past, but also seems to deprive him of the courage to move forward.
It is reasonable to say that, without the meeting and conversation with Ms. Kenton at the end of his trip, Stevens might not ever be able to recover from the heavy blow from the truth about his past. Although Stevens himself might never understand the underlying relationship he has had with Ms. Kenton, it is not very hard for the readers to detect various hints of potential romance between the butler and the housekeeper when they were working together – whether it is the flowers, the nightly conservation over cocoa, or the love stories Stevens reads for the purpose of studying “command of the language”. However, Stevens has killed any possibility of a personal relationship with Ms. Kenton when he never quit his impersonal, and some might even say robotic, behavior as a butler. Ms. Kenton attempted to bring a more humane perspective into Stevens life, and he consciously and repeatedly rejected it. With this being said, the meeting with Ms. Kenton, especially with her confession of her affection towards him, successfully reminded Stevens that he was, in fact, more than a butler — a human with emotions. Stevens confessed that his heart was breaking when he learned about Ms. Kenton’s feelings towards him. He might have felt pain and sorrow at the moment, but one would agree that it is nice for him to realize that indeed, there was a heart inside him. Now that all his past career was under the shadow of doubt, Stevens could not afford to live a life with nothing in it but work. Being reminded of the more humane part of his past, though some of it might have been heart-breaking, is not only consoling but necessary for him if he intends to make peace with his past. In addition to reminding him that he is more than a robot, Ms. Kenton also urged Stevens to move on. After briefly entertaining the thought of a life she might be able to have with Stevens, Ms. Kenton, Mrs. Benn in fact, wins over her emotional side with rationality and says, “after all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful”. Mrs. Benn, though she still has potential difficulties with her husband, has a very good reason to look forward to the future — her grandson. Similarly, Stevens’ “work, work and more work” in front of him also requires him to make peace with his past and move on. “Evening is the best part of the day”, the words of the stranger, would not resonate as much with Stevens as it did if he has not witnessed a perfect embodiment of this idea earlier – namely, Mrs. Benn. Therefore, it’s not an exaggeration if one is to say that it was Ms. Kenton who helped Stevens not only make peace with his past, but also find purpose to move forward into the future.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” said the actor Orson Welles. It is safe to say that the “love” plot in this story has come to a perfectly satisfactory ending when Ms. Kenton gets on the bus — warm, emotional – in a reserved way – and realistic. However, the career line of Stevens’ life does not end when the story finishes, and many would agree that the hope of the future brings a more satisfactory ending. “The evening is the best part of the day”- despite the fact that the day might have been long, dreary and unfruitful and the fall of nighttime is inevitable and coming very soon, the evening, the moment when lights at the dock have just come on, is indeed the best part of the day, and the perfect time to stop the story.