The perfect British butler serves his employer faithfully and with great dignity, putting aside all his own needs and desires as he fulfills those of his master. Mr. Stevens in “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro is such a butler, and he has served in that capacity for 30 years. Now, in the twilight of his service, he takes a long road trip and thinks back over his many years as a butler.
His reflections take him down as many twists and turns as the roads he’s driving, but he dwells primarily on two individuals — his former employer, the great Lord Darlington, and the former head housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Stevens squandered the opportunity of his life to make a life with Miss Kenton when he had the chance, but his focus, his duty, was always centered on Lord Darlington’s needs, as the perfect butler should.
I’ve taken many road trips in my life, and there’s nothing quite like a long drive to make a person start pondering. Stevens even ponders on pondering while driving: “... it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly.”
One of those perspectives involves his own revelation about his feelings for Miss Kenton. The purpose of his drive is to see her again after many years in the hope that she may want to return to Darlington Hall to work there again. A letter he received from her in which she’d written of some recent marital strife had led him to believe that she might be compelled to return. When he finally sees her again, though, he learns that she has no intention of leaving her marriage despite its problems.
It is also painfully clear that if Stevens had acted when he’d had the chance, years ago when they were both employed at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton would have welcomed his advances, and they both would have had different lives together.
She tells him as much: “... I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I supposed that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long — my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.”
The title of this novel is perfect, in my opinion. Its meaning becomes clear at the end of the story when Stevens is at a pier watching the sunset, lost in his contemplations. A man sitting on the bench beside him remarks that the evenings are the best part of the day because your work is behind you and you can relax with your feet up. Stevens realizes he needs to make the most of his evening, of what remains of his day.
“After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”
All he can do, all any of us can do, is make the most out of the best time of his life — the evening and what remains of his day. I know I plan to do so.
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Next month’s reading selection is “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch. Contact Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.