07726 564948

This article will help you with language and structure (AO2), and interpretation (AO5).

As the title suggests, The Remains of the Day examines the last stretch of the protagonist’s life. Time, and the opportunities life presents, are referenced through the seasons, time of day, and light imagery, including sunsets and silhouettes. If we examine these closely, we can see how Ishiguro has woven them together not just to create poetic images, but to convey the desperation felt by Stevens as he realises his loss. Of course the narrative itself is largely retrospective, meaning the narrator is both remembering and reflecting.

The first reference to a silhouette comes in Day Two – Morning, Salisbury as Stevens remembers a time when Miss Kenton called him to observe his father in the garden. He describes going upstairs and seeing ‘before [him] a series of orange shafts from the sunset breaking the gloom of the corridor where each bedroom door stood ajar.’ The image of the sunset represents the fading  possibility of happiness. Perhaps the straight line of the corridor suggests the passage of time, with the doors still ‘ajar’ opportunities waiting to be grasped if only Stevens can recognise them. The ‘gloom of the corridor’ is a fitting symbol of the rigid way Stevens lives his life – unwilling to deviate from duty. Just as there is a ‘series of orange shafts,’ so Stevens is presented with a series of opportunities by Miss Kenton, none of which he takes. The description is most powerful as he looks through one of the doorways and sees her  ‘figure, silhouetted against a window.’ The image, both evocative and romantic, suggests that Stevens cannot or will not see her for who she is, or what she means to him. He is emotionally blind; he knows he feels something but is unable to fully comprehend what it is or how he should react. He sees only her outline, her silhouette – he sees shape not detail, he feels something but does not interpret it. In the same episode, this idea of lost opportunity has been proleptically referenced by Miss Kenton’s description of Stevens’ father’s movements outside on the lawn when she says it is ‘as though he hoped to find some precious* jewel he had dropped there.’  For Stevens’ father, he has of course lost his ability to serve; for his son, it epitomises his feelings as he sets out on his odyssey to bring Miss Kenton back to Darlington Hall.

Ishiguro employs the silhouette image again in Day Three – Morning, Taunton, Somerset. This time Stevens sees one of a series of Everyman characters who also serve as a double, each reflecting an aspect of himself. In Taunton, it is a man ‘sat at a table beside one of the windows’ in the tearooms. This episode, more immediate because of the use of present tense, sees Stevens in one of his partial anagnorises. He tells the reader he ‘is unable to discern [the man] clearly because the bright morning sunlight has for the moment reduced him to a silhouette.’ He has already identified with the lone figure, thinking ‘at first that he was waiting for a companion.’ He assumes this because the man was ‘breaking off regularly to look up at the passers by outside.’ Like Stevens, the man is inside and alone looking out at life – but at least he is looking – something Stevens eventually manages to do. From inside the tearooms Stevens catches sight of ‘a signpost pointing out several nearby destinations,’ and it is through a series of signposts that he navigates his way to his final, painful realisation. The inner and outer geography of his life is about to change.

It is through reflecting on past events, assisted by present encounters, that Stevens comes to his tragic realisation. In Day Three – Evening, Moscombe, Near Tavistock, Devon, he recalls another moment with Miss Kenton, this time when she exclaimed her exasperation at his failure to express his feelings at the time of Darlington’s dismissal of the Jewish girls. She asks him, “Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” Significantly, this episode takes place in the summerhouse; as he leaves, he tells us ‘it had…grown so dark inside the summerhouse, all I could see was her profile outlined against a pale and empty background.’ It is Miss Kenton’s despair and loneliness we feel most deeply here; the dark ‘inside’ of the summerhouse a sure sign that hope has faded almost completely.

On his journey to see (the now) Mrs Benn, Stevens is given more ‘signposts’ from strangers. In Day Two Afternoon – Mortimer’s Pond, Dorset, the man ‘in short sleeves, wearing no tie’ advises him to “visit the local pond,” saying, “You’ll kick yourself for missing it.” Stevens does visit it, sitting on a bench rather than venture on the ‘path disappearing into areas of deep mud,’ and fearful of ‘sustaining damage to [his] travelling suit.’ His self-imposed separateness suggests a deep fear of straying from his customary, narrow boundaries. He believes he has to be at a distance to remain in control. He is perhaps an archetype of the class system in knowing his place and becoming so rigid he cannot move beyond his position. He tells us he ‘can see a dozen or so figures…but the strong lights and shadows prevent [him] from making any of them out clearly.’ It is through references to light, shadow, and time of day that Ishiguro creates a protagonist increasingly aware of his distance from ‘human warmth,’ but also blinded by its nearness.

In Day Three – Evening, Moscombe, Near Tavistock, Devon, Stevens recalls another episode with Miss Kenton. On the death of her aunt (her only living relative) he reacts in his usual officious manner when confronted by human emotion. His inability to simply comfort leads him to concoct a ridiculous way of taking her mind off her loss. He tackles her about the new ‘recruits,’ suggesting she is not supervising them adequately. The reader is provided with the clue that it was then that Miss Kenton lost hope; Stevens observed that she ‘did not look upset so much as very weary.’ Such is the impact of his actions, he adopts an evasive tone, saying it is ‘all very well to talk of ‘turning points’ and ‘crucial, precious* moments,’ and ‘an infinite number of further opportunities’ in relation to ‘one’s relationship with Miss Kenton.’ On reflection, he is aware of the magnitude of his mistake, and of ‘whole dreams forever irredeemable.’ Ishiguro presents a character whose very language reflects a distancing not just from others but from himself.

On Day Six – Evening, Weymouth, we see their reunion, with the description of the light setting the mood for Stevens’ disappointment and Mrs Benn’s already crushed hopes. Where they meet, ‘the light in the room was extremely gloomy’ with ‘the bleak light falling on [Mrs Benn’s] face.’ It is of course fitting this occurs in the evening, symbolising both their age, and that it is all too late. Precious time has passed and taken its toll on Mrs Benn whose face reveals to Stevens a ‘weariness with life’ and a ‘sadness.’ His aim of returning her to Darlington Hall is a hopeless one and, during his time on the pier reflecting afterwards, we see more light imagery to convey his painful anagnorisis. Despite the disappointment, Stevens twice observes that ‘there is still plenty of daylight left.’ Here he encounters another Everyman double, a retired butler who is a possible version of Stevens. This double reassures him that “The evening is the best part of the day.” Once alone, Stevens elects to wait for ‘the switching on of the pier lights,’ perhaps symbolising his willingness to see more clearly, albeit by artificial means.

By the end of the novel he has reached a full realisation of his loss, stating that ‘in bantering lies the key to human warmth.’ Hope flickers but is soon extinguished as he reframes ‘human warmth’ back into the context of his work, deciding that bantering is ‘hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect.’ Despite staying for the pier lights, Stevens’ pain is such that he ultimately becomes passive (both in sentiment and syntax) in relating his loss, describing it as ‘the course one’s life took.’ Ishiguro ensures his protagonist remains distant from himself, not just in the use of the impersonal  ‘one,’ instead of the owning, possessive ‘my’, but through the use of the passive voice. Thus, Stevens is presented as avoiding the responsibility (but not the pain) he bears for his loss. Whether or not he reaches full enlightenment is debateable; for the reader, the gloom of lost opportunity prevails. Discuss!

*Precious – think about the meaning of this word. What is Ishiguro saying about the nature of time? What is precious to each character in the novel? Explore them all through Context (AO3), including the Jewish girls and Lord Darlington.