The Remains of the Day Book Club Discussion Post #1

Welcome to the discussion of our book club title The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’m so excited to discuss this with you! This was the first title by Ishiguro that I’ve read. If you didn’t get a chance to read the Introduction post, you can do so by clicking HERE.

We’ll have two separate posts for discussion (which is explained more later in this post). I hope that this will make discussing the book easier in this blog format.

The Remains of the Day

As I already mentioned in the Introduction post, Stevens is a butler who goes on an automobile holiday to the west country of England. During this holiday, we learn what’s presently going on which takes place in the 1950s, as well as Stevens’ past as a butler and various events that occurred in that time which goes all the way back to right before World War II. Stevens also relates his own thoughts, feelings, and impressions about a variety of things; but principally, his thoughts on dignity and his job as a butler are foremost. Therefore, two of the biggest themes in this novel are duty and dignity. Let’s discuss those themes today. And then on Wednesday, I will put up a post for everyone to share their overall thoughts of the book along with any favorite quotes. That post will be kind of the general catch-all post for sharing various thoughts and insights on the book.

Today, let’s consider these two questions as we discuss the themes of dignity and duty:

Question 1 – Throughout the novel, Stevens relates his thoughts on the issue of dignity. These thoughts progress through the novel and we see how his thoughts on dignity change. Did you notice the changes in Stevens’ perspective on what dignity is as you read the book?

Question 2 – Stevens’ job as a butler and how that job is performed is of utmost importance to him and is a key aspect of this novel. How does his view of his role as butler and his perspective of dignity intertwine?

Stevens feels that a great butler has dignity. He spends a lot of time hashing out just exactly what this means…what dignity is, what greatness is. So we see this progression of his thoughts and beliefs as we read the book. Stevens starts out at the beginning of the novel sharing how he was a really good butler. He felt he had every reason to be proud of how he performed his duties. But then as he thinks back on some scenarios, he begins to see that some of what his employer did was regrettable. Yet, he still felt he did what he could do. In his mind, he was just the butler. He thought, what could he have done really? By the time we reach the end of the book, we see this transformation in his thoughts on dignity and his role as a butler culminate to where he finally begins to think that the essence of dignity as a butler really is about taking responsibility of one’s own choices.  Towards the end, he makes this comment about what dignity is:

“But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” (pg. 210)

I think what he’s trying to say here is don’t cover up who you are in public. Be the real you. In other words, the person you are in public should be the same as the person you are when you’re alone. And isn’t that the essence of authenticity? About being real?

I think that in this whole process Stevens goes through in his thoughts throughout the book, he sees what he once thought slowly being dismantled. So what was meant to be a simple automobile holiday for some time away, turns into a time for introspection of long held beliefs/thoughts.

Here are a just a few quotes relating to the discussion of these themes.

“And let me now posit this:  ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits….The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost…” (pgs. 42-43)

“It would seem there is a whole dimension to the question ‘what is a “great” butler?’ I have hitherto not properly considered…” (pg. 113)

“A ‘great’ butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman – and through the latter, to serving humanity.” (pg. 117)

“A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume.” (pg. 169)

“’What do you think dignity’s all about?’ The directness of this inquiry did, I admit, take me rather by surprise. ‘It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,’ I said. ‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.’” (pg. 210)

Let’s continue the discussion in the comments. 🙂 But before we do, I want to make a few comments regarding discussion. I think it goes without saying that we want to all have an enjoyable experience discussing books. The reading world is a wonderful place. There is such diversity in thoughts and opinions and that’s what makes it so wonderful! I ask that everyone please be kind and respectful in your comments. 🙂

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29 thoughts on “The Remains of the Day Book Club Discussion Post #1

  1. Karen! What an amazing discussion post this is. I think I’ll write a short teaser post, to again direct people here to the conversation. (I’ll also think about my own comments and responses to your interesting questions, and type them shortly.)

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  2. Pingback: Remains of the Day Discussion – Silvia Cachia

  3. Question 1 Answer. I did notice the change on his position, specially this second time when I read the book knowing I’d come to discuss it with others. I saw how his trip parallels a journey from illusion, -or delusion-, from a more naïve and less thought through position in life, to a more honest, realistic, and maybe even a more mature and realistic view of his life and even a recount of how his beliefs made him what he is.
    Question 2. Stevens pattern his life to be one with his job. He didn’t have any fissures, being a butler and being Stevens was one an all. This gave him a sense of security, freed him from the burden of having to think or ponder about his decisions. It was living according to a ‘manual’, -even though it was difficult to verbalize, he had an internal idea of what being the perfect butler meant, and he lived up to those standards, or trying to always meet those standards. Then, when reality around him collapses, when life as he knew it changes, and not only, when all he had thought was great proves to have been not just OK but even evil, he realizes that he could have had a life separated from the one as a butler. That maybe it wasn’t necessary to give all of him to the service of his Lordship, but he could have had his own ideas, his own feelings. At the same time, I never know how this would have been possible. You see? Ishiguro says we are all “butlers”. And I also acknowledge that. But the difference, to me, it’s that my Lord is not a human Lord, an imperfect being to whom I should never give my whole being service. My Lord is Lord of Lords, and my complete service is never something I’d have to regret or question. Back to Stevens, this is a difficult question to answer, because who we are in life and dignity intertwine, and that’s the key. To me, Steven’s major regret is that of having relinquished his will and free thinking, and, of course, having also suppressed his ability to love and feel as a sacrifice to his job and duty. (I’m not sure he had to do that, he did it out of fear. Ishiguro talks about that too. I also recognized that fear as a topic in the book, and in life. Fear is what keeps us from doing what’s right, from making changes, from thinking or deciding on our own.)
    I also wanted to mention how much more things I perceived in the book this second time reading it, and how much more the initial bunter and humor got to me. I noticed more the transition from a lighter and clear cut atmosphere of certainty, to a more murky recollection, more painful, less clear view of things, and a crack in what seemed a well-rounded way of life, and the culmination of all that journey, plus a the question, “now what?”

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  4. However, even though we don’t have to serve men in the same way we serve our Lord, He also commands us to obey authorities, to be good workers who always work without complaining, so we all have to work with dignity, and the only occasion we disobey, would be when what we are asked violates a higher command. Otherwise, -even in the middle of injustice, etc, we have to submit. It’s again difficult, -but not impossible to discern-, we pray, we adjust our attitudes, and that way we know when we have a chance to, for example, as for a betterment of our work conditions, -even our conditions at home, for those of us who are housewives. We have to discern what’s an honest way to ask for something, and when we have to just accept and not only, but still rejoice, no matter how imperfect our job, or how bad our boss or co-workers, ha ha ha.

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  5. Silvia, you said: “being a butler and being Stevens was one an all. This gave him a sense of security, freed him from the burden of having to think or ponder about his decisions.” I hadn’t thought about it, but I totally see how this emphasis placed on submerging himself in his occupation as butler gave him a sense of security. I can totally see that. But then the holiday unraveled all that because he came face to face with his thoughts/beliefs and found he had regrets.

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  6. Ok, I finished this afternoon! 🙂 My first thoughts are this: I felt BAD for him the whole book. I have heard so many people tell me about this book and describe Stevens as a selfish man. I guess I maybe can see where they thought this way, but I felt like he was sort of a product of his parentage, class, and upbringing. You treat a man a certain way, he will act a certain way. Of course, we are ultimately responsible for our own choices, but his life was molded for him from the beginning. The part about his father’s declining health and death really struck me as cold, yet he sort of alluded to that he was expected to act that way. That his father would have expected nothing less from their shared lifetime position. Almost like he was a robot. I don’t think it said he much about how he treated as a child, but how WAS he treated as a child? I can’t remember what it said about his mother, but possibly his father left him to serve his master as a boy no matter what he was going through in his life. His actions to me seemed reasonable considering he didn’t know any better. Stevens can’t really even relate to others out on his holiday, because he was molded for one position and never given a chance to be an individual and have opinions. I found it ironic that at Darlington House he was important as a butler, yet knew he was a servant. Yet, out on the road, people seemed to treat him as higher than themselves or someone of distinction. I love how Ishiguro really ends up having you ask more questions and not really find answers. I do not really like Miss Keaton for some reason. I feel like she expected Stevens to read her mind. He seems like he generally was a very prosaic sort of person and couldn’t catch her nuances and hints etc. And she’s always frustrated and irritated with him for doing something he has no clue that he is doing. I love how precise Ishiguro has him speak, product of all his speech lessons and practice. I find it interesting that he judges himself based only on the efficiency of the household running and the general encounters with his master. I felt disturbed and choked up a bit about the Jewish maids. Very interesting and sobering position to be put in! I think Stevens acted in a more honest way that Keaton did. He did exactly what he always did, followed orders and rules. Was it the right thing? Not necessarily, but Miss Keaton’s emotional outburst and frustration and then no action to me seemed more irritating and hypocritical. However, Stevens did seem cold and blind a bit to the horrors of this decision. Of course, we see that Stevens starts to question his life and all that it has stood for…how can a person stand by in the face of wrong, evil, or etc without saying anything and not be partially responsible? How does this work as an employee or spouse or family member of somebody we don’t agree with? See, more questions! 🙂

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  7. I don’t find Stevens selfish in the least. He’s robotizised himself, yes, to make himself a perfect butler, void of feelings, or void of expressing and acting on feelings.
    Miss Keaton can be annoying, yes, yet she’s also fearful, she wants to move Mr. Stevens to feel and show something, and she does express some of her feelings, but she also fears, I think she has nowhere to go, she loves Stevens, obviously, but in the end, she takes takes advantage of an opportunity to finally leave, which is to me more a way of maybe telling Stevens that she aspires to a live aside from serving others at the expense of the realization of their love. When tested, Stevens shows Miss Keaton that his ultimate love is for his Lordship. But in the end, he is not that sure anymore. Maybe my affection for this two steams from the amazing pair in the movie. Hopkins and Thompson show lots of emotions that I may have transferred to the book. I refuse to think Stevens as selfish, obstinate yes, misguided by his own ideas, yes, but his concealed love was like a river hidden to view, very strong.

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  8. You bring up an interesting point about fear Silvia. I guess I didn’t think about how much fear might have played into some of the decisions both Stevens and Miss Kenton made. I need to think on that a bit. 🙂

    My first impressions with the first reading of this book was that I didn’t see a big emphasis an anything romantic with Stevens and Miss Kenton. At one point in the book I was thinking, does he like Miss Kenton? But other than that, I didn’t get the sense that she was in love with him. I need to read it again! But my mom and I were talking about this very thing at dinner this evening – about how their relationship was portrayed in the movie and it seems that maybe them being in love was emphasized more in the movie than in the book. Since it was so long ago that I saw the movie, I don’t remember a lot about it so it will really be interesting to watch it again.

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    • I came to the book after watching the movie. I may have blended in the love and the fear or restraint, or my memory of the movie may have made me more aware of some clues into the love they may have felt for each other. But, for example, the fact that she is fishing for a reaction when she tells him about his date, and he wants Stevens to be curious as if she said yes or no. Also their time together, (an intimacy related to work, but for Stevens, the perfect relationship, and how that became insufficient for her and she ruined those when she clued him about not being satisfied with those long hours discussing mainly work), and, of course, the way he reads into her letters that she may be wanting to come back to him, (he envisions her being hired back, but it’s, I believe, his way to bring her back), and the famous line, “my heart was broken”, when Stevens is conversing with her. He obviously cared more than just for an employee. He also entertained, I believe, the thought that she’d also hold as her ultimate aspiration to live under the service of his Lordship along with him, for ever and ever. Stevens is very platonic, -any other type of relation will conflict with his other sacrificial commitment to being the ultimate butler. A friend at Goodreads spoke of him as a eunuch of sorts.

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  9. The way Stevens is not only not expressing any feelings for Miss keaton, but overcompensating by being very strict with her, and always bringing their interaction to a super sterile and strictly professional defined route, it’s to me his way to close any small fissure or crack that will show his true feelings. In the movie, Hopkins manages something sort of amazing. Some of the best acting I’ve seen, when his father is dying, and he doesn’t leave his spot, and Miss Keaton seems to understand and take his place, and not judge, and the way Stevens is moved by her pain too. Hopkins manages to express so much feeling by that controlled mask, and perfectly executed management of the night. Think about it. For those men, for his Lordship, that night was, they said, so crucial, it was like the fate of the world depended on it. For Stevens, that day was probably one of the most important in his life. To be with your father the last minutes of his life, who won’t say that one deserves that? That’s why I kept making the application to my life as a christian. One man asked Jesus to let him buried his dead before following, but Jesus tells him that following him is something that requires immediacy and preponderance over ANY and ALL that can come to us in life, death or marriage, whether it is honoring the dead, or starting a new life. Stevens dedicates his life with exclusivity to a person, a cause, that later on, he sees it was not remotely what he thought it was. That brings a crisis point. What is he going to do with his life? Does he still have one to live? I believe -maybe I want to believe-, that he will continue. I have to continue my own ending in my mind, but I’d love to read his final diaries, (if he’s still keeping any.)

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  10. Don’t you all feel at times we live like Stevens, wearing a mask, hiding our true feelings and thoughts, doing our duty, going through the motions.

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  11. I think that this idea of authenticity is a key concept here. Maybe Stevens didn’t feel comfortable being himself outside of the role of butler…and so didn’t even consider trying to. Does that make sense? And so as he’s in this time of introspection, we see him come to the conclusion that authenticity really is what dignity or greatness is all about…..honoring who you are as a person by being yourself at all times.Hence his statement when asked what dignity is: “…But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.’” (pg. 210)

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    • Authenticity. Yes. Stevens “knew” who he was. Or that’s what he thought. A butler. But with his attaching himself to someone else blindly, he thought his lordship was one of the best men on earth, and through his service, he got clues that he was not the man he thought to be. That affected him. Once out of the realm of what defined him, Stevens had ‘no life’ so to speak. And confronted with the overwhelming reality of what others have gotten to know about his lordship, (now judged and banished from society), his own identity is compromised. Remember how he lies to the couple who comes to visit his new American lordship?, he lies to the woman about the antiquity of the place, even about the fact of having served there for many years. He is ashamed all of the sudden, of, I don’t know if of who he is, or the fact that he’d have to explain why his life of honorable service now looks like a life devoted to enabling evil to occur. What I love about Ishiguro here in this book, and in his The Artist in the Floating World, is that, yes, nobody can deny the man Stevens served was on the wrong faction. But was he not also deceived himself? We know his lordship, briefly, is his crime of wrong alliances the crime of all that others did? (He wanted to reconcile the English government with the Nazi regime, before he or anyone knew what the Nazi regime was truly up to. While there were strong clues, Ishiguro always presents me with the dilemma of how easy it is to look at life and people in hindsight). What’s Stevens “truth”, what’s his identity? A sacrifice placed on the wrong side is not a noble sacrifice anymore?

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  12. Isn’t it interesting how people can see different things in books? That’s what so awesome about book discussions. This idea of love and Stevens’ not allowing himself to give into any feelings he has for Miss Kenton because of his dedication to his job is obviously there and I didn’t fully pick up on it. Definitely could be good for me to read it again after having discussed it!

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  13. He also had assumed the identity of his master somehow, and at the home of that humble couple, he doesn’t want to clear the fact that he is not a gentleman but only a person who has lived (and adopted the mannerisms, if ever superficially), of one. This is very interesting, my auntie also served a marquee and his wife, and her own speech, her style, and class, (she climbed from just a maid to the equivalent of servant of servants), and because she had potential, (a pleasant look, and a quick disposition to learning), she found favor with those she served, and they seemed to like her being “like them”, though she wasn’t. (Some of my family, jealous and cruel, made remarks about her thinking “too high of herself”. Me. I liked my auntie, I found her a very nice person, not because of all this, but because she married one of my father’s brothers, an schizophrenic. My father and all his brothers are very difficult men, there’s no way around that, and my auntie, -who also had a dd who has schizophrenia as well, decided to stay with him. And that’s what she did until she died, and he too. Now my cousin lives by herself. Her half-brother helps her out. (My auntie was a very young widow with a previous son.) My cousin was able, though, to look after both her parents. I loved these relatives of mine, specially my auntie and cousin. They had a tender heart, and were both classy.

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  14. Question One: Dignity

    “We call this land of ours Great [italics] Britain….And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’?…if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack [italics] of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty….and feels no need to shout about it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in…Africa and America…strike the viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.” (pp28-29)

    This quote applies to both questions. It is the very definition of how a butler must behave–with restraint and dignity.

    On dignity–I was particularly drawn to the exchange with Miss Kenton about addressing the Under-Butler (Stevens’ father) as “William” because it wasn’t befitting the man’s “station.” By insisting that Miss Kenton refer to him as Mr. Stevens, Senior, and not as was customary of a Housekeeper addressing a junior servant as “William,” Stevens was denigrating HER dignity as Housekeeper. I enjoyed Miss Kenton standing her ground as long as possible then giving in and showing him why she was right by pointing out all the “lapses” the “great” man made. Brilliant ploy.

    Question 2 Butler

    “…’dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits….[Great butlers] wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit….he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.” (pp 42-43)

    Are butlers only English? Are the so-called butlers of other nationalities only ‘manservants’? I think by his definition of dignity, probably so!

    I love the way Stevens focuses on a good staff plan. Like a general.

    So much in this book. Though, having seen the movie, I do keep hearing Anthony Hopkins voice.

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    • Lisa, me too, I do keep hearing Anthony Hopkins, and seeing him in my head when I read this book.

      I now remember the second time, that paragraph you quote on England’s greatness felt a parallel between the land and her people, between England’s greatness, and her great men, (Steven’s master and Stevens as a buttler.)

      I too remember how Stevens broke the rules for his father. He has a blind spot for him, or he is not willing to accept Miss Keaton’s authority and position. If only he had summon her affection, but no, and that’s why Miss Keaton stands her ground, and confronts him. At the same time, it’s these moments of conflict that give her the clue to what may be Stevens’s true feelings towards her. I think that she is very doubtful, never sure if she’s reading him right. And even if she suspects she’s reciprocated, she sees how he won’t act on his love, and that’s when she moves on, -I believe.

      So much in this book, yes. It’s a pleasure to relive it. I did love Karen’s quotes, and yours too.

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  15. We say in Spain “the habit makes the monk”, -curious word habit, which in Spanish means our repeated actions, habits, and also a habit in singular is a religious clothing, the robe or meager tunic frays or monks wear. As I was at the Memorial ceremony, I saw those in uniform under Houston heat, and I thought that, for more uncomfortable, there has to be all that, the clothes, the ceremony of presenting the colors, etc. Outer expressions of rules and civility, make us who we are, -to some extent. For more than every generation of so called ‘hippies’ or free advocates, claim that it’s so natural to walk naked, what’s natural to men, (and Chesterton talks about this, I believe), it’s to wear clothes, LOL. Clothes are culture, and not only, there’s more to them than we think. This is such an example. People confused Stevens with a gentleman since he was dressed like one, and behave like one.

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  16. I’ve read through everyone’s comments twice now and there are some great points brought up! Another thought that struck me. When Stevens’ makes the comment “But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.” (pg. 210), I said that I think what he’s trying to say here is don’t cover up who you are in public. Be the real you. And I wonder if he was pondering that he had just not been honest about who he really was. People didn’t know he was a butler. They assumed differently and he just let them assume that. Maybe he was realizing that he needed to be okay with who he was. That he didn’t have to pretend to be someone different.

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  19. I love the way Stevens doesn’t correct people’s assumptions that he is a gentleman. And his bizarre justification for lying about working for the Late Lord Darlington because [apparently] he won’t gossip about him. Instead of just saying “Yes” and cutting it off there, he lets the woman go back to the new owner and lets his new employer be embarrassed to spare the late Lord D being gossiped about. So odd. Also, I at least, have been reading this assuming Stevens is heterosexual. But the way he refuses to respond to Miss Kenton’s flirting (trying to see the book he’s reading) perhaps I’m wrong. His preening over Lord Halifax’s comment on the beautiful state of the silver is the stuff that made Punch [magazine] so great. Now, had it been merely the local MP, would he have been so excited?

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    • Have you read it all?(I don’t think you have, because I got the idea he was in love with Miss Keaton but put love second to service. His preening over that comment was, I believe, beaming over being one of the best in his profession, which, for him, it’s his life. That’s my take. (In the interviews, Ishiguro talks about repression, or restrain, and fear, when he describes Stevens feelings towards Miss Keaton. The ending tells us more about how Stevens feels.)

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