Merriam-Webster defines “dignity”as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed”(Merriam-Webster.com). Theprotagonist, Mr.
Stevens, in The Remainsof the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro however has a different definition. Stevensbelieves that “dignity” is the “ability not to abandon the professional beingone inhibits. … One must inhabit their professional role to the utmost;one will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming,or vexing” (Ishiguro 50). This idea that dignity is equivalent to beingemotionally absent is consistently present in this novel in which readersfollow Stevens road trip to visit an old colleague. The novel is set in Englandand takes readers through the 1920s to 1956 in the form of Stevens’recollections of being a butler while serving his old master, Lord Darlington. Onhis trip, consequently faced with several difficult realizations. Ishiguro suggeststhrough the psychoanalytic lens that remaining emotionallydistant in an emotional world will result in detrimental psychological effects.
This is depicted through Mr. Stevens inability to form intimate relationships,his inability to adhere to the modernization of society, and his loss ofindividuality.Due to Stevens desire to embody his definition of “dignity”, his abilityto connect with others on an emotional level is restricted and ends in regret.This can particularly be noted by his relationships with his father and his oldcolleague, Miss Kenton. When Stevens’ father dies, he immediately gets back towork and supresses his sadness. This can be seen when Lord Darlington asks, “‘Stevens,are you all right? … you look as though you’re crying.
‘ Stevens laughs andtakes out a handkerchief quickly wiping his face” He then says, “‘I’m very sorry, sir. The strains of a hard day'” (Ishiguro129-130). Although one would expect Stevens to be distraught, he does not emitany signs of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression,and acceptance. By trying to fulfill his job “professionally”, Stevens does nottake the time to mourn his loss. Inevitably, the psychological toll catches upto him. Stevens begins to make smallerrors in his work which are unusual for his character being that he is aperfectionist.
In addition, Stevens begins to weep on his lonesome almost twodecades after his father’s death because he is regretful that he never got thechance to see his father in his last waking hours. He feels immense guilt thathe prioritized his job instead of his loved one, a decision that will be sureto haunt him for the rest of his life. Similarly, Stevens’ relationship withMiss Kenton remains strictly professional and is a missed opportunity of theromantic relationship the two could have had. He is so in denial about hisemotions that Stevens displaces his memory of when he stood outside her parlourand “it was not impossible that Miss Kenton … only a few feet from him, wasactually crying. The thought provoked a strange feeling to rise within him,causing him to stand there hovering in the corridor for some moments” (Ishiguro215).
This displacement is important because he initially remembers Miss Kentoncrying over the death of a relative, but it is later revealed that she wasupset that Stevens was unable to talk about his feelings. Being invested in hiscareer causes Stevens to never evaluate his evident love for her. Alike to therepercussions of his actions with his father, Stevens is remorseful of neverhaving had expressed his feelings. A key point to also consider is that throughhis journey Stevens calls his colleague Miss Kenton despite the fact that shehas been married for over a decade and now goes by Mrs. Benn. This can bebecause subconsciously he hopes that, after all these years, he may still havea chance to be with her. Moreover, Scholar Wai-Chew Sim explicitly sums up inhis literary essay that, “Stevens chooses duty over personal feelings and responsibilities”and in the end his life, “underscores a sense of waste … that he wrestleswith as he reassesses the choices he made in life” (Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 219, 92).
As Sim points out, Stevens makes the consciousdecision to favour his vocation over anything else. When the story comes to aclose, he is faced with the reality that he is only to blame for hisunhappiness. Stevens finally understands the importance of stating his feelingsbecause he would have never known “atthe time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams foreverirredeemable” (Ishiguro 252). In brief it isevident, through his sorrowful character near the end of the novel, thatStevens’ decision to become detached in relationships in order to excel in hiscareer is ill-advised.Another psychologically draining effect of remaining emotionally distantis Stevens’ inability to adapt his nature in order to modernize. Specifically,this is seen through the symbolism of the act of banter and the company Giffen& Co in this novel.
Stevens’ emotional distance disables his ability tobanter with his current employer, Mr. Farraday, who is an American. Wanting to fulfillevery need expected of him, he magnifies the effect of his inability, hethinks, “It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me torespond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so aform of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me muchconcern” (Ishiguro 18).
Bantering is a new, foreign practice, oneunfitting with traditional English ways. This is a sign of the Britisharistocracy crumbling, which is something Stevens is unwilling to accept. Dueto his reluctance, Stevens’ increasingly stays stuck in his past.
The fact thatStevens is unable to adjust to this new form of socialization causes him severemental anxiety. He ultimately surmises, at the end of the novel, that he isunable to “exhibit human warmth” (Ishiguro 233). Additionally, the terminatedsilver-polishing company Giffen & Co also represents the advancement inBritish society. Stevens thinks back to when the company “undoubtedly had thefinest silver polish available, and it was only the appearance of new chemicalsubstances on the market shortly before the war that caused demand for thisimpressive product to decline” (Ishiguro 162).
This is symbolic of theessential essence the product once held in a distinguished household, however,overtime it had become obsolete, just like Stevens’ profession. There are othersigns that butlers slowly became outdated: decrease in staff and the abundanceof retired butlers. The realization that he is not needed causes Stevens toquestion his purpose: if he is no longer crucial for a house to continueworking, what is he to do? This is answered in the last scene of the novel:Stevens contemplates his life and decides to make the best of “the remains of his days” because he is tired ofremaining withdrawn. Furthermore, Eli Kurland proves Stevens’ outdated natureby stating that “Stevens, a relic of the old world, undergoes much socialanxiety about the transforming modern world as he is forced to re-evaluate theconstruction of reality he used to make meaning of his life” (Analytical Literary: ‘The Remains of theDay’ 1). To Stevens”dignity” is a set list of principles, this includes following traditionalBritish methods. Seeing the change in his society means that he must redefinewhat “dignity” is. This is especially difficult in 1956 England, where peopledo not act as “proper” as they once did. Fundamentally, Stevens nature to be stuck inthe past causes him to be an anachronism in England’s progressive society.
Heis inescapably forced to assess his life and recognize that if he cannot adaptto the new age, he will not survive. Lastly, Stevens’ attachment to being “dignified”, once again, causes himpsychological trauma, now in the form of his loss of individuality. This isespecially seen when looking at his relationship with his employer, LordDarlington. Although, Stevens does not agree with Darlington’s anti-Semiticbeliefs, he is still extremely loyal. After Darlington asks him to fire allJewish staff, Stevens is bewildered, but does not hesitate to obey because ashe sees it “there was nothing to be gained at all in irresponsibly displayingsuch personal doubts” (Ishiguro 177). Whilstbeing unattached to others, Stevens holds his master in high esteem because hebelieves that Darlington embodies his definition of “dignity”. Stevens mirrorsDarlington and becomes dismissive of his own character. It can be argued thatStevens does not have a sense of individualism and that he is just an extensionof his master.
Without individuality one loses a sense of their moral andemotional worth. Despite the accusations and proof that Darlington is part of aNazi regime, Stevens does not believe that his employer has fascist intentions.As Molly Hagan denotes in her critical analysis of characters from this novel,after having blindly followed his lordship, “Stevens realizes that he is clingingto a bygone era of allegiance to great men” (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, 4th Edition 2033). Not beingunique means that Stevens can be replaced at any time, by any butler. Thiscauses him to believe that he is not as worthy as he once thought he was.
It isthis affiliation with Darlington that causes Stevens to question his purposelater on in his life. At the end of the novel, Stevens sits outside on a benchand talks to a man about his life. As Stevens talks a truth is revealedabout his feelings on his life’s purpose, he says “I trusted in his lordship’swisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing somethingworthwhile.
I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to askoneself – what dignity is there in that?” (Ishiguro, 295-296). Being solelyinvested in his career causes Stevens to be extremely regretful: hisrelationship with his father and Miss Kenton, the inability to speak forhimself, his two-dimensional character, and more. There are many what ifs in Stevenslife because he continually favours duty over desire. Finally, Stevens comprehendsthat in order for him to exemplify what “dignity” is, he cannot remainemotionally detached. It is his emotions and actions that define his character,and ultimately whether or not he is dignified. In essence, individuality isimportant in order for humans to distinguish themselves from others, and findmotivation and drive to keep living.
Evidentially, through Stevens detachment in personal relationships, his incapabilityof advancing societally and mentally, and his lack of distinction Ishigurosuccessfully exemplifies the purpose of TheRemains of the Day. The author proposes that there will be an irreversible,negative psychological impact on one’s mind if they are emotionally absent.Initially, Stevens’ emotional distance and focus on his career causes him to gothrough life never truly connecting with his father or the love of his life,Miss Kenton, which ends in regret.
Furthermore, due to his past, in the presentStevens cannot put aside his pride to adjust to the new age and accept that hisprofession may not be as essential as it once was. Lastly, the realization thathe is a copy of his master causes Stevens to question his decisions and purposein life. Stevens’ character represents Sigmund Freud’s ego: he suppresses hisdesires and does what he believes is morally right. To Stevens, focusing on his vocation to the utmost is righteous.
After his journey comes to an end, however, Stevens understands that it isone’s capability to be emotional that allows one to be empathetic and connectwith other human beings. In the wake of a dark world filled with poverty,hatred, and wars, individuals crave human warmth and affection. This is becausedespite any hardship, one can count on their loved one’s unconditional love.This is true for Stevens at the end of his journey: Stevens wants to be comfortedand is forced to weep to a stranger because he has no one else to go to. When Stevensfather has a stroke and falls down some stairs he constantly goes back to thescene of the crime to find the cause of his fall, looking “down at the groundas though he hopes to find some precious jewel he had dropped there”(Ishiguro 57). This is symbolic of Stevens road trip; on his journey heconstantly refers to his past in hopes of finding the “turning point” thatleads his life astray. Stevens, also, looks at “dignity” as if it is a jewelthat will make him feel whole once he achieves it.
In the end, however, hegathers that the only way humans can fill their emptiness is not through”dignity”, but by cultivating and maintaining relationships.