To read 'The Remains of the Day' is to enter one of the great houses of England in the years just before World War II, seeing at first hand the business of staffing and operating such a home. Darlington Hall is similar to the large, well-staffed estate seen in the Downton Abbey series on TV. Stevens, the butler at Darlington, makes the narrative easy for us, as he is the sole narrator throughout the novel.
A lengthy prologue, with almost no dialogue, sets the scene. Mr. Farraday, the new American owner of Darlington Hall, is occupied in the U.S. with business before taking over with a staff much reduced from the war years when Lord Darlington entertained large groups of guests, many of whom stayed for weeks. Mr. Farraday is proposing that Stevens take the car on a motor trip through a part of England that he wants to see. Stevens is agreeable, realizing that a trip into the west country would allow him to look up Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper, who has hinted she might like to come back to Darlington Hall to work, as her marriage is at an end.
The motor trip allows Stevens to recall events of the wartime years when he ran the household with a staff of 17.I can’t imagine a character more dedicated to honor, duty, and loyalty than Stevens, who sees to every detail of the proper operation of the house. His father preceded him as butler, a position attained by Stevens after years as a footman. In this novel the father is declining in old age, a situation causing consternation in Stevens. His reaction is not one of sympathy and understanding, but fears that his father’s decline will reflect badly on the smooth operation of the house.
Seen through Stevens’ mind, it is clear to the reader that his revered Lord Darlington has pronounced Nazi sympathies, entertaining highly placed officials in Hitler’s regime and mouthing anti-Semitic feelings. When he tells Stevens to dismiss two young Jewish housemaids, whose work in the home has been exemplary, Stevens never questions the decision. He does inform Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, since the young women work under her. Miss Kenton is outraged by the order, and threatens to leave the household if it is carried out. She doesn’t follow through, because her need of a position is stronger than her wrath.
Stevens’ road trip leads to an eventual meeting with Miss Kenton which is touching and revealing. This novel received the Booker prize for the best novel written in the English language in its year of publication. It was a much acclaimed motion picture with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Author Ishiguro is Japanese-born and a British citizen.