As far road as trips go, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day seems pretty tame: no drag racing, no drunken escapades, no wacky strangers, no one-night stands. But the novel, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize and famously adapted to the big screen in 1994, begins as a story about a butler on a cross-country drive… and turns into a book packed with emotional intensity, political intrigue and betrayal, and some insanely hard questions about regret and responsibility.
Told from the perspective of the butler, Mr. Stevens, the story offers up a behind-the-scenes look at important men of the day as they wrestle with important political issues in the years leading up to World War II. We're in Downton Abbey territory here, a world with a rigid social hierarchy, with the wealthy gentlemen at the top and everyone else on the bottom.
It's part of Mr. Stevens's job description to forgo all personal attachments and commit himself completely to his job and his employer… and he super-enthusiastically embraces these rules until the arrival of a housekeeper arouses (tee hee) feelings he can barely acknowledge, even to himself.
Oh yeah, and his employer's increasingly creepy political views (short version: he's inviting Nazis to brunch) adds an additional wrinkle.
What's a poor butler to do? Drive around England and think it all over in a series of hallucinatorily vivid flashbacks, that's what.
The Remains of the Day is a postcolonial novel— it doesn't so much "challenge" the notion that the English brought the light of civilization to the rest of the world as it "packs it full of dynamite and lights the fuse, giggling maniacally." Lord Darlington seems to be the perfect English gentleman: he embraces high-sounding ideals such as honor, fairness, friendship, generosity… and Nazism.
The novel shows how Darlington is easily manipulated by the racial doctrine of the Nazis and the fascists because he never questions his racial superiority as an Englishman. But this novel is not trying to be preachy. It is both a scathing political doctrine and a story about a road trip (woohoo!) and lost love (boohoo!)… and it will totally make you want to carpe the dang diem on what remain of your days.
Ever heard the expression "too much of a good thing?" Of course you have, you brilliant Shmoopers.
Okay, now think of what that expression might actually be expressing. Being crushed by a truckload of sleepy kittens? The way you feel after you eat most of a pecan pie (not that we, uh, know from experience)? That moment in your summer vacation when you start to think "Huh. It would be really nice to get back to a routine."
What about human virtues: dignity, sacrifice, loyalty? Can those ever be too much?
Kazuo Ishiguro says "Yes," and pounds his fist on the table emphatically. No, Ishiguro isn't a disciple of Ayn Rand. No, he doesn't want you to stab your friend in the back, take the money and run, or agree to go on a reality TV show and humiliate yourself. He just wants you to think about the parameters of helpfulness… when the service of others becomes the disservice of yourself.
Mr. Stevens, the butler, sacrifices the love of his life, the last moments with his dying father, and the moral high ground of opposing Fascism and Anti-Semitism… all in the name of being a good employee to his beloved employer Lord Darlington. And no, this stuff doesn't just happen all at once. And no, Stevens isn't an amoral creeper. He's actually a good guy, but his loyalty and devotion allow him to let things slide, and slide, and slide.
You're probably scoffing and thinking "Hah. I'm not a butler. I don't know any Fascists. I'm in the clear!" Maybe so. But check yourself.
Has the idea of dignity ever held you back? Have you been too afraid of looking ridiculous to chase down someone you love, or apply for art school, or even get up and sing "Poor Unfortunate Souls" at karaoke?
How about the idea of sacrifice? Have you dedicated yourself to other people when you should have been spending time on your own dang self? Have you ever thought "Oh, I can't go to the gym/write my novel/practice the tuba because my roommate/brother/cat needs me to watch all of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black right now?
Or—gulp—loyalty? Are you still hanging out with racist/sexist/cruel/toxic people because you were friends with them in middle school?
Forget inspiration posters. Forget mantras. If you need a crash course in empowerment, look no further than The Remains of the Day. This book will throw a bucket of ice water over your head and convince you—in a deep, startling, and depressing way—that you need to look after #1.
Oh, and yeah: it's also a beautiful, eloquent, Booker Prize-winning novel that was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Hannibal Lecter, er, Anthony Hopkins.
A Profile of Kazuo Ishiguro
This article provides biographical information about the author. And this guy has lived a pretty cool life.
BBC Does History
The BBC has an awesomesauce website about British history, which includes helpful overviews, slideshows, and video clips. Use it to learn more about the history-packed Remains of the Day.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's site on all things related to the Holocaust, including the Nuremberg trials. Again, this'll put the Remains action in stark (and terrifying) historical relief.
The Remains of the Day (1993)
This Merchant and Ivory production features Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Why? Because it's almost as fantastic as the book is.
A propaganda film produced by the British Council. Learn all about WWII, y'all.
Churchill Takes the Stand
A recording of three speeches Winston Churchill gave during the war. They're pretty thrilling.
The Great English House
PBS's Masterpiece website offers some great examples of English manors. Highclere Castle is probably the closest to what Darlington Hall would have looked like. Not too shabby.