As befits an English butler in the twilight of his career… oh, wait. We're starting to talk like Stevens.
Ahem. Let's start over.
Stevens is a stuffy old manservant. He's also pushing retirement age. And so, unsurprisingly, he sounds like a cross between your Grandpa ("Ehhh, in my day we didn't have these crazy internets, with the Facebooks and the Snapperchats") and the whole cast of Downton Abbey. Stevens's tone is reflective, polite, and contemplative. He's deep in nostalgia mode:
"Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day." (8.84)
Oof. That makes Grandpa talking about the evils of smartphones and the virtues of Dean Martin movies sound pretty freaking full of life.
Stevens doesn't let his emotion peep through. Even when his heart is breaking, his language is unfailingly courteous. And when this unfailingly courteous dude tries to crack a joke, he fails big time.
By the very nature of witticism, one is given very little time to assess its various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience. There is no reason to suppose that this is not an area in which I will become proficient given time and practice. (5.12)
Telling jokes, or talking in even a semi-lighthearted way (in a word, "bantering"), is beyond him. He's used to following rules, and he's never sure if his jokes will perplex or offend… or just fall super flat. But he's going to give it his best shot anyhow.
Points for effort, Stevens.
Lord Darlington, Stevens, and Miss Kenton are all fictional characters, but they interact with the big deal historical figures of the day. Winston Churchill, Herr Ribbentrop, and Sir Oswald Mosley—all real people—appear at Darlington Hall at one time or another. The novel is preoccupied with history and the way individuals shape (and are shaped by) it.
The storyline is also a textbook tragedy—no happy endings here. True to classical tragic form, we see a man born into power and tons o' cash (Lord Darlington) fall from grace due to his lack of knowledge and naiveté. Because of Lord D's hamartia, he ends up sinking his own ship.
Stevens's story/tragedy runs parallel to Lord Darlington's. He also falls from an ideal (for him) work situation—working in a "great" household, with colleagues he respects—into the relatively lonely station of butler to an American in an understaffed situation.
The title, The Remains of the Day, sounds pretty cryptic at first. "Remains" is a word that implies stuff left over, residues. "Remains" is also another word for dead bodies, which: yeesh. In what way can a day have a residue? Or a dead body?
Well, when you're an aged butler who has devoted his life to the service of a Nazi: plenty of ways.
Stevens is at the dusk of his life. He's a moldy oldie. The high noon of his career at Darlington Hall, when it sparkled as a center of interwar diplomacy, has long passed. On his first (and perhaps only?) vacation, Stevens has a lot of time to mull over the "remains" of his life—the memories, but also the consequences of his life choices.
He makes a bunch of stops on his trip, and these stops give him an opportunity to think over both the immediate past of the day's adventures and the more distant past of his years as Lord Darlington's butler. He's also mourning Lord Darlington's death with a respect that Lord Darlington did not enjoy at the end of his controversial life. Lord Darlington is the human "remains" of Stevens's life. Gross… but also kind of poignant.
The most explicit reference to the title comes at the end of the novel. Stevens, sitting on the Weymouth pier and mulling over a stranger's advice, thinks:
Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. (8.84)
The novel ends with his resolution to be an awesome employee to his new American employer. This is the closest that Stevens comes to shouting "carpe diem!" He's going to make the best of what remains of his day(s) by doing what he does best—being a super-loyal and detail-obsessed butler.
Oh, well Stevens and Miss Kenton end up admitting their love for one another and living happily ever after. Then they move to Tahiti.
Ha. Hahahaha. That is not what happens at the end of this novel.
The novel ends with Stevens on the pier at Weymouth, a stop on his way back to Darlington Hall… without Miss Kenton, er, Mrs. Benn. Why Weymouth? Well—history time!—Weymouth was an area that provided a launching ground for the Normandy invasions that were so key to the Allied forces' D-Day offensive and eventual victory against the Nazis. (Check out "Setting" for more information.)
So while Stevens begins his road trip at Darlington Hall, which in the 1930s hosted German diplomats and English Fascists, he ends his road trip in the area that was at the heart of the Allied offensive against the Germans.
In this highly significant location, Stevens finally comes around to admitting that he has to share some of the blame that was heaped on Lord Darlington for working with the Nazis. As Darlington's butler and trusted servant, Stevens could have tried to change Darlington's mind. When Darlington asked him to fire two Jewish maids, for example, Stevens could have refused.
But he didn't.
As he comes to terms with "what remains of [his] day," Stevens reaches a big turning point. He finally turns away from the traditions of the past (his service to Lord Darlington) and looks forward to an uncertain future with his new American employer, Mr. Farraday, whose casual ways are super different from Lord Darlington's.
While Stevens seems upbeat about his future, we can't be as sure. He still thinks of bantering as a skill to master, when all it really involves is being friendly and sociable. Stevens is a bit of a robot. Should Stevens be so optimistic? Can he excuse his past behavior so easily? Is he really content to just let Miss Kenton go?
These questions may well be the real "remains" of the day, the questions left unanswered by the book… and the ghosts that continue to haunt poor Mr. Stevens.
Stevens travels—road trip! Woo-hoo!—through southwest England in August 1956. His memories, though, revolve (and revolve and revolve and revolve) around the events that took place when he was a butler for Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall, in the years between the two world wars.
It might seem hard to believe that there could be any moral gray areas when it comes to cooperating with the Nazis—we've seen the Indiana Jones movies: we know that Nazis = evil—but Stevens is trying to understand how a perfectly good and decent "gentleman" could end up associating with the "ugliness" of fascism.
So it might help to get a little background on the time period—not to excuse Darlington's actions, but to understand his historical climate. So buckle yourselves in, Shmoopers. It's history-in-literature time.
Ahem. Ahem-hem-hem. Here we go:
By 1923, the year Darlington holds his first international conference, a lot of people had grown increasingly critical of the Versailles Treaty, the peace treaty that ended World War I. Why? The Versailles Treaty had imposed such super-strict sanctions on the German government that Germany was crippled with high inflation and a depressed economy, leading to widespread poverty. These conditions only fueled popular resentment against the Allies in Germany, which the Nazis would exploit in their rise to power. But Darlington, as Stevens makes clear, is motivated out of concern for the German people and their suffering.
Fair enough. After all, the average German after WWI just wanted to live and eat and be happy. Grueling poverty makes that hard.
England also experienced an economic crises—it was affected by the Great Depression that spread throughout the world in the early 1930s. In the face of widespread unemployment, many found a convenient scapegoat in the Jewish population, some of whom were immigrants fleeing Germany. Not cool. Lord Darlington buys this rhetoric hook, line, and sinker.
A guy named Sir Oswald Mosley, who makes an appearance in the novel, was the charismatic leader of the English Fascists, who actively sought to spread their anti-Semitic message and attempted to foster closer relations between England and Germany. If Lord Darlington found Mosley's message appealing, it's because it seemed to square with his own humanitarian goals…which were super lopsided. He wanted to help Germans thrive, but he was apparently totally cool with pinning everything bad that happened after WWI on the Jews.
After World War II, many Nazis were put on trial as war criminals. The most famous of these trials took place in the German town of Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949. Stevens's own consideration of his possible guilt (could he have convinced Lord Darlington not to hang out with Fascists? Or to not fire two Jewish maids?) has an echo in the so-called Nuremberg defense: the claim that one was acting under orders and thus was not responsible for one's actions.
Stevens, however, does feel guilty, and rejects the Nuremberg defense. He's stodgy and repressed, but he is a good guy.
While the countryside Stevens ends up driving through is certainly postcard-pretty, and gives us a broader sense of what English identity might be, it is also an area that hosted the enormous build-up of armies and equipment associated with the Allies' D-Day offensive. Tellingly, the novel ends in Weymouth, an important staging area for the Allies' offensive.
So Stevens is travelling both through the super-beautiful English countryside and through history: from Darlington Hall (former home of Treaty of Versailles-hating, Nazi-sympathizing Lord Darlington) to Weymouth (which is famous for helping launch the D-Day offensive against the Nazis). In essence, the guy travels from the English idea that "Oh, those poor Germans, let's help 'em," to "Oh, those evil Germans, let's kill 'em."
The trickiest thing about The Remains of the Day isn't Stevens's formal-to-a-fault language, and it's not figuring out the history behind the events of post-WWI England. It's reading between the lines.
Stevens is doing the English butler equivalent of shooting straight… but he's also a total weirdo. He's obsessed with dignity, and obsessed with being a good butler. Everything else is secondary.
So it's up to you to figure out what Stevens is feeling when Stevens himself is more bottled-up than a shaken can of Pepsi. Stevens doesn't allow himself (until the end of the novel) to show the reader—or even himself—his vulnerable side. We have to piece together a human portrait of Stevens by second-guessing his robot-sounding statements and constantly looking for the undercurrent of humanity beneath his stony exterior.
To read The Remains of The Day is to be trapped inside Stevens's weird little head. And Stevens, with all his talk of perma-dignity and staying professional 24/7 (exhausting), talks to us in the manner in which he'd talk a coworker. He keeps his formality game strong.
Sometimes Stevens will make reference to "you," like he does in the first chapter:
"If you are not familiar with Mrs. Jane Symons's books—a series running to seven volumes, each one concentrating on one region of the British Isles—I heartily recommend them." (1.18)
TBH, Stevens is a bit of a robot. The quote above is almost creakily formal ("I heartily recommend them," "running to seven volumes"), but nevertheless is Stevens's concerted effort to try to be chummy. He's trying, guys. He really is trying. He's just not succeeding very well. He's suggesting a book to us with the same level of formality that he would use if suggesting his employer try on a new dinner jacket, or some rare claret, or some pheasant under glass (or whatever else English aristocrats in the 1930s liked).
Oh, Stevens. You're an awesome character, but jeez would we hate to be trapped in conversation with you on a cross-country flight.
No, we're not talking about some alternative to everyone's favorite moralizing kiddie board game, Shoots And Ladders… although the butlering strategy of Wheels and Ladders is kind of a game.
In a key passage, Stevens marks the distinction between his generation and his father's through the metaphors of a wheel and a ladder:
Butlers of my father's generation, I would say, tended to see the world in terms of a ladder […]. Our generation, I believe it is accurate to say, viewed the world not as a ladder, but more as a wheel. (4.4)
His father's generation viewed the world as a strict hierarchy, with royalty at the top and ordinary people at the bottom. The aim of butlers way back when was to try to serve at the highest possible rung of the ladder. Serving a king? Good on you—you've just won the butler sweepstakes.
Our main man Stevens believes his generation views the world more as a wheel, with the movers and shakers (who are not necessarily the highest in terms of social class) at the hub, and everyone else moving around them. For Stevens's generation, a butler tried to get as close to the power hub as possible.
This signals a shift away from the crazy-stratified social order of Stevens Sr.'s day. It shows that Stevens Jr. has more of an awareness of current events and global power than other people might think. Not only has Stevens Jr. seen his own employer, Mr. Darlington, butter up diplomats and other powerful non-nobility, he also ends up working for (gasp! our pearls need clutching!) an American. There ain't no nobility in the US of A: just powerful people and less powerful people.
Every room in Darlington Hall has its purpose. Yeah, there are about a bajillion of these rooms, but trust us (or trust Mr. Stevens, at least)—they all matter.
For the butler, the pantry is a kind of office and sanctuary. The housekeeper has her parlour. These strictly defined spaces symbolize the distinct roles the butler and the housekeeper play, but they also symbolize their isolation from each other. They exist in different universes. They have separate jurisdictions within the house. It's all very orderly… and we know Mr. Stevens wouldn't have it any other way.
When Miss Kenton barges into his office, Stevens feels that she has crossed a boundary and his space is being violated. Likewise, he doesn't presume to walk in on her parlor uninvited, even when he hears her crying. This is symbolic on two levels. On the macro level, it shows how divided and stratified English society was back in the day on every level: the sexes didn't mix, different classes didn't mix, and even within a contained staff body there was a premium placed on, well, "place." You were either in your place or you were way the heck out of it.
On a micro level, these two domains show how isolated Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton were from one another. Sure, they did have some close moments—the afternoon cocoa they share in Miss Kenton's parlor marks a moment when their friendship is at its most intimate—but ultimately Miss Kenton ends up holed up in her parlour.
It is a recollection of standing alone in the back corridor before the closed door of Miss Kenton's parlour; I was not actually facing the door, but standing with my person half turned towards it, transfixed by indecision as to whether or not I should knock; for at that moment, as I recall, I had been struck by the conviction that behind that very door, just a few yards from me, Miss Kenton was in fact crying. (7. 33)
This is the point at which we usually scream "Mr. Stevens, you idiot!" and throw our copy of The Remains of The Day across the room.
Compare these rigidly defined spaces to the guesthouses and inns that Stevens encounters on his road trip. The inns are often noisy: tons of people are all jumbled together. When Stevens gets lost in Moscombe, some villagers convert their son's bedroom into a guest room: sharing is caring in Moscombe.
When he finally arrives in Cornwall, the rain pours into a courtyard, driving everyone inside. These spaces are not restricted—they enable mingling in a way that Darlington Hall does not. Just another point of proof that life inside Darlington Hall (or, perhaps, in proximity to the classist stratification that crops up in places like Darlington Hall) is toxic to making friends and influencing people.
The novel is told almost entirely from the perspective of Stevens, our main man. We say "almost" because the other key narrative in the novel is in Miss Kenton's letter. Her words often spark a memory or an image in Stevens's mind, sending him down yet another memory lane.
Since everything is told from Stevens's point of view, we take his version of the story with a grain of salt. Stevens himself is a stickler for the details, as any thoroughly dependable butler would be. He will correct his memories from time to time; for example, he remembers that Miss Kenton was crying behind her door not when her aunt passed away, but a few months later, when she announced her engagement.
It's as though he's admitting to an employer that he forgot whether the guests wanted roast or baked chicken, or admitting to a colleague that he forgot to inform them that a spare bedroom needed airing. Details, after all, were his life.
But we also wonder about his biases… like his loyalty toward Lord Darlington and his professionalism. Was Darlington a good guy, or an out-and-out Nazi?
As the story moves along, we know that he isn't open about his feelings, even to himself. So when, for example, he talks about feeling triumphant after a particularly difficult occasion at Darlington Hall—the conference of 1923—we find ourselves asking whether he really feels this way, or whether he's trying to convince himself that he does in order to avoid having to deal with painful feelings of loss over his father's death and Miss Kenton's marriage to another dude. Or, you know, working for a maybe, kind-of, sort-of Nazi.
Stevens goes on a trip to the West Country. Because he's spent most of his life at Darlington Hall, Stevens sees the English countryside as a kind of wilderness.
Initially Stevens is pretty thrilled at the prospect of seeing all the tourist sights, and he takes in the scenery. On his joyride Stevens even manages a little sightseeing in Salisbury.
Stevens is a pretty miserable driver, and his mess-ups lead him off-route, where he encounters strangers who cause him to question his life. For example, they ask nosy questions about the now-hated Lord Darlington.
For much of the trip, Stevens is under the impression that Miss Kenton (Mrs. Benn) doesn't love her husband and wants to return to Darlington Hall. When he finally meets her, though, he realizes that he has been reading way too much into her words. His heart breaks. Aww, poor Stevens.
Stevens stops by Weymouth, sits on the pier, and looks at the colorful lights. Okay, Weymouth isn't exactly "thrilling," but it's here, on his way back to Darlington Hall, that Stevens is able to let go of the past.
Stevens goes on a road trip to the West Country. This is pretty much Stevens's first vacation, and he only lets himself go with the thinly veiled excuse that it is for professional reasons: to see if Miss Kenton will return to Darlington Hall. This road trip gives him a fresh perspective on his life, past and present.
When he's questioned by a stranger, Stevens denies ever having known Lord Darlington. His memory goes back to a conference Lord Darlington hosted in 1923. From the beginning, Stevens's association with Lord Darlington is a tad problematic, given Lord Darlington's notoriety as a German/Nazi collaborator.
Stevens repeatedly denies that he knew Darlington, but when he's reflecting on the events of 1923, he defends Darlington—at least, to himself. The year 1923 was also when Miss Kenton and Stevens's father came to work at Darlington Hall, sparking a couple of points of tension in his life.
Stevens gets stranded in Moscombe and his memories turn toward the 1930s. In Moscombe, Stevens has a feisty political conversation with some locals. He thinks back to when Lord Darlington became more and more involved with the German cause and flirted with anti-Semitism and fascism. It's also a period when Miss Kenton starts dating a former co-worker: ouch.
At the end of his road trip, Stevens finally meets up with Miss Kenton in Little Compton. His memories turn to the night she announced her engagement, the same night Lord Darlington hosted the German ambassador. Stevens tries to figure out why Miss Kenton left and what he might have done to spur on her engagement.
During his conversation with Miss Kenton, Stevens tries to find out about her relationship with her husband. We wait to see if Stevens will ever get around to expressing his feelings or to asking Miss Kenton to return to Darlington Hall.
Miss Kenton tells Stevens to let go of the past, which: oof. That has to smart. Stevens never announces his intentions to Miss Kenton, who explains that she loves her husband. Instead, they leave each other as good friends.
On the way back to Darlington Hall, Stevens sits on a pier in Weymouth and tries to come to terms with his past.
Stevens embarks on a road trip through the West Country, with a bunch of mishaps along the way.
Stevens finally meets up with Miss Kenton in Cornwall. They leave on friendly terms… but she's staying with her hubby. Stevens is sad.
Stevens stops by Weymouth on his way back to Darlington Hall. At Weymouth, he thinks back on his trip and struggles to come to terms with all his regrets.