Study Guide

The Remains of the Day Themes

By Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Friendship

    What lays the foundation for an ideal friendship? Being in elementary school together? Growing up on the same block? Meeting in a fraternity? Whatever it is, it's definitely not working together, right?

    Wrong—at least in this novel. Weirdly, the strongest friendships in the world of The Remains of the Day tend to be the kind developed by working together in a professional capacity—butlers and their employers, butlers and butlers, butlers and housekeepers. There is a sense that working together establishes a kind of mutual respect that just ain't possible elsewhere.

    Translating this mutual respect from work life to personal life is pretty tricky (Stevens is terrible at socializing outside the workplace), but the novel does suggest that it is absolutely necessary for a better world.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Take a look at the occasions where Stevens interacts directly with Lord Darlington in conversation, and consider his behavior after Lord Darlington's death. How would you describe their relationship? Are they friends?
    2. Take a look at the occasions where Stevens interacts with Miss Kenton. Describe a few moments when they seem to get along, then compare these to other moments when they don't. In what circumstances do they get along well? What creates tension between them?
    3. Take a look at other relationships in Stevens's life, particularly his relationship with his father, Mr. Graham, and Mr. Cardinal. How are these relationships similar to or different from his relationship with Lord Darlington? With Miss Kenton?

    Chew on This

    In The Remains of the Day, friendship is valued over all other relationships because it is based on mutual respect.

    In The Remains of the Day, the strongest friendships develop between professionals, but an excessive focus on professionalism can also prove harmful to friendships.

  • Repression

    The thing about sexual repression is that sexual feelings are never totally repressed. They always manage to find weird ways of letting you know they still exist—hey, Freud built a career out of this.

    In The Remains of the Day, these feelings emerge in mistakes unbecoming to the #1 Most Perfect Butler, Stevens. He never, ever expresses his true feelings—even to himself. He feels compelled to maintain his professional calm at all times, even when his father dies, and even when the woman he might love announces that she intends to marry another man. And, sadly, even though he tries to convince us (and himself) that sacrificing feelings for professionalism is necessary (even heroic!) we see the painful consequences of his repression throughout the novel.

    Questions About Repression

    1. What are some admirable instances of emotional restraint in the novel? What are some instances where restraint doesn't seem to work so well?
    2. What is Stevens's attitude toward women? Toward female servants, including housekeepers and maids?
    3. How does Stevens act around Miss Kenton? What actions or statements indicate that his feelings for her may be more than just friendship?
    4. Do you think Stevens and Miss Kenton would have made a good couple? Would marriage have strengthened their friendship or weakened it, like Miss Kenton's relationship with her husband?

    Chew on This

    While emotional restraint may be admirable in professional life, it can seriously hamper one's ability to enjoy more intimate relationships.

    Stevens and Miss Kenton's friendship endures precisely because they are not in a romantic relationship.

  • Guilt and Blame

    The narrator reflects back to the 1930s from a point ten years after the end of World War II and the devastating consequences of the Holocaust.

    While the 1945 Nuremberg Trials of Nazis and their associates are never mentioned, they are certainly in the backdrop as the narrator considers his employer's engagement with Nazi diplomats and flirtations with British fascism in the years leading up to the war.

    Is Stevens's employer actually guilty? Is Stevens himself, simply by virtue of working for his employer, also guilty, or can he claim the "Nuremberg defense": that he was only acting on orders from his superior? The novel takes on the form of a defense or confession as the narrator carefully reflects over his past experiences and possible guilt.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Why does Lord Darlington suffer so much public disgrace after World War II?
    2. Do you think Lord Darlington is responsible for his actions? Did he knowingly cooperate with the Nazis, with a full awareness of their genocidal aims? Or was he taken advantage of? Does having good intentions make him any less guilty? Draw on specific instances in the novel to support your responses.
    3. Consider Stevens's and Miss Kenton's behavior when Lord Darlington asks him to fire the Jewish maids. Do you think they acted appropriately? Do you think they should feel guilty for complying with Lord Darlington's request? What would you have done in their shoes?
    4. Mr. Cardinal takes Stevens to task for not being curious or critical enough of Lord Darlington's activities. Do you think Mr. Cardinal has a point? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Through the course of The Remains of the Day, Stevens gradually comes to some recognition of his guilt in his association with Lord Darlington.

    Even through the loyal and largely uncritical perspective of his butler, Lord Darlington's actions still seem blameworthy.

  • Memory and the Past

    In history class we learn a lot about important events and people. The news is filled with important things every day. But where does an ordinary person fit into all of this?

    The Remains of the Day isn't just a fictional memoir. It's an attempt to coordinate one's personal memory with "great" historical events. It goes behind the scenes to look at historical figures from the humbler perspective of the house's staff. In the novel, personal memory and historical understanding prove to be equally elusive, as the true significance of events can only be realized in hindsight… if at all.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What are some of Stevens's most striking visual memories? What are some of his most vivid stories or phrases?
    2. Take a look at the times when Stevens mentions or recites from Miss Kenton's letter. How do Miss Kenton's words inspire Stevens's memories?
    3. What do we learn about the English attitude toward the Versailles treaty (the peace treaty that ended World War I) and toward the Germans in the years leading up to World War II? Why is this historical context important to the story?
    4. Do you think Stevens is also nostalgic for the past, for his years working with Miss Kenton before World War II and before Lord Darlington's public disgrace? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Stevens's strongest memories are usually initiated by Miss Kenton's words.

    The public's forgetting of the English attitude toward Germany before World War II parallels Stevens's own forgetfulness. Just as Stevens remembers in order to understand his culpability, society as a whole cannot afford to forget its own mistakes.

  • Principles (Duty, Dignity, Professionalism)

    The Remains of the Day focuses on the life of a butler who has devoted his entire life to his profession, with very, very little time to spare for a personal life. Sheesh, that seems bleak.

    This novel dwells on the values and virtues of professionalism, which, to the butler, can be encompassed by the catchall term "dignity." But professionalism isn't just confined to Steven's butlering. It's also an important concept for the diplomacy that Lord Darlington attempts. There is a bunch of tension between professional, diplomats, and those (like Lord Darlington) who are amateurs but able to play the diplomacy game because they were born rich and influential.

    Questions About Principles (Duty, Dignity, Professionalism)

    1. Take a look at the passages in which Stevens attempts to define "dignity." What is dignity, according to him? Does his definition of dignity change over the course of the novel? If so, how?
    2. Consider the various characters' attitudes toward professionalism: Stevens, Miss Kenton, Lord Darlington, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Cardinal. How are they similar? How are they different?
    3. Do you think Stevens has dignity? Do any of the characters have dignity? Which ones and why?

    Chew on This

    In The Remains of the Day, professionalism is a contested topic not only among the house staff, but also among the diplomats they serve.

    Ironically, Stevens has the most dignity when he steps out of his professional shell and exhibits human emotion.

  • Society and Class

    The uber-stratified society described in The Remains of the Day can seem a little foreign—a lot of us wouldn't be able to identify a gentleman if he hit us with his monocle. And yet all of the characters in the novel seem to recognize a gentleman when they see one.

    In a world where gentlemen are distinguished from the common people, the novel explores whether true democracy is possible. Is "the ordinary man" capable of caring enough to intelligently consider important political questions (um, yes) and can gentlemen have an overinflated sense of their own capabilities (um, if this novel is any indication: yes).

    Maybe if gentlemanliness is an ideal worth hanging on to, the novel suggests, it actually has nothing to do with birth, but rather with standing by principles such as democracy, justice, and equality. Hecky yes.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Consider some of the "gentlemen" in the novel: Lord Darlington, Sir Cardinal and his son, Mr. Cardinal, Monsieur Dupont, and Mr. Spencer, among others. What qualities do they have in common? What are their attitudes toward the lower classes?
    2. Consider the characters who are not gentlemen in the novel: Stevens, Miss Kenton, Mr. Smith, the Taylors, and the stranger on the pier, among others. What qualities do they have in common? Do you think they are portrayed as intellectually inferior, as some "gentlemen" characters think they are? Or do they seem capable of participating in public affairs?
    3. What are the attitudes of various characters to democracy? Do you think the novel as a whole is sympathetic to democracy? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The society depicted in The Remains of the Day is so rigidly divided by class that true democracy seems totally impossible.

    The working-class characters in The Remains of the Day display the same kind of friendship and interest in politics that other characters have defined as gentlemanly, English characteristics.

  • Politics (Fascism, Anti-Semitism, Englishness)

    The Remains of the Day tackles some of the important questions that were raised in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust—but only some, because approximately one gajillion super-important questions were raised. The enormity of the Holocaust led many to question how a supposedly civilized Europe could let something so insanely horrific happen. Attitudes toward race and national identity were shaken.

    The novel explores how a seemingly noble attachment to Englishness and English values such as fairness and humanity could be associated with fascism and anti-Semitism. Finding one race (the English) superior led to finding other races (the Jews) inferior. This, unfortunately, was a slippery slope that too many in England found themselves on in the years preceding World War II.

    Questions About Politics (Fascism, Anti-Semitism, Englishness)

    1. How do different characters define Englishness? Compare the attitudes of Stevens, Lord Darlington, and other characters.
    2. What are some instances of anti-Semitism in the novel? According to Stevens, why did Lord Darlington become (at least briefly) an anti-Semite?
    3. Which characters are directly engaged in politics? Which characters are not? Does the novel seem to support the view that politics is only for the elite, or do you think the novel sides more with the democrats?

    Chew on This

    The Remains of the Day explores the uncomfortable proximity of fascism and patriotism, or pride in Englishness.

    The Remains of the Day reveals the irony of the political elite's view that they are more qualified to direct public affairs by virtue of their position in society.

  • Exploration

    When compared to great stories of exploration such as The Odyssey or On The Road, the journey described in The Remains of the Day seems kind of laughable.

    There are no exotic lands, strange creatures, or spine-tingling adventures here—just a butler driving through some pleasant English countryside (and badly at that). But this journey, however modest, is precisely what the butler needs in order to see his homeland with new eyes. Exploration becomes a way for Stevens to see what he once took for granted. He then turns this fresh eye on the twists and turns that have made up his own life.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Take a look at the way scenes from the countryside and villages are depicted. What are the scenes like? How does the time of day affect your perception of these scenes? Do these places seem welcoming or hostile? Why or why not?
    2. Describe Stevens's state of mind on the road trip and compare it to his behavior as a butler within the confines of Darlington Hall. How does his behavior change in different scenes? Do you see any changes in his thinking over the course of the road trip?
    3. In the first chapter, Stevens asserts that simply by working in a big, important house, he has been exposed to more of England than any sightseer. Does the novel support his view? Would he have arrived at the same thoughts and conclusions if he had not gone on his road trip? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Travel provides Stevens with the kind of fresh perspective that he needs to reflect on his own experiences.

    The English countryside that Stevens drives through is often depicted as a foreign, sometimes hostile place.