Regret is something that anyone who has lived any length of time has. We all experience moments of what ifs, moments when we look back and wish that we might go back and change our experiences for the better. But that is not possible, so we have a choice to make. Either we continue to sit and wonder what might have been, or we look to the future and try to make the best of what lies before us. It is this decision that is at the heart of The Remains of the Day by British author Kazuo Ishiguro.
Our story begins in the 1950s when Stevens, the long time butler of Darlington Hall, is given the opportunity by his new employer to take a motoring trip through the English countryside. He accepts this proposal, and sets off to the west. Stevens also decides to mix business with pleasure. Just before he sets out, he receives a letter from a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton. She seems to indicate in this letter that she might be willing to return service at Darlington, so Stevens decides to stop by and see if this is indeed the case. He is also very interested in seeing Miss Kenton again for his own pleasure (though he never admits to that).
As he travels, Stevens begins to reminisce about the past, especially that time in the mid 1930s when he (and Darlington Hall) were at their height. At first, Stevens congratulates himself in that by serving a great man (his former employer Lord Darlington), he has served humanity for the better. But as certain instances come to his remembrance, he begins to question just how great a man Lord Darlington was, and also the many wasted opportunities between himself and Miss Kenton.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
Stevens is the quintessential English butler and he takes his job very seriously. He is consumed with the meaning of "dignity" and is always trying to be the best butler possible. In fact, the only time that he ever sheds his role as butler is when he is completely alone. We know that he is human (Miss Kenton catches him reading sentimental love story), but he never lets anyone see his true feelings, not even his own father. This is one of the regrets that Stevens has, that he was not able to open himself up to those he loved. He could not shed a tear over his father's death, and when he discovers Miss Kenton sobbing, the best he can do to comfort her is to remind her of a small task that needed doing. It is, in fact, his relationship with Miss Kenton that suffers the most because of this. It is pretty obvious to us that Miss Kenton loves Stevens, and though she is good at her job, she often lets her emotions show through. This is where Steven's frustrates her (and us as well). She can't get past that shell that Steven's wears, and is never quite sure what his feelings are for her. Consequently, she eventually gives up and settles for a life with a man she knows loves her, rather than to wait forever on the man she loves whose feelings she is unsure of.
The other major regret that Stevens has concerns his former employer, Lord Darlington. It is the mid 1930s. Nazi Germany is beginning to grow restless and the world is unsure of how to deal with Hitler's growing power. Lord Darlington begins to hold mini-international conferences at Darlington Hall to try and figure out the best way to handle the situation. At first, Stevens feels that since he was able to serve Lord Darlington (who was striving for world peace), he has indirectly served humanity for the better. But as Stevens remembers more of what exactly went on, he begins to see many of the consequences of Lord Darlington's actions. Lord Darlington's thinking is "Peace for our time" and, like many of the British aristocracy of the time, he hopes to avoid another Great War by appeasing the Nazis. But by not crushing Hitler the moment he began to break the Treaty of Paris, a war far worse than any other was brought about. Stevens now wonders if he should have actually researched the matter instead of blindly trusting his Lordship's opinions.
Ishiguro could have ended the book here, with Stevens mulling over his regrets and what ifs, but he chooses not to. Instead he gives a bit more of an optimistic ending. Stevens sits on the western shore of Britain, and he is amazed when the crowd around him cheers as the boardwalk lights are turned on. An older gentleman who is sitting next to him explains that evening is their favorite time of day. The work is done, and while they are able to reflect on the accomplishments and failures of the day, they are also able to look forward to the remaning hours of the day, and the possibilities that now await them. Stevens decides to adopt this attitude. He chooses to learn from his past failings, but to also look forward to the possibilities that lie before him as a butler and as a man.
This is one of the better modern books that I have read. It is simple yet very reflective. It is not an action packed story, so if you are more of an action-oriented reader, this may not be the book for you. But it definitely has many thought provoking themes, and I recommend at least giving it a try.
A film based on this novel was released in the early 90's and stars the amazing Anthony Hopkins as Stevens, Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton, Christopher Reeve, and a very young Hugh Grant. It follows the story pretty well, though the ending is not as nicely wrapped up as in the book. It is a very well made movie, but I recommend reading the book first, as otherwise it could be a little confusing.