The noble servant –Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Stevens’ in The Remains of the
This is the fifth and final installment of the article series that
analyses the character of the protagonist Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s
Booker prize winning novel “The Remains of the Day”. The opening
discussion in this final installment focuses on a crucial perspective
that can very well relate to concerns of a man’s work and
‘respectability’ in society.
The debate(s) on ‘dignity’
In presenting his conceptions of what it means to be a professional
in his vocation, the matter of what distinguishes a gentleman and
gentlemanliness, (for which Stevens is observed and told so by locals he
encounters during his motoring trip) and the notion of ‘dignity’ comes
very pivotally in to the discussion to lend a more comprehensive
understanding of Steven’s theorem unfolded through the novel’s
narrative. The manner of Stevens’ conduct and being is nothing short of
exemplarily dignified. Yet this conception of dignity and what it means
to be dignified may not be one and the same as shared by other persons
presented in the novel, and therefore would not seem universal.
Sir Anthony Hopkins
The idea of dignity as one that defines and distinguishes a gentleman
from the rest seems a rather general and broad notion that needs to be
better defined with specific outlining of what constitutes a dignified
being. Stevens no doubt holds that to be dignified would include a
number of mannerisms and a host of aspects in keeping with ‘social
propriety’. And certainly that may constitute a great sense of civility.
But is it only that? From the words narrated by Stevens it can certainly
be deduced to an extent that being dignified in the case of one such as
he would be inextricably bound with conscientious professionalism.
However, it also may include at a more general level that according to
Stevens’ perceptions to be ‘dignified’ is also to not be brash and
presumptuous, and also know one’s ‘station.’
Dignity –a commoner’s conceptions
A character named Harry Smith whom Stevens meets in the course of his
motoring trip impresses on Stevens that in a way to be dignified it to
not be subservient, and to express oneself freely. Interestingly Smith
believes that dignity is not something just for gentlemen, by which one
can argue that Smith’s idea of being a gentleman involves very strongly
to do with power and status in society which therefore would afford a
‘gentleman’ a great amount of ‘dignity’ for he would not be ‘slave’.
Along these lines of discussion one finds in the novel the idea of
democracy that trust in the wisdom of the common man to be questionable.
And indeed one finds that Stevens very rationally points out to the
reader that popular democracy would not be without its great
Critiquing the notion of democracy based on the wisdom of the masses
Stevens shows how one who has not sufficiently developed his knowledge
on a certain subject of great importance to the affairs of state and
politics of the world must not deem himself positioned to judge matters
that are quite beyond him, simply on the misguided belief that as a
voter he too would possess the right to asset his views on affairs of
great magnitude. On this matter Stevens expresses thus –“There is, after
all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to
demand that each and every one them contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the
great debates of the nation cannot, surely, be wise.
It is, in any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a
person’s ‘dignity’ in these terms.”
Demonstrating limits of knowledge on global affairs
Stevens justifies this point of view by referring to an incident in
Darlington Hall, one that he speaks of as “[W]hic I believe illustrates
rather well the real limits of whatever truth may be contained in Mr.
Harry Smith’s views.” The incident in question is where Lord Darlington
with two gentlemen who had been dinner guests had been in a discussion
on the matter of how much faith can be placed in the people (common man)
to adjudge how the direction of the nation should be moulded.
And when one Mr. Spencer had contended that the ordinary man may not
be the best to judge complex matters of state, he had posed three
questions to Stevens and asked him what his opinions would be and how he
thought it best to decide on those matters. The questions had been on
1. If the debt situation in (post world war one) America is a
significant factor in low levels of trade that had affected Europe at
2. If the currency flow and its matters would be affected by an
armaments agreement between France and the USSR.
3. Whether a speech made by French statesman Pierre Laval on a
situation in North Africa was to attack Nationalist inclinations in
Stevens’ answers politely respond that he is not able to be of any
assistance on those matters. And thereby Spencer demonstrates his point
that had been under contention and censure by one Sir Leonard Grey who
had been strongly in support of government that vested its faith in the
people as the best arbitrator on matters concerning the nation.
Lord Darlington who had not been particularly comfortable of the
position that Stevens was placed offers his apologies to his butler the
following day of the inconvenience and discomfort that may have been
caused Stevens by Spencer’s questions. Stevens in his dutifulness
assures his employer that he was not at all “unduly inconvenienced” and
is told by Lord Darlington that Stevens did in fact assist them by
demonstrating a point of the argument between Sir Leonard and Mr.
Critiquing popular democracy
Stevens in his narrative addressed to the reader contends that great
matters of State must not be meddled with by ones whose understanding is
not competent enough to tackle them and be part of the decision making
processes of England. This is without a doubt a critique of popular
But given the clear pragmatism that one can see on such arguments it
may be suggested that Stevens in deciding so bases his views on sound
reason. The ‘dignity’ therefore that Stevens speaks of is not the same
as what Harry Smith conceives which is in to have a voice in matters of
state and thereby integrally bound with ‘power’. On the contrary it
seems Stevens views that to be dignified one does not necessarily have
to be a power wielder or at least be part of the power bound decision
making processes of state.
Social mobility through knowledge development
In the conceptions and perceptions of one such as Stevens it is
evident that the marker of dignity is to do more with a man’s sense of
civility and moral stature. And what is noble in the outlooks of Stevens
is that he does not consider in archaic ways that mobility in society is
not possible and that one of a mean station in life cannot aspire to
become a man of the ‘hub’ of society.
In fact what one finds in the course of the narrative Stevens’
discourses is that education and knowledge would posit one as suitable
to be part of the power wielding and decision making regardless of his
origins high or low.
And therefore in the outlooks of Stevens it seems that education and
knowledge and also ‘nobleness of intentions’ mark a man’s worthiness.
One may thereby propound that it is far from disempowering the ordinary
man, but in fact present a rationale of how those not privileged by
station of birth may seek to progress in society being of more equipped
to handle matters of great significance.
A professional of great conscience
The high sense of ideals and commitment to excellence in professional
standards is without doubt definitive tenets of Stevens’ character
though one may content that it seems even to remove the more humanness
that comes with laxity of outlooks.
However the exemplary character that one finds in Stevens in keeping
with his ideals and beliefs show one who takes great untiring efforts to
achieve standards that he believes betters a person. Stevens is a
salubrious outcome that can be celebrated, as from the great capitalist
The gentlemanliness and the high ideals can certainly be seen as
making him a respectable figure whose sense of being makes him very much
noble though of a somewhat humble station. He epitomizes those rare
specimens in human kind who are constituted of rare virtues that makes
him a man of admirable conscience –true to his convictions and faithful
to his beliefs.