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Sunday, 30 January 2011





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The noble servant –Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Stevens’ in The Remains of the Day

Part 5

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 shortcomings.

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 that time.

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 France.

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. Spencer.

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 democracy.

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 system.

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.


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