20th Century British Literature Essay

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Remains of the Day

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In the years following World War II, a great change took place in the British Empire along side an equally monumental change in English society. The 1950's saw the collapse of the British Empire, an empire on which it was said the sun never set. However, in 1958, the year in which Kazuo Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day begins, the sun was definitely setting on the British Empire. At the same time, the sun was setting on a way of life that was intricately linked to Imperial society, the great houses of the aristocracy. While the British Empire was in full swing, English society was centered around the aristocracy; and its well maintained residences which served as the backdrop for social, political, and economic gatherings. These great residences required a staff of dozens to maintain, and this staff evolved into a microcosm of the British Empire. When the British Empire dissolved after World War II, so to did the society of the great residences, along with their staffs. In a sense, the experiences of the staffs of these great residences could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of the British Empire at large; and this is exactly what Ishiguro does with his novel the Remains of the Day. The novel tells the story of the butler of a great house and a great lord who dedicated his entire existence to serving his master, without thought to his personal feelings. But after the master died, the butler must re-examine his existence, as well as his service to his former master, and wonder if his life had been spent in vain. Many see similarities in the life of the butler and that of the British Empire; with the butler representing the society upon which the British Empire had been built. In effect, the collapse of the British Empire coincided with the collapse of the butler's previous existence, and like the British nation, the butler had to discover what to do with the remains of his days.

TOPIC: Essay on 20th Century British Literature Assignment

Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day serves as a metaphor for the collapse of the British Empire in the way that the main character re-examines his life of service. The butler has been in service to a great lord for 35 years, and has a very exacting definition of his duties. "Dignity," is the word used to describe the butler's existence, but this definition of dignity is very restrictive. A great butler must always maintain poise and a level-headedness in the face of great adversity, something that is exemplified by a story of a tiger in India. When a butler in India noticed a tiger under the dining room table, he kept his composure and quickly shot the tiger, stating to his employer that "Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say that there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time." (Ishiguro 36) This story is representative of the duty of the butler: to maintain his composure under the most trying of circumstances. All personal feelings, fear, happiness, sadness, etc., must be secondary to service to the master. Stevens, the butler in the story, maintains this type of composure throughout his service to his master Lord Darlington.

This definition of "dignity," something that, according to Stevens, is essential for a butler to become great, is also a double-edged sword; while it serves as the path to greatness in the world of servants, it also necessitates complete loyalty and devotion to one's master at the expense of one's own personal life. This happens to Stevens, who, it is clear had deep feeling for Ms. Kenton the housekeeper, and she for him, but could not bring himself to express his feeling for her because of his duty to his master. Stevens is so ingrained in his role as servant that he cannot allow himself to experience a of life of his own. In effect, "it was Stevens' role as servant, as server of Lord Darlington rather than fulfiller of himself, that got in the way of any personal relationship he might have had with Ms. Kenton." ( Cardullo 618) it also got in the way of his relationship with his father. As much as he loves his father, as demonstrated by his treatment of him during his father's time working at Darlington, he could not bring himself to leave his work in order to be with him when he is dying. Stevens continues to serve at his master's conference with tears in his eyes rather than excuse himself and see to his dying father. It is Stevens refusal to engage with either his father or Ms. Kenton that exemplifies the master servant relationship as defined by English Society prior to World War II. A great butler must be able to put aside any personal feelings in order to perform his duties to his master, no matter what the circumstances.

But as the British Empire dissolves, along with aristocratic society, Stevens is faced with re-examining his role within a society that is increasingly becoming extinct. British society and the British Empire were inextricably linked; as the servant served his master in the household, British colonial subjects were to serve the Empire with equal dedication. And the aristocracy expected that they would be treated better than the rest of society because they felt they really were better that the rest of society; just as the British were superior to their colonial subjects. In effect, the British Empire mirrored the hierarchy of British society, something that Stevens accepts without question. He felt it is his duty to maintain his role as an inferior because he was an inferior. His duty to his lord included the blind acceptance that his lord was a superior human being, and the belief that serving a superior human being would bring meaning to his life as well.

This loyalty to his master may be best exemplified when Stevens is questioned by Lord Darlington's aristocratic guests. In an attempt to display their superiority, his guests ask Stevens a series of complicated questions on international relations and economics. In response, Stevens can only bring himself to respond that he in "unable to be of assistance on this matter." (Ishiguro 195) He feels that his duty to serve his lord requires him to be ignorant of outside matters and so, when put into the position of answering complicated questions, he plays the role that the guest expect of him: an ignorant servant deferring to the wisdom of his superiors. However, his "superiors" are hardly wise and instead Lord Darlington is described as being "far from having been admirable, was actually a crypto Fascist busily engaged in the appeasement of Hitler." (Tamaya 51) Stevens is faced with the fact that he has been completely loyal to a man he believed was superior and it turned out that he was not only mistaken, but that his lord had actually caused more harm than good. This represents the feeling that many have about the former British Empire; that it was run by a group of ignorant, arrogant, British aristocrats for their own gain and at the expense of everyone else. And in their attempt to maintain their monopoly on power, to maintain the order to the British Empire, they caused a great deal of pain and suffering.

But as the British Empire begins to dissolve after World War II, so to does the monopoly on power held by the aristocracy. And as a result, the aristocracy also falls from grace, never to return to their exalted positions of grandiose power and wealth. Along with the aristocracy, their servants also find themselves in a new world where they did not have a position anymore. There was no place for the absolute dedication reserved for a master by their servant. A new, democratic order had arisen where the common man is politically equal to the aristocrat, and no longer meekly accepting their "place" in society. This change is uniquely exemplified by Stevens' relationship with his new American employer. The American, Mr. Faraday, likes to chit chat with Stevens, something that was unspeakable in the old way of doing things, and this banter which Faraday requires, makes Stevens extremely uncomfortable. He is untrained in speaking to his employer as an equal, to actually give his own opinions on subjects as his opinions had always been whatever his master expected them to be. But in the new order, he is forced to adapt to this democratization of society. Although he tries to regain the past by rehiring Ms. Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, her present circumstances make it impossible for her to return, forcing Stevens to confront his new circumstances. But with his usual complacency, Stevens resigns himself to the acceptance of this new life, exemplified by his "bantering" with Faraday, as just another duty that he must perform. Stevens views the banter as a duty, not social… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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