“Remains of the day” is this year’s Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s one of the famous novels. It is about a buttoned-up British butler, Stevens, looking back at his life towards the end of his career. The character is beautifully depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the movie also titled “Remains of the day”. Throughout his work as a butler, Stevens had placed higher value on professional duties than on personal feelings and served his employer faithfully. Hence, I was surprised when Ishiguro referred to this mild mannered character as a kind of monster in a conversation with a fellow writer. Why would Ishiguro say that? Let’s see in this article.
Ishiguro’s comment comes in a conversation published in New Statesman (June 2015) with the writer Neil Gaiman titled “Let’s talk about genre”. Here is what Ishiguro says:
Creating an incredibly stuffy English butler in The Remains of the Day, I was very aware that I was taking something that I recognised to be a very small, negative set of impulses in myself – the fear of getting hurt in love, or that urge to just say, “I don’t want to figure out the political implications or the moral implications of my job, I’m just going to get on with my tiny patch”; those kinds of little urges we all recognise in ourselves – taking those and exaggerating them, and turning them into a kind of monstrous manifestation. The butler doesn’t look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster.
He then quotes a line from a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman:
I’m reminded of something Lettie says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”
In case of Stevens, the butler, Ishiguro is referring to the last category – monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t. Now, what does Stevens do that qualifies him as a monster of this kind? This is 1920s and 30s. Stevens’ boss Lord Darlington doesn’t like the way the Germany gets treated after the defeat in the First World War. Hence, he is sympathetic towards Germans. He wants to help them. In the process, without fully aware of what he might be doing, he ends up supporting the Nazi movement. Stevens is the central character when it comes to taking care of all the guests at the Darlington Hall. He is not bothered what kind of political meeting is taking place at the Hall; he is doing his job with utmost faith. In fact, he believes that the real dignity of a butler lies in doing the job well by paying attention to every detail and keeping his employer happy. Of course, his boss is supporting a monstrous act and Stevens consciously ignores it. That makes him a supporter of a monstrous act and hence a monster himself.
In another interview titled “The texture of memory”, Ishiguro explains that butler is used as a metaphor here. There is a butler in each of us. Here is how he explains it:
In some political and moral ways, most of us are butlers (2:30). By that I mean, even in democratic countries, we find ourselves oddly far removed from the real power. Most of us do jobs – good jobs, little jobs. But most of us don’t run countries or multinational corporations. We fit in somewhere, if we are lucky, and we learn to do a little job and try to do it to the best of our abilities. Usually we offer up our contribution to somebody upstairs. We hope that the contribution is going to be used well. But we often can’t be sure. We offer it up to a company, or an employer, or may be a cause or a country. But in that sense we are all rather like butlers. So I was attracted to this figure who wanted to be so good at being a butler; everything was about serving his employer. But he thought it was beyond him to question how his contribution is being used. That leaves us all open to discovering at some stage that perhaps we contributed to something we don’t particularly approve of. But for most us that is our fate. We live in small worlds.
Once we get busy polishing up our image to fit into a system, we are lost in our small world. We systematically, without being aware of it, are ignoring to see the bigger picture. And once we are lost in our small world, the world made up of a set of beliefs and values, we are a victim of self-deception. We are creating stories, elaborate stories, to justify our acts and our existence. People trapped in self-deception are potentially monsters. Who knows what they may end up supporting? Be careful, you may be a monster too.
image source: en.wikipedia.org