University of Utah The Remains of The Day Novel Discordant Narrator Discussion

Question 1

We’ve established that Stevens is a discordant narrator (while we trust him to be telling the factual truth about what happens, his interpretation of story event tend to disagree with our view of things). Briefly identify 2 key moments from the novel in which you disagreed with or questioned Stevens’ interpretation of information or events in the novel.

Question 2

Which of our two novels (Salvage the Bones or The Remains of the Day) would you recommend to a friend or family member? Briefly explain which novel, which friend/family member, and why this combination.

Question 3

Briefly discuss your thoughts and reactions to the final scene in which Stevens converses with the stranger on the pier. What do you make of this ending? What it satisfying ending? What had you expected as you reached the ned of the novel and how did the ending meet or exceed or fall short of your expectations or desires?

Question 4

After finishing The Remains of the Day, who do you most sympathize with: Miss Kenton or Stevens? Briefly explain which character and why.

Question 5

Choose 3 keywords (adjectives) or phrases to describe The Remains of the Day.

Lesson 13: Regarding Miss Kenton

As we conclude our study of The Remains of the Day, we should focus some of our attention on Miss Kenton and the impact her character has on our reading experience. Particularly interesting are the ways in which Miss Kenton’s position in the narrative (in both the past and present) contributes to our readerly investment in the stories Stevens recounts and our ability to comprehend their meaning for ourselves (in contrast to the interpretations asserted by our discordant narrator). On one level, Miss Kenton, by way of her letter to Stevens serves an impetus both for the road trip itself and the bounty of memories, recollections, and reflections that occupy Stevens along the way. Though we might forget now again, especially in the longer chapters, the story of Stevens journey to visit Miss Kenton plays out in the chronological present, and we keep reading, in part, to find out what will come of their reunion. On another level, Miss Kenton often serves as a counterbalance to Stevens’ worldview. Her recurring role in Stevens many stories—as well as the very fact that Stevens tells so many stories involving her—shape how we view, understand, and respond to Stevens as the protagonist and as the narrator. Much of our sense of Stevens’s personality and much of the discord that emerges when we sense that his account of story events may be fraught with misperceptions or misinterpretations stem from Miss Kenton’s position in the narrative. We might be stuck relying on Stevens rendering of Miss Kenton, but somehow aspects of Miss Kenton’s subjectivity and facets of their relationship manage to shine through Stevens’ otherwise unwitting narration.

In keeping with the idea that Stevens functions as a discordant narrator—that he provides factual accounts of what happens or happened even though his interpretation or understanding of such story events invite competing interpretations—we can confidently argue that Stevens’ stories involving his relationship with Miss Kenton often reveals things about Stevens that he himself overlooks or fails to recognize. Just because he’s narrating the story doesn’t mean that he grasps or fully appreciates everything he reports to us. Indeed, we readers may often find ourselves sharing Miss Kenton’s reactions to and assessments of Stevens’ behavior and remarks.

Moving forward this lesson takes up a trio of questions—and walks through possible answers—that might help us ascertain how Miss Kenton affects our understanding and response to Stevens’ narrative. The narrative set forth in The Remains of the Day actively encourages us to ask by pointing to gaps in information or ambiguities in meaning that we encounter and find ourselves dealing with as we progress.

[NOTE: For the sake of avoiding spoilers and letting the experience of the end speak for itself, this lesson does directly address the final chapter in which the reunion between Stevens and Miss Kenton takes place.]

  1. What is the nature of the relationship between Miss Kenton and Stevens? Professional or personal?
  1. What intent/meaning does Miss Kenton’s letter convey? How does Stevens’ interpretation of the letter motivate his road trip?
  1. How does Miss Kenton “help” the reader gain insights into story events that are “independent” of Stevens’ perspective?

The first question, concerning the nature of the relationship between Miss Kenton and Stevens, reflects the narrative’s mounting complexity in the second half of the book. The longer we read, the harder it becomes to answer this question in a tidy, matter-of-fact way. The second pair of questions, regarding Miss Kenton’s letter, speak to the circumstances and motivations that have sparked and sustained this entire narrative. There’s a way of looking at the entire narrative as one long, complex reaction and response—by Stevens—to Miss Kenton’s letter. The letter is a catalyst that sets everything in motion. Finally, the third question revisits Stevens’ status as a discordant narrator and alludes to the manner in which Stevens’ narration raises our doubts about his reliability while planting the seeds of alternative interpretations of story events. The more opportunities we get to observe Miss Kenton’s interactions with Stevens, the more appealing her worldview becomes. In essence, Miss Kenton offers a commonsense point of view that encourages, if not reinforces, our reception of the utterly idiosyncratic and often hard to fathom ways that Stevens thinks and behaves.

What is the nature of the relationship between Miss Kenton and Stevens?

Earlier in our study of The Remains of the Day, we observed a thematic struggle between Stevens’ professional identity and his personal life. His tendency to privilege professional duties over personal matters is on full display during the 1923 International Conference at Darlington Hall when our protagonist remains almost entirely focused on fulfilling his obligations as a butler despite knowing his father is on his deathbed. Stevens even contends that a great butler’s virtue is measured, in part, by his ability to maintain professionalism at all times and only shed that professionalism what he’s completely alone. By that logic, then, we might conclude that the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton is strictly professional. They are colleagues; they collaborate and cooperate to manage and address the needs of the great, distinguished household that is Darlington Hall. Of course, relationships are inter-personal; there are two sides, and on Miss Kenton’s side of the relationship their appears to be less absolute adherence to strictly—dare I say, coldly—professional boundaries. Instead of seeing Stevens as merely a colleague and superior, she at the very least, seems to view him as a human being deserving of kindness, care, consideration, friendship, etc. When she tries to liven up Stevens’ butler’s pantry (his office) with a vase flowers, Stevens in his endlessly charming way responds by saying:

“Miss Kenton, I appreciate your kindness. But this is not a room of entertainment. I am happy to have distractions kept to a minimum” (52).

Not only does Stevens reject the kind gesture, but he goes on in the same scene to criticize Miss Kenton for addressing his father in a way he deems improper. Miss Kenton’s sassy, sarcastic response to Stevens’ unsolicited professional advice in the pages that follow shine through as a witty and reassuring indicator of how Miss Kenton pushes back and resists Stevens’ rigidly impersonal demeanor:

“‘I am most indebted to you for your advice…do please tell me, just what marvelous things might I learn from observing your father?’

‘I would have thought it obvious to anyone with eyes, Miss Kenton’

‘But we have already established…that I am particularly deficient in that respect’” (54).

In numerous scenes that follow, Miss Kenton strives to connect with Stevens on a personal level despite his stubborn, and frequently condescending and uncharitable, rejection of her. She signals her fondness for him, she teases him, at one point she mocks him—requesting that Stevens communicate to her only through notes or by messenger so as to make work more efficient. She even flirts with him, lightly pestering him about the romance novels he’s reading and even jesting that Stevens is uncomfortable in the presence of the young maid, Lisa:

“You do not like pretty girls to be on the staff. Might it be that our Mr. Stevens fears distraction? Can it be that our Mr. Stevens is flesh and blood after all?” (156)

Stevens is, of course, totally oblivious to what she’s doing, and frequently reiterates to us the idea that Miss Kenton isn’t respecting boundaries or is violating his sense of propriety. At times, he seems genuinely perturbed that Miss Kenton doesn’t respect the principles and values a great butler must uphold. He states:

“The fact that she could behave as she had done that evening was rather alarming, and after I had seen her out of my pantry […] I recall resolving to set about re-establishing our professional relationship on a more proper footing” (169).

As time passes, the disconnect between Miss Kenton and Stevens grows. He fails to comfort her or express solidarity and sympathy on a pair of important occasions. When Miss Kenton’s courtship begins with her eventual husband, though she initially appears motivated to win Stevens’ attention—trying to trigger a little romantic jealousy, perhaps?—she soon resigns herself to the fact that attracting Stevens’ interest is futile. He even calls off their evening conversations over cocoa when he mistakes Miss Kenton’s quiet sadness for disinterest and distraction. Clearly, there’s some amount of unrequited affection at the center of their relationship and whether we want to describe that as romantic or platonic, what’s so fascinating and remarkable about Stevens’ narration of these story events and episodes is that even though Stevens recounts these moments with such detail he remains ignorant of their significance. Even if Stevens were so monomaniacally devoted to his work at the time, doesn’t he realize in the present moment of narrating these past experiences, that on retrospect, there was a missed opportunity here for deep friendship and maybe something more?

As the reunion approaches, we get some inkling that Stevens might be arriving at a fuller grasp of his relationship Miss Kenton:

“It was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton […] There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” (179)

What meaning does Miss Kenton’s letter convey?

“I have, I should make clear, reread Miss Kenton’s recent letter several times, and there is no possibility I am merely imagining the presence of these hints [of her wish to return to Darlington Hall]” (10)

“Admittedly, she does not at any point in her letter state explicitly her desire to return; but that is the unmistakable message conveyed…” (48).

“One has to accept the distinct possibility that one may have previously—perhaps through wishful thinking of a professional kind—exaggerated what evidence there was regarding such a desire on her part…” (140)

Along with the abbreviated accounts of his travels, thoughts surrounding Miss Kenton’s letter consume much of the limited energy Stevens spends narrating matters of the “present” storyworld (July 1956). From the very first mention of letter on the second page of the novel, Stevens subjects the letter to a medley of possible interpretations. He starts by insisting that the letter voices her personal unhappiness and her desire to return to work at Darlington Hall. Then he qualifies this interpretation: it’s not so much that Miss Kenton explicitly declares these feelings. Rather, as Stevens seems ready to defend, it’s his ability to read between the lines that warrants this reading. Eventually, Stevens concedes that there’s basically nothing in the letter that indicates her aim or ambition to come back to Darlington Hall. Instead, he attributes this misreading of the letter to “wishful thinking of a professional kind.” This explanation echoes a sentiment expressed earlier in the narrative, when Stevens justifies or rationalizes his trip to visit Miss Kenton as a perfect opportunity to solve the professional challenges that have cropped up as a result of the insufficient staff at Darlington Hall.

So, let’s get this straight. Stevens, who has rarely if ever traveled more than an afternoon’s driving distance from Darlington Hall, has now set out on a multi-day road trip in a car he seems barely equipped to operate all for the sake of pursuing the slight chance that maybe Miss Kenton would like to return to his household staff after a couple-few decades? Yeah, right! Even if Stevens can convince himself of such a tale, we readers surely have our doubts about his feelings by now. Could Stevens be this delusional? Could he struggle this mightily to attain some degree of self-awareness?

How does Miss Kenton “help” the reader?

While many of lighter, comical moments in the narrative allow Miss Kenton’s reactions and remarks to highlight the absurdity of Stevens’ intense professionalism and almost unfathomable, stoic resistance to her simple, everyday human charms and affection, one of the most powerful and upsetting moments in the narrative produces not merely an invitation to question Stevens’ perspective on things, but almost an ethical obligation to acknowledge our reservations about him. Recall the troubling circumstances that transpire when Lord Darlington decides that any and all Jewish members of the household staff must be fired. Recall as well how Stevens defends this decision not on the basis of sharing its anti-Semitic grounds, but by way of a very concerning rationalization that as a professional he is duty-bound to abide by his employer’s wishes without questioning their merits or morals. Indeed, Stevens goes so far as to suggest that he and Miss Kenton are not equipped to pass judgment on or question, let alone defy, Lord Darlington’s assessment of the situation.

We learn, because Stevens tells us, that Miss Kenton was and remains devastated by the firing of her housemaids. When Stevens later concedes that he was troubled by the situation, Miss Kenton calls him out for keeping that information to himself and failing to share his true feelings in service of upholding professional appearances:

‘Do you realize, Mr. Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’

I gave another laugh at the ridiculous turn the conversation had suddenly take. ‘Really Miss Kenton…I’m not sure I know what you mean. Pretend?’

‘I suffered so much over Ruth and Sarah leaving us. And I suffered alone all the more because I believed that I was alone’. (153-54)

There’s a lot going on here, but in an effort to wrap up this lesson in a way that dovetails with what we’ve already been saying, let us note two important things about this conversation. First, Miss Kenton poses an important question to Stevens: Why do you always have to pretend? It’s a question that we readers increasingly find ourselves wanting to ask as we work to understand our complicated narrator-protagonist. Why is the performance of his professional role so important that Stevens must sacrifice any semblance of authenticity and basic humanity? Why must he pretend to not care, to always be impartial and objective? Why must he never let his guard down or reveal himself to others? Why does he remain so devoted and committed to this professional role despite the very real effects it has on others around him? Miss Kenton’s question, we should notice, does not ask “why, Stevens, are you such a terrible, uncaring, soulless person?” She doesn’t believe that Stevens’ lacks the emotional capacity to care for others on a personal level. Instead, she challenges Stevens’ lack of compassion by accusing him of pretending, and in doing so, she preserves her belief (and ours?) that Stevens does have a conscience and feelings and a full range of human emotions, morals, and sentiments. Even if we don’t get a clear answer to her questions and our own, Miss Kenton reassures us readers that these are the appropriate, right questions we ought to be asking. As we approach the closing stages of the narrative, we must wait to see if Stevens will eventually ask any of these questions of himself and if he does, how he might answer them (since none of us can do so for him).

Lesson 14: Stevens Makes His Case

This lesson follows up on the observation made in Lesson 12 that Stevens is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but rather a discordant narrator. Moving into the second half of the novel, we need to a closer look at the way Stevens presents a narrative (the frame narrative and the various embedded narratives) that feels laced with persuasive intent, as if he’s trying to convince us readers or himself of something. The longer the narrative goes on the greater the sense is that Stevens is making a case for his own legacy as a great butler. While Stevens gives us the impression that some of the earlier embedded narratives just cropped up haphazardly as passing daydreams and memories of the glory days of Darlington Hall, the accumulating embedded narratives increasingly center on pivotal moments from Stevens’ life in which his unceasing commitment and dedication to his work is on display. The story events under review seems less arbitrary and more carefully curated.

Opening Arguments

What initially appears to be a nostalgic, sentimental yearning for a bygone era—which perhaps endears us to Stevens—has increasingly higher stakes as the discord grows between Steven’s portrayal of his past and his desire to justify, defend, qualify, and rationalize these story events and their possible interpretations. As we’ve already noted, Stevens’ tendency to directly address us readers (or some imagined reader) places us in the awkward—though perhaps also stimulating and entertaining—position of being on the receiving end of something like a persuasive argument. The story events Stevens narrates to us aren’t left to speak for themselves, and we aren’t given privilege of interpreting them on our own without his active interference. Instead, as I think we come to intuit, if not fully realize, we face the challenge of trying to make sense of story events for ourselves while Stevens simultaneously tries to interpret them for us.

In effect, our task as readers becomes doubly challenging—and, ideally, doubly rewarding. In addition to the familiar work of trying to understand and make meaning out of the story events and conflicts and characters—the kind of activity we’ve engaged in all course long—we also now have the unfamiliar and uncomfortable task of trying to figure out and make sense of Stevens’ efforts to shape or influence our interpretation of these story elements. Can we read through the discordant narrator’s efforts to manage or manipulate our comprehension of and reactions to his narrative?

Understandably, Stevens appears motivated to convince or reassure himself that his life’s work was honorable and worthwhile. While the topic of dignity and other criteria associated with the great butlers of history began as a rather detached, impersonal analysis, Stevens eventually begins to evaluate his own record of performance against the established standards of the profession. Initially, he makes theoretical claims:

“‘Dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits […] the great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing.” (42-43)

In an effort to illustrate this form of dignity with a real example, Stevens calls upon anecdotes and professional lore involving his father and the unnamed butler who discovers the tiger in the dining room, etc. In effect, Stevens lays out—in a seemingly objective, scholarly way—a basic standard or a litmus test by which a butler’s greatness can be measured.

As the narrative progresses, though, and as Stevens narrates additional stories of his experiences as Lord Darlington’s butler, he begins to frame or portray his professional service in terms of concepts like dignity, greatness, professionalism, etc. In the long chapter that recalls the events and circumstances surrounding the 1923 International Conference at Darlington Hall—what Stevens refers to as “a turning point” in his life and “the moment in my career when I truly came of age as a butler”—Stevens doesn’t seem to be merely recalling these events. He seems to be presenting them as a form of evidence:

“Of course, it is not for me to suggest that I am worthy of ever being placed alongside the likes of the ‘great’ butlers of our generation […] Even so, if you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a ‘dignity’ worthy of [the great butlers].” (110)

Instead of leaving these story events to speak for themselves—remember this is the occasion on which Stevens dutifully tends to Lord Darlington’s guests (including the sores on DuPont’s feet!) while his colleagues care for his dying father—Stevens suggests that these events should be viewed in a certain way, that his performance deserves to be acknowledged as exhibiting “dignity” and that it rightfully amounts to a professional triumph. He’s coy about it, but in a way that belies any real sense of humility. Even as he says that it’s not for him to suggest he’s among the great butlers, we can feel his persuasive intent: a kind of well, don’t take my word for it, just look at the evidence. Of course, the evidence actually fails to flatter Stevens’ reputation, which fosters one of the most significant early signs of the bubbling discord between our narrator and us readers.

Further Arguments

As we progress into the second half of the book, Stevens further refines and articulates the criteria for great butlers by taking up the expectation that they work in and for a “distinguished household.” As Stevens works to clarify his position and refine this rubric for assessing a butler’s professional standing and performance, he invests deeply in the notion that a butler’s achievement is contingent upon the moral status and the importance of his employer. A great butler is one who serves a gentleman committed to “furthering the progress of humanity” (114). As Stevens ultimately contends, “I think it is fair to say, professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer” (114). Again, Stevens initially addresses the matter of his place of employment and the reputation of his employer in a seemingly detached objective way, before calling attention to the ways these debated standards and qualifications, in fact, align quite neatly with his own resume. It turns out that the Hayes Society’s standards, which he previously criticized, aren’t just a subject hypothetical debate and recreational argument. For Stevens, this professional code has shaped his sense of duty and service. To Stevens’ mind, being attached to a distinguished household and serving a great gentleman means that the butler himself is not only poised to witness history as it unfolds, but to also (indirectly) serve the course of human affairs:

“Each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.” (116)

“One has had the privilege of practicing one’s profession at the very fulcrum of great affairs. And one has a right, perhaps, to feel a satisfaction […] of being able to say with some reasons the one’s efforts, in however a modest way, comprise a contribution to the course of history” (139).

Preliminary Conclusions

Ostensibly, Stevens narrates his past professional experiences in ways that advance a logic-and-reason-based argument. Given our impressions of Stevens’ personality, we shouldn’t be surprised that he has no use for trying to win our approval on an emotional level. But the narratives get increasingly messy, and our readiness to routinely share Stevens’ interpretation of story events is frequently tested.

The trouble is that Stevens has hitched his wagon to Lord Darlington. In other words, Stevens’ sense of professional accomplishment heavily, heavily relies upon his belief in Lord Darlington’s greatness, moral stature, rightness, honor, and justifiable and appropriate participation in world affairs, etc. For the first three quarters of the narrative, we observe Stevens’ sustained efforts to champion Lord Darlington’s cause. Stevens defends his deceased employer’s reputation and legacy, and he dismisses his detractor’s as being uninformed, full of nonsense, and guilty of perpetuating exaggerated rumors. As Stevens works to clarify, justify, and downplay Lord Darlington’s political dealings and activities amid the rise of Nazism in Europe, we readers find ourselves in an even more awkward predicament than we previously recognized.

Notice that despite his intentions, Stevens unwittingly narrates the very stories that raises our doubts about Lord Darlington’s profound awesomeness. Let’s face it, Stevens so naively or obstinately misreads story events that he believes he’s setting the record straight about Lord Darlington’s moral stature, when, in fact, he’s handing over the evidence that Lord Darlington was apparently not so great and that, if not evil himself, certainly comfortable consorting with people that certainly were.

In addition to parsing the complicated details of Lord Darlington’s past affairs and legacy, we readers are also working hard to ascertain why Stevens keeps defending Lord Darlington and what that might say about Stevens. Seriously! Why is Stevens so committed to a version of the past that looks more questionable, more suspect, and more troubling with each turn of the page? Is Stevens so blindly devoted to a man or an ideal that the possibility of its falsehood is too much to face?

Emerging Complications

At the end of “Day Three – Evening,” Stevens hints at his growing awareness of possible problems with Lord Darlington’s affairs and worldview, but he doesn’t seem ready to own the consequences of those problems and what they mean for his own legacy. Rejecting the notion that a butler should determine the ultimate good of his work by considering (and questioning when needed) his employer’s values and actions, Stevens tries to introduce a new trait for great butlers to champion: loyalty. In other words, Stevens now contends that in estimating a butler’s reputation and legacy, loyalty to his employer trumps the employer’s moral standing. It’s hard for us readers to miss the fact that Stevens has effectively contradicted himself here.

“A butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own ‘strong opinions’ on his employer’s affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty.” (200)

Suddenly, Stevens seems to be changing the rules of the game in order to better suit the hand he sees he’s been dealt. Indeed, the appeal to loyalty as a professional virtue seems to be presented not so much as an affirmation of Stevens’ professional accomplishment, but as a means of separating or decoupling his professional identity from Lord Darlington’s “now-suspect” legacy. As he concludes the chapter, Stevens ponders:

“How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish? […] It is hardly my fault if his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste – and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.” (201)

Is Stevens actually trying to convince us with this rather flimsy explanation? Or is he, we might wonder, trying desperately to convince himself? Is all this reminiscing and remembering and recollecting starting to unearth insights and realizations that Stevens previously missed or overlooked?

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