An individual’s memories are his or her personal history, and history is the collective memory of a nation. Both are subject to revision over time. Early on, self-deception is necessary to maintain self-respect and dignity. With time, however, the individual, nation or society has the opportunity to achieve self-revelation by an honest appraisal and revision of the past. This book is about how individuals and societies come to face the less than flattering truth about themselves. As Stevens travels further away from his familiar surroundings, he comes closer to understanding himself, his feelings for Miss Kenton, and the nature of Lord Darlington’s role in appeasement of the Nazis in the years leading up to World War II. Also, Stevens’ physical surroundings on the trip become more and more constrained and he is figuratively forced into a corner in which he must confront the shortcomings of his life: his failure to express his love for Miss Kenton, to acknowledge his father, and to recognize Lord Darlington’s flawed character. Twice during this time he pretends not to have known Lord Darlington: once with the chauffeur in Dorset when his car overheats and later with Mrs. Wakefield, the American woman visiting Darlington Hall. He starts his trip from the spacious Darlington Hall, stops at the cozy Taylor residence in Moscombe, waits with Miss Kenton at the bus stop in Weymouth, and finally shares a bench on the pier with a stranger. On the pier bench, Stevens most fully experiences self-revelation. Ishiguro’s precise controlled narrative style perfectly suits the “genuine old-fashioned English butler.”
The butler Mr. Stevens is a man who has enormous difficulty recognizing and coming to terms with his feelings whereas Miss Kenton is just the opposite. Did Stevens suppress his ability to recognize his feelings as a result of his formal training or is it a basic character flaw?
When Miss Kenton comes into his pantry and finds him reading a “sentimental love story,” he can’t admit to himself why he might be reading such a book and doesn’t appear to recognize the irony in his musing, “Why should one not enjoy in a light-hearted sort of way stories of ladies and gentlemen who fall in love and express their feelings for each other, often in the most elegant phrases?”
Down deep Stevens has the correct instincts, but he has great difficulty acting on them … for example, when Miss Kenton’s aunt died he says, “I made my exit, and it was not until after I had done so that it occurred to me I had not actually offered her my condolences. … I paused out in the corridor wondering if I should go back … The thought provoked a strange feeling to rise within me, causing me to stand there hovering in the corridor for some moments.” On another occasion when Stevens is on his way downstairs to get a bottle of port, Miss Kenton pops her head out of her room and apologizes for having made fun of him earlier. He dismisses it, but on the way back he stops by her closed door, convinced she is crying in her room. As after her aunt died, he pauses by the door, but does nothing. Toward the end of the novel (at the bus stop in Weymouth), Stevens speaks of sorrow and heartbreak after he relates Miss Kenton having said to him: “I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens.”
At the very end of the book, Stevens finds himself crying on the pier bench, seated next to a stranger who says, “Oh dear, mate. Here, you want a hankie?” Finally Stevens is coming to terms with his failure to express his feelings and to take a moral stand on issues: “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”
My favorite quote from the book however is the following: “I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” and “What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took?”