Genre: classics, historical fiction
Awards: Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989
In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.
This story may seem at first to have little to do with philosophical questions or the human condition then the author hits us with many deep thoughts all at once. It is a truly wonderful book even though you may think it somewhat slow. It is worth the read when you are in the mood for something more sedate and free of drama.
“If you are under the impression you have already perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of.”
The focus is on the life and mindset of Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall. He constantly maintains an inward and outward sense of dignity to preserve his own identity.He may appear to be the perfect servant but deep down his convictions of what constitutes a great butler stifle and imprison him. He is incapable of acting of his own incentive if it is not connected with his service. He has no talent for politics or better said he consciously turns the blind eye to his employer’s darker traits and failings.
He was brought up with many tales of great butlers by his father who himself was a butler. The Victorian ideals are given to the boy as gospel and he excels in following the directives to the point that he appears almost like an automaton rather than a human being. He stays to serve drinks to a bunch of pampered and entitled men rather than be at the deathbed of his own father. He truly believes his father would wish him to serve his employer’s guests. It is maddening because Stevens is not a cruel man. He has his plan how to run a house but he’s not cruel or overbearing to the servants.
“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? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. 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? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
I believe the subtle romance going on with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, is the most frustrating part of the novel. You see he has feelings for her but the ingrained rules prevent him from ever acting on them. She is just what he needs – a strong, moral, hard-working woman – yet living in the shadow of the ‘great’ Lord Darlington is what Stevens prefers. It is maddening, yet also understanding.
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”
The novel crosses two time-lines: pre-war 30’s and the post-war period. Lord Darlington becomes a Nazi sympathiser and that has many consequences on the household. Stevens bows down even though he may not agree with the sacking of two Jewish maids, but he’s careful to never say anything against his employer’s commands or actions. It is his silent obedience that makes the lord believe he’s in the right. Warning from the American senator Lewis that Darlington’s dabbling is dangerous is ignored and Stevens even thinks him rude and uncultured.
Stevens is proud of the importance his lord suddenly has, the stream of visitors and MPs forging ties with the Nazis. Warnings and misgivings of Miss Kenton are ignored, as well as comments of other staff. Stevens doesn’t wish to be involved, the lord knows what he’s doing – preventing another war. In the end this dabbling turns lord Darlington into a pariah and even Stevens denies ever working for the man when asked on his motoring trip.
“He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lorship’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?”
While Stevens is slowly driving through the country towards the town where he’ll meet Miss Kenton after twenty years, he starts to contemplate the differences between his new employer, the American Mr. Farraday, and Lord Darlington. He realises that Mr. Farraday is far more open and engaged with his staff, frequently bantering and socialising with them. They are treated as fellow people with their own opinions and insights. This reminds him of young Mr. Cardinal, a son of Darlington’s friend. Cardinal tried to talk to Stevens about the lord and what his actions and machinations on the behalf of a Nazi woman meant for England. Stevens did not wish to hear of the dangerous path his employer was going down, something he later regretted.
The story concludes with Stevens and Miss Kenton (Mrs. Bear) having a long honest conversation and saying goodbye. Stevens has put the past to rest and is looking forward to the rest of his life in the service of Mr. Farraday. For all the mistakes and what-ifs, he feels his life wasn’t so bad after all.
“Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.”