The Remains of the Day | Critical Essay by Bert Cardullo

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of The Remains of the Day.
This section contains 3,553 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Bert Cardullo

SOURCE: Bert Cardullo, "The Servant," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 616-22.

In the following essay Cardullo compares the movie version of The Remains of the Day with the novel.

Milan Kundera once made a helpful distinction between two sorts of novels set in the past. There is, on the one hand, "the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation … popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel," and on the other hand the novel that examines "the historical dimension of human existence." In the first case, cardboard cutouts are wheeled out to represent "the bourgeoisie" or "the last throes of imperialism"—in other words, important social tendencies in the historical scheme of things rather than individualized or self-determined human beings. Here, the background effectively replaces the foreground. In the second case, history is only one part of a multifaceted portrayal of characters whose lives are inevitably and decisively, but not reductively, shaped by larger public events. In this sort of novel, that is, social institutions are presented in the form of complex human relationships; complex human relationships are not reduced to mere social symbols or signposts. Here, the background and the foreground bleed into each other at the same time that each retains its separate identity.

What Kundera says about the novel is transferable to its visual equivalent or rendition, the cinema, and all the more so in the case of a movie that has been adapted from fiction, like The Remains of the Day. This film, set in the past and dealing with issues of war, politics, class, and sexuality, has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations following Kundera's scheme. On the one hand, there are those who believe that The Remains of the Day states its political themes rather bumptiously, at the expense of character. On the other hand, there are those who consider James Ivory's latest film to be a poignant-pregnant portrait of the English class system up to World War II, of English hierarchies, rigidities, and blindnesses and their human perpetrators as well as victims; a portrait that has far more time to spend on the intimate portrayal of character from which metaphor can be inferred because it need only suggest the history of Hitler's rise and fall, with which its audience is intimately familiar. I propose to sort out these conflicting views, which are to some extent my own, in what follows.

I have not been a big fan of James Ivory's work in the past. It has suffered from a combination of Anglophilia, over-design, and under-emotion. Such films as Howards End (1992), Heat and Dust (1983), and The Europeans (1979) are in the grand British-museum tradition of Alexander Korda, except that Korda's museum for the display of the aristocracy looks now like nothing more than its mausoleum. But that hasn't stopped Ivory, along with his regular producer, Ismail Merchant, and his usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from adding to the list of the dead and embalmed. These movies have nothing to do with contemporary British life; they don't use the past as a combined distancing-telescoping mechanism on the present; and they don't even have much to say about the past as past. The Remains of the Day marks a break from this tradition for Ivory and company, partly because of the very nature of its subject: the life of an emotionally and sexually repressed butler as it dovetails with that of his employer, a well-meaning but wrong-headed aristo-twit who, in the mid-1930s, secretly works to appease Hitler, avoid war, and preserve England's rigid social hierarchy.

The novel was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born Japanese but bred English; it was supposed to have been adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter, but James Ivory discarded his script in favor of Jhabvala's. This is unfortunate because Pinter has proved himself adept at adapting novels with first-person narrators (e.g., The Go-Between [1970], The Proust Screenplay [1977], The Heat of the Day [1989]), something that is made difficult by the natural omniscience of the camera eye. The solution is obviously not to use a first-person camera throughout, to show only what the narrator can see and never the narrator himself, nor to employ large chunks of first-person voiceover narration; what the camera eye must do as much as possible is see as the narrator in the book does, see as if it were using the narrator's eyes. This is a neat trick, a kind of imaginative leap, and it can be made only by a screenwriter who is genuinely creative in her own right yet spiritually faithful to her source. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, alas, is not such a scenarist, though she isn't without a certain skill.

The story begins in 1958, shortly after Lord Darlington's death and the sale of his palatial manor, Darlington Hall, to a solitary, rich American. Stevens, the butler, is staying on to work for the new owner, Mr. Lewis, but with a staff reduced from twenty-eight at the climax of the British Empire to four during its present decline. Stevens is thinking of adding to that staff one Miss Kenton, the former (superbly efficient) housekeeper of Darlington Hall, who has recently sent him a letter (parts of which she reads in voiceover, and to which Stevens responds with his own letter read in voiceover) implying that she would like to return to her old position. So, having been given a week's vacation by his new employer, together with the use of the American's car, he sets out from Oxfordshire on a journey to the West Country to meet Miss Kenton. She's been Mrs. Benn for the past twenty years, during which time Stevens has not seen her, and by now has a grown daughter, but her marriage is in trouble. Miss Kenton seems to be searching for something, then, to be reaching out, and so does Stevens. As he rides through the countryside to his appointment with her, he flashes back to their relationship—or nonrelationship—in the past, as well as to his role as master servant in a house once brimful of statesmen and ambassadors.

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 Miss Kenton. A love seemed to evolve between these two household workers who never so much as call each other by their first names, but it remained unacknowledged and unexpressed—at least on Stevens' part. There is no real acknowledgement of its existence by Miss Kenton either, but there is some expression of feeling, which unexpectedly gets underscored in the film. Indeed, even Stevens' feeling gets expressed in the movie version, which recasts Ishiguro's exquisitely balanced tale more as doomed romance than as political allegory. This is a direction Pinter, with his latter-day political engagement, may have reversed, and a direction the normally reticent Ivory has apparently chosen to take in the condescending belief that the lower orders of society are more given to venting their emotions. For example, during one of their nightly meetings to discuss the management of the house, Miss Kenton responds to Stevens' question "Are you with me?" with the excuse that she is very tired. She is tired, of course—tired of meeting with him under these circumstances, solely to discuss work—but this meaning of "tired" remains subtextual in the novel. In the film, Miss Kenton directly express the sentiment that she wants to be with Stevens, not merely to talk with him about the discharge of their servants' duties.

The next day, her day off, she has a date in a pub with Tom Benn, a former butler who wants to marry her and open his own seaside boarding house at Clevedon. There is no such scene in the book; it fractures the first-person perspective of Stevens; and it's almost immediately followed by another insertion, Miss Kenton's desperate revelation to him of her impending engagement, to which he reacts by hastily leaving the room. Later, after she becomes formally engaged, Stevens impatiently offers her his "warmest congratulations," for "there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and [he] must return to [his] post." Then, in the process of fetching drinks for Lord Darlington's guests, he drops a fine bottle of port—one more "emotional" event that does not occur in Ishiguro's novel—peremptorily replaces it with another, and proceeds to deliver it. But he must pass Miss Kenton's room in order to do so, and here again the film tellingly diverges from its source. This is what the author understatedly writes:

As I approached Miss Kenton's door, I saw from the light seeping around its edges that she was still within. And … that moment as I paused in the dimness of the corridor, the tray in my hands, an ever-growing conviction [mounted] within me that just a few yards away, on the other side of that door. Miss Kenton was at that moment crying. As I recall, there was no real evidence to account for this conviction—I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying—and yet I remember being quite certain that were I to knock and enter, I would discover her in tears.

In Ivory's film, as you might guess, the door does get opened and Stevens discovers Miss Kenton in tears, only to advise her that some household article wants dusting! Further, after the butler departs, the camera remains on Miss Kenton, regarding her heartbroken face in a way that Stevens could never bring himself to do.

The camera does this once more near the end of The Remains of the Day. Stevens and Miss Kenton have had their meeting and character-history has proved to be human destiny: the aging butler will return to his butlering without ever having brought up the subject of their dormant love, and the now matronly housekeeper will go back to her marriage and the promise of a grandchild from her expectant daughter. As he puts Miss Kenton on a bus in the novel, Stevens notices that she is crying and comforts her with some pleasantries—nothing more. As he puts her on that same bus in the film, Miss Kenton is not yet in tears. For heightened effect, we see her crying through the window of the departing bus as Stevens does; then, after he leaves the frame, we get another shot of her face receding in tears. From whose point of view? The omniscient camera-as-narrator, or Ivory-cum-Jhabvala as nouveau italicizers of emotion. This team even manages to inject heat into the novel's politics, or to put its heart where Ishiguro's head has prevailed. For instance, in the novel Lord Darlington, after "doing a great deal of thinking," tells Stevens to dismiss two Jewish housemaids, which he summarily does despite the strenuous objections of Miss Kenton. We never learn from Ishiguro what becomes of them, because in the book the girls are English Jews and therefore would not have been in danger of deportation. But in the movie the two maids are German-Jewish; Darlington decides they must be let go as he reads Mein Kampf(!); and, without work, the two young women are soon sent back to Germany, whence they are dispatched to concentration camps.

Ivory and Jhabvala readily seize on other opportunities to show the audience that their political heart is in the right place. Before departing for the West Country, Stevens is sent by them on business to the local general store, where he denies ever having known Lord Darlington, whom the clerk has decried as a Nazi sympathizer. No such scene occurs in the novel, and its effect is to change Stevens from an obtusely loyal, blindly trustful servant to a shifty timeserver masquerading as a man of conscience. En route to Clevedon, Stevens has a similar encounter—embellished by the filmmakers—with a doctor at an inn, where customers mistake the butler for a gentleman on account of his proper diction and dignified bearing. The high-born doctor senses Stevens' working-class origins and gets him to admit, in the film, that he is "in service" at a great house in Oxfordshire. Inevitably, their cinematic conversation comes around to Lord Darlington of Oxfordshire, whom the doctor pillories for his virtual collaboration with the Nazis, and with whom Stevens once again disavows any acquaintance. Then he relents and tells the truth: he was proud to have served Lord Darlington but his job was just that, to serve, not to agree or disagree with his employer's political views. He goes on to say that, in attempting to accommodate Hitler, Darlington made a mistake for which he later sincerely repented; whereas he, Stevens, once made a mistake too—but one that he can correct rather than lament. The teasing implication, of course, is that his mistake was a matter of the heart rather than politics: to have repressed his love for Miss Kenton, which he will shortly express to her in Clevedon.

Stevens' words here are a complete reversal of what he says in the novel, two days after Miss Kenton's departure by bus, to a man sitting next to him on a pier in Weymouth:

Lord Darlington wasn't bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. 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 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?

Stevens appears less politically correct in this speech, since he calls Darlington courageous if misguided; but he also appears more emotionally honest because he speaks of his mistakes as irremediable in addition to undignifying, as inherent in his character as the narrative has established it. And they are mistakes, not one mistake, the use of the plural serving to conflate Stevens' relationship to Lord Darlington with his relationship to Miss Kenton. For the two relationships, and the butler's mistakes in them, are indeed related, as is Stevens' first-person perspective to the novel's thematic intent.

Ironically, Stevens gets to speak for himself in Ishiguro's tale, whereas in the past he had always allowed Lord Darlington to speak for him or at least to speak in his place. But in speaking for himself, he only reveals the tragicomic extent of his political capitulation and emotional barrenness, his substitution of a life of peripheral protocol for one of direct involvement. Being a butler, for Stevens, has been an act of selfless fealty toward a lord, not a mere profession or business—moreover, toward a lord engaged in great undertakings designed to secure England's future. He has allowed nothing to come between him and his duty to Darlington, not even the love of Miss Kenton, so satisfactory has his relationship with his master been. And Lord Darlington, for his part, has allowed nothing to come between him and his duty to his country, not even the love of a wife, so satisfactory has his life of (behind-the-scenes) public service been. As a member of the household staff at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton serves Stevens even as he serves his lord and his lord serves the state. The problem with this hierarchy of faithful service, however, is that it permits no room for second-guessing, and second-guessing is what the action of both master and butler so desperately require. When Miss Kenton tries to question the actions of her "betters"—particularly in the dismissal of the Jewish maids—she is rebuffed. No one questions the fact that the happy "partnership" of Stevens and Lord Darlington seems to rule out the need for female companionship, though I hasten to add that there is nothing overtly or even covertly sexual about their relationship.

Ishiguro means, I think, to make Stevens' blindness—both to Darlington's political naïveté and Miss Kenton's emotional warmth—stand as a metaphor for England's blindness to its own national character and destiny. Just as Stevens trusted in Lord Darlington, Darlington trusted in his, and his country's ability to broker a lasting peace with the Germans where no one else had been able to. That is, he and his associates—who recall the members of the notorious if somewhat mythologized "Cliveden set"—placed their trust in the cachet of British empire and aristocracy, as did Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after them. They were mistaken to do so because, as Hitler clearly saw, the empire and its royalty were headed for extinction. Stevens thought he was serving the empire by denying himself, but all that he really did was deny himself, deny the love that could have given his life some dimension. He unquestioningly accepted the class system and his insulated place in it, and his reward, like that of many of his countrymen high and low, was a life of lovelessness if not brutality, of coldness if not desolation, of constriction if not misery. Stevens' singular detachment or self-enclosure is well conveyed by the novel's first-person perspective, which naturally permits no other points of view to interject themselves and which furthermore allows Stevens to create his character, as well as its social significance, by indirection, without resort to psychologizing on the one hand or historicizing on the other. One of the problems with Ivory's film, as I've indicated, is that the omniscient camera does intervene and perhaps had no choice but to intervene. In doing so, however, it sacrifices Stevens' integral tunnel vision without providing any compensatory light.

The title of Ishiguro's novel refers both to the remains of Stevens' own day—to the quiet evenings following his daily yeoman's service as well as to the lonely retirement that awaits him—and to the twilight of British imperialism. That twilight tends to get moved back to its heyday or sunshine in Ivory's film, partly because of Tony Pierce-Roberts' cinematography, which appears celebratory instead of elegiac, lush rather than weathered; partly because of the movie's ending, which instead of finding Stevens sitting alone on a seaside bench in the evening (as the novel does), shows him back at Darlington Hall the next morning going about his duties, which happen to include—oh, cliché of cinematic clichés!—releasing a trapped pigeon into the verdant beauty of the surrounding countryside; and partly because of the documentary-like sequences showing, even glorying in, how a great manor is run, from the butler's ironing of the morning paper page by page to the scullery maid's cleaning of the cutlery, from the elaborate preparation of meals to the equally elaborate accommodation of numerous important guests. The camera remains somewhat removed through all of this, yet one can't help thinking that the preoccupied Stevens would never take the time to scan the place and process of his work in such loving detail. Nor, as I've already pointed out, would he regard Miss Kenton in the way the camera does: lingeringly and lovingly. In the novel, she's a figure of imagination, created by words, a player in Stevens' internal dramas whose face we never see. In the film, Miss Kenton takes on a life of her own—especially as acted by the estimable, I dare say enchanting, Emma Thompson. And that life with its drama detracts a bit from Stevens' own. Anthony Hopkins doesn't play the butler, he inhabits him as he knew he must if he were going to capture the inner life of a man who very nearly has no outer life, and whose appeal to any woman has to come from deep inside his self-imposed carapace. Hopkins creates a similar character in a film released almost at the same time as The Remains of the Day: Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands, the love story of C. S. Lewis and the American poet (as well as film critic) Joy Davidman. But there he is burdened by a script and direction far more sentimental than what Ivory and Jhabvala give him.

I obviously have my problems with their Remains of the Day, but I'll take it rather than no film version at all. And not least because of the generally fine supporting cast, among whose members two stand out: Hugh Grant, as Lord Darlington's presciently critical, refreshingly playful godson, and Peter Vaughan, as Stevens' aged underbutler of a father whose death inspires little filial emotion in his son. Even here, however, a mistake was made in (1) conflating the parts of the postwar American millionaire who buys Darlington Hall and an American Congressman who attends a prewar Darlington conference to speak against the appeasement of the Nazis; and (2) casting the eager but wooden Christopher Reeve in the "collapsed" role. The man whose denunciation of Hitler at the Hall fell on deaf ears would most likely not revisit such a painful and frustrating memory in his retirement, nor would he then dimly declare—in Jhabvala's screenplay—that he couldn't recall what he said that evening in Oxfordshire more than twenty years ago. This puts his character on an intellectual level with Lord Darlington himself, and even Christopher Reeve is not that stupid. Neither, finally, is the film of which he is a part.

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