Everything about The Remains of the Day, from the plot to the prose, is precise and controlled, and in a way it has to be to tell this particular story. This is probably one of the best examples of form and content determining each other that I’ve read.
Written in the first person, the narrator is Mr. Stevens, the precise and controlled former butler to Lord Darlington and current butler to the new owner of Darlington Hall, the American Mr. Farraday. Stevens is undertaking a journey across England to visit the former housekeeper Miss Kenton, ostensibly in the hopes of getting her to agree to return to her job at the Hall. Stevens actually, however, brings us on a journey into his personal history, told as a series of reminiscences as he travels across England. From his early days in service to Lord Darlington, to his quarrels with Miss Kenton, to his memories of his father and his reflections on the notion of dignity, Stevens takes stock of his life, and of the principles and ideals that have guided him professionally and personally.
Having a character very slowly and gradually reveal himself to the reader while simultaneously obfuscating himself from himself takes a really impressive literary talent. Stevens is never quite able to make explicit the realisation about his life that the reader is, and this is what makes the story so heartbreaking. Stevens is incapable of betraying the ideals upon which he has based his entire life, even though we know, through his subtly revealing narrative, that at some level he knows it has all been for naught. For to explicitly admit that Lord Darlington was anything other than a perfect Englishman, to admit that he has spent his life in service to a flawed man, and that he has neglected to seize opportunities for personal happiness in favour of meeting his professional obligations, would force Stevens to admit that the role that he has made absolutely central to the meaning of his life has been a mistake, a lie, and thus a waste. Stevens is unable to face the desolation that would result.
The Remains of the Day is an affecting portrait of loneliness and not quite acknowledged disillusionment. It’s also a scathing portrait of the power of the English class system, and the sacrifices it demands of its subjects. One of my favourites of the Booker winners.