Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 24, 2009

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the Booker Prize in 1989

remains-of-the-dayThe Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989, and it was made into an excellent film by Merchant Ivory in 1993.  I read the book in a weekend, and have since watched the DVD twice.  Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are well-cast as Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton, and the locations and settings are perfect.

However, I am not so sure about the screenplay, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who wrote the Booker prize-winning Heat and Dust.)  I was a little disappointed to see so many departures from the novel, some of which create an ambiguity about Stevens’ relationship with Kenton that is less pronounced in Ishiguro’s book.  There is, for example, a scene in which Kenton prises a book from Stevens’ hand, and there is a tense moment when a kiss seems likely.  There is nothing to suggest this in the novel at all.

The film makes more explicit Kenton’s feelings for Stevens, but the novel’s first person narration is much more subtle.  Stevens is profoundly concerned with his own dignity, to the extent that he represses his own feelings and fails to understand those of others.  His recall of events is selective, and there are frequent self-justificatory explanations for why he fails to show emotion and empathy.  His level of self-awareness is always subject to his conception of his career as a discreet, dignified butler in the service of his master, Lord Darlington.  It is this conception of a subservient self that enables him to turn a blind eye to Darlington’s pro-Nazi sympathies…

In the novel Stevens describes Miss Kenton’s behaviour but fails to interpret it, and never at any time does he acknowledge that letting her go out of his life was a mistake.  In the film he tells Dr Carlisle (who gives him a lift back to his car) that he is on his way to try to redress the mistake he had made, but Ishiguro in the novel doesn’t let Stevens off so lightly.  Further, the film shows Stevens lying to Carlisle about having worked for Darlington and then admitting it, only to be tackled about his beliefs by Carlise. The novel is more elegant, with Stevens recounting Carlisle’s conversation about village politics in a way that conveys the same message more subtly.

The film does, however, add small incidents which amplify the novel’s theme of class-consciousness and snobbery.   Stevens holds out a tankard for one of the hunters and is entirely ignored; he scampers to conceal a dustpan from Darlington because housework is meant to be invisible to the employer.  Both novel and film show graphically how Mr Stevens the Elder cannot retire without being homeless and is literally worked to his death.  Staff may not marry and have to choose between love and money.

Would Miss Kenton have married Stevens had he asked?  She says herself that she lacks the courage to leave her place of employment, and she’s not prepared to take any risks at the novel’s end either, because after all, what can Stevens offer her?  The Remains of the Day shows just how difficult the conditions of the employment were in the days of the great English houses.

A fine book that rewards re-reading!

Cross-posted at The Complete Booker

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. This is pretty much one of the greatest books I have ever read. Ishiguro is an absolute genius, creating this character who is so repressed he can’t even function. Beautifully elegaic.


  2. Yes, he sustains the melancholy tone perfectly without actually letting his character admit regret.
    We are so lucky to have writers like this to enjoy!


  3. […] (Lisa)38. The Blind Assassin (Lisa)39. The Sound and the Fury (Lisa)40. Foundation (Lisa)41. Lisa Hill (The Remains of the Day) 42. Veronica (the Picture of Dorian […]


  4. […] The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kasuo Ishiguro (UK/Japan) […]


  5. […] be honest, though I loved The Remains of the Day (see my review) I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it.  Dystopias are not my usual reading fare, and I found […]


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