The Remains Of The Day & The Perfectly Drawn Unreliable Narrator

We're reading between the lines in this underrated masterpiece.

The Remains Of The Day
The Remains Of The Day

There is little I love more in fiction than an unreliable narrator, how some authors want you to realise their narrator isn’t telling you everything, and lay out a trail of breadcrumbs for us, the readers, to follow. But I also love how some authors keep it all hidden until the moment of the final reveal, pulling away the curtain, and laying the story out in front of me. The second example is harder for an author to execute without explicitly misleading the reader, but it’s been done well plenty of times.

A really good story, with a really good unreliable narrator, stays with a reader long after you’ve closed the book. Agatha Christie’s The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, with that unforgettable twist ending, is one example of this; I don’t recall many of the Christies I’ve read in detail, but I’ve definitely never forgotten that one. Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger is the only one of her books that has stayed with me, because of the narrator Faraday and how completely untrustworthy I found his account to be.

But there’s one unreliable narrator who stands head and shoulders above the rest for me, not least because his story is steeped in tragedy – and I love tragedy almost as much as I love the narrator I can’t trust.

I’m talking, of course, about Stevens, the faithful butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day.

The Remains Of The Day, Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel, first published in 1989, is a book that personally changed everything for me. It was an odd choice of book for a thirteen-year-old to pick up, but pick it up I did, and it blew my mind. It showed me, more than anything I’d read up until that moment, exactly what the right story could do in the hands of the right author. I’ve never read anything else by Ishiguro that even comes close to this book, and I’ve read few novels by any other author that can touch the pedestal this book sits on in my mind. It was a formative experience. I’m loathe to say this but it’s, quite possibly, the best book I’ve ever read.

The Remains Of The Day centres on the butler of Darlington Hall, Mr Stevens, who in the summer of 1956 is practically forced to take a holiday by his new employer. Stevens has never really been one for holidays, but he decides to take up the offer and jaunts down to Cornwall where he has an idea that he might get in touch with an old housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton. As he makes his way to Cornwall, Stevens contemplates his life as a butler and his time with his former employer, Lord Darlington.

If The Remains Of The Day sounds like a ponderous novel, then you’d be right. All in all, very little actually happens. Instead, Stevens is set free from Darlington Hall and, because of this, his mind is given a little more freedom than he usually allows it, hence his contemplative mood. The novel is, first and foremost, a character study – but the irony of that is, thanks to Ishiguro’s perfectly handled execution, the reader actually knows more about the character than the character does.

Stevens is an unreliable narrator because he has been trained to look the other way. His father was a butler and Stevens was always destined to be a butler too, so his education has been lifelong. Stevens is intensely loyal to Lord Darlington, because that is what a butler is supposed to be. But in learning to look the other way when it comes to his master, he’s perfected the move so well that he doesn’t see the truth when it comes to himself either.

It quickly becomes obvious to the reader that Lord Darlington, who Stevens worships, was far from the infallible gentleman that Stevens paints him to be. By the end of the novel, we as readers are very clear on the fact that Darlington was a Nazi sympathiser, and possessing of a fairly weak moral character as well. Stevens tells us all of this without telling us; if you didn’t read between the lines of his narration, you’d never know Darlington was guilty of such moral failure.

Of more interest to me aged thirteen – and who am I kidding, of more interest to me now – is the fact that Stevens was clearly in love with Miss Kenton, the ex-housekeeper he is going to visit. Again, Stevens doesn’t seem to know this. He is, and always was, painfully emotionally stunted; he sold his soul to be an exemplary butler and even though Miss Kenton clearly would have returned his feelings had he understood and shared them, he never did.

So this is a character study in which an unreliable narrator is trying to present a reliable version of himself to the reader, and actually doing a much better job of it than you might think. He isn’t a liar, like the unreliable narrator of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. He doesn’t know any better, and he’s telling the truth, always. It’s just that his truth is coloured by the fact that he’s dedicated his life to a man who didn’t deserve it, and worked to guard his heart to the point of extremity.

I said that, by the end of the novel, you wouldn’t know Darlington was guilty of moral failure unless you’d read between the lines and that is true up until the final chapter. Then, in the very last pages, Stevens sits on a bench with a man he’s just met and has the most honest conversation he’s ever had, in which he breaks down in tears and tells the man, in not too many words, that he does understand after all that Darlington was not infallible, and that in giving everything he had to his employer, he finds he has little left to give.

Stevens is the perfect unreliable narrator because he’s scrupulously honest in his telling of the story. He doesn’t try to hide a single thing from the reader but ends up hiding everything anyway. There’s a tragedy to his tale that moves us, because Stevens is not and never has been a bad man – just an overly trusting, woefully misguided one.

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