The Remains of the Day

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The Remains of the Day Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but, as a child, he moved with his family to Guildford, a small town in southern England. He attended the University of Kent before publishing his first novel, the award-winning A Pale View of Hills, in 1982. His next two books, including The Remains of the Day (the winner of the Man Booker Prize) allowed him to achieve international fame. His experimental 1995 novel The Unconsoled received more mixed reviews, though it received the Cheltenham Prize for fiction in England. Ishiguro has also written screenplays for film and television. He lives with his wife, a former social worker, in London, and continues to write.
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Historical Context of The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is, in some ways, a historical novel that is “about” the effects of Nazism and World War II on England, even if it is more concerned with the ways these significant historical events pressed on individual circumstances. Also implicit, though, is the decline of the English aristocracy, a process that began in the nineteenth century with the rise of a new moneyed class whose status was based not on land possession and noble titles, but on the acquisition of commercial wealth. The Parliament Act of 1911, which undid many of the privileges of the aristocracy, only hastened the decline, one that proved definitive after World War II, when many aristocrats still retained their titles but were financially ruined—and, like Darlington’s family, forced to sell off their grand estates. The novel also includes real historical figures, like Herr Ribbentrop (the German ambassador to England and Nazi Foreign Minister) and Lord Halifax (Britain’s foreign minister), who in the book are frequent visitors to Darlington Hall. The character of Lord Darlington embraces what historically was known as “appeasement,” the idea that Britain should have done everything it could to resolve tensions with Germany peacefully rather than entering into another war as devastating as World War I. The Versailles Treaty, which is mentioned in the novel, is the peace treaty that Germany was forced to sign when it lost World War I, and whose harsh terms were economically devastating to the country—contributing, many have argued, to the rise of Nazism in the first place. In the 1930s, the idea of appeasement was broadly shared in England: in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously announced, “We have achieved peace for our time” after meeting with European powers to sign the Munich agreement with Germany—only to have war break out a year later. In retrospect (which, as the novel itself shows, always shows thing more clearly than they once seemed), it can be seen that appeasement only allowed Nazi Germany to gain strength.

Other Books Related to The Remains of the Day

Like The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s first two books are also related to history and personal memory: A Pale View of Hills is about a Japanese widow looking back to the destruction and rebuilding of Nagasaki after the atomic bomb, and An Artist of the Floating World, also set in Japan, is narrated by an elderly painter looking back on his past and reconsidering Japanese attitudes about World War II. Indeed, Ishiguro has said in an interview that The Remains of the Day was his third attempt to write the same book, a first-person narrative by an aging person who seeks to reconsider the past—a historical novel that only obliquely deals with the historical events themselves. In this sense, Ishiguro’s novel is related to the works of Czech writer Milan Kundera, as well as the late German author W.G. Sebald, both of whom have written multiple novels concerned with twentieth-century European history, memory, and narrating the past. The prose in The Remains of the Day, while fully inhabiting the voice of a traditional English butler, also recalls the thoughtful but sometimes convoluted language of Henry James, whose late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels often depict characters who feel somehow out of place in their world.
Key Facts about The Remains of the Day
  • Full Title: The Remains of the Day
  • When Written: 1986-1989
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1989
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel
  • Antagonist: There is no clear-cut antagonist in The Remains of the Day. Stevens struggles against his own self-censorship, which can, in some ways, be seen as an antagonist to him. The novel also implicitly critiques the rigid, hierarchical aristocratic society of prewar England, a society that created Stevens and that leaves him at a loss to handle any other way of life.
  • Point of View: The novel is told in the first person, with Stevens reflecting (in what seems to be the form of a diary) both on the day’s events during his travels and on events from several decades in the past. While the first person might seem to grant unlimited access into Stevens’s mind, the novel uses this point of view to thematize the limits of memory and the limitations of one’s own perspective and self-knowledge.

Extra Credit for The Remains of the Day

Jazzing it up In addition to his literary output, Ishiguro has also composed song lyrics for the jazz singer Stacey Kent; their CD was a best-selling album in France.

On remainder When Ishiguro was at a writers’ festival in Australia, attempting to think up the title of his next novel, his friend threw out the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s concept of Tagesreste, “the day’s debris.” The friend translated it as “remains of the day,” giving Ishiguro his title.