The Remains of the Day has always been one of my favorite books, and my favorite of Ishiguro's novels. It reminds me of twilight, that part of the day when the sun has set, leaving you with the memory of the day before. Switch the lamps on, watch the darkness fall. I used to think it was the saddest book that I have ever read. I come back to it every few years, and like every book you know well and have revisited again and again over a long stretch of time, we both are always a little different each time. I always see something new that I hadn't noticed before, or feel a little differently about the people than I did before. And it is still the saddest story I have ever read.
There is always something heartbreaking about a story that looks back over the course of one's life, about the missed chances that never come again. Stevens has spent over thirty years by his role as the perfect butler, the perfect servant, and now his old employer has died, the grand house purchased by an American who has no understanding of how things are done, and he is a little lost in the great dust-sheeted house with its staff of four where once a staff of dozens bustled through the corridors. (It reminds me of that moment in the film Gosford Park, when Mrs. Wilson tells Mary, I am the perfect servant; I have no life). He has no life. The chance for change, for love, for a world outside the narrow confines of his domain, have all passed him by.
I have always seen Stevens as being paralyzed by duty, paralyzed by fear, paralyzed by the absolute belief that he is always right and the right way is the way things have always been done. It is almost frightening to see how locked he is in his own beliefs, as Lord Darlington was locked into his own belief that he had been doing the right thing during the war. And the end Darlington died an empty shell of his former self, a laughingstock, a defeated man. Without him and the old way of life, Stevens finds himself feeling, as he tells a fellow traveler, that he has given everything he had to Lord Darlington, and there is nothing left except the feeling that his whole life has been spent blindly following someone else, and not even the mistakes he has made were of his own choosing.
It always leaves me completely shattered when Stevens tells the man he meets on a pier that Lord Darlington at least "had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes...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...I cannot even claim that." But then the stranger tells him, and I always feel a sense of lightness when I read this part, a relief, "You've got to enjoy yourself. The evening's the best part of the day. You've done your day's work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it...Ask anybody, they'll all tell you. The evening's the best part of the day."
I hope that when I, some thirty or forty years from now, look back to all the years before, I will not regret the choices and mistakes that I have made. I know at least that they were of my own choosing, and that I can put my feet up and enjoy my twilight, the remains of my day.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Vintage, 1993. pp 243-244.