The Remains of the Day

“I have never wanted to slap some sense into a fictional character so much.”

Elena wrote that of the Princesse de Clèves; another Elena would say the same about Edna Pontellier. I have discovered that I’d like to smack around Mr. Stevens of Remains of the Day.

*******Some spoilers, maybe*************

In terms of technical achievement the novel is great and deserving of all the praise it gets. In terms of how much it annoys me, I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I can say it wasn’t a waste of time. (As opposed to, say, Great Expectations, which I despised and felt no better off for having read.)

Stevens is the consummate English butler. The writing has to be applauded because it is perfect in conveying this. You feel like he is a real person. The question is can you stomach an entire book written in this tone? This is how Stevens describes refueling the car that had stopped running the day before: “Any fears I had that some deeper trouble was afflicting the Ford were laid to rest when I tried the ignition and heard the engine come to life with a healthy murmur.”AAAAAARGH! That alone makes me want to slap him.

But, of course, one of the best things I learned from my Language Arts teacher eleven years ago was the simple lesson that perhaps we hate in others what we see in ourselves. (What book were we talking about?) So here is Stevens, who is making a journey but the entire way he is recollecting an earlier time. Half of what he is thinking about are the things that did not happen. This is like me, this is too much like me, remembering driving up McNab Avenue when Rich put his hands on my hand on the steering wheel of the Dodge Spirit, remembering sitting in a Seaside Heights hotel room prom weekend when I was a junior, alone for a minute with Jared before Scott H came in, wondering if I should ask him the question. Yes, I hate Stevens for that.

Stevens believes that dignity is what makes a butler great, and dignity “has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits...the great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing.” In the middle of an important dinner at Darlington Hall, Stevens’ father (a former butler) is dying upstairs. Stevens does not go to be with his father. He continues to execute his professional duties. Later, he even points to this experience as an example of that dignity. It made me think of my grandfather. I was at a meeting in Chicago for a client I disliked. I noticed my mother called me repeatedly, and finally excused myself to take the call because it was unusual behavior for her. She told me my grandfather had passed away, when the wake would be. It was sudden, and while the family had rushed to get to the hospital, there was no way I would make it. Then I had to go back into the meeting, put the professional face back on, and pretend like I gave a shit about cell phone advertising.

Then there is this issue of loyalty, of the blind trust he places in his employer. I don’t think I’m as bad as him. I know the corporation is not your friend, but at the end of the day, I understand that my credibility and my employer’s credibility, their actions and my actions, are linked. I hate how Stevens does not see when he is being played, I hate when he turns a blind eye, I hate when he doesn’t stand up for what is right. The Ken Mehlman story came out just as I finished the book, and I'd like to ask him, too: why didn't you intervene when it would have meant something?

So, yeah, I guess I recommend this if you want to get mad and feel bad about yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's true-- I hated the Awakening bc I hated that character. It sounds like this would frustrate me too! Thanks for the anti-recommendation! Elena