Author – Kazuo Ishiguro
Nationality – Japan
Pages – 258
Genre – Historical Fiction, Literature, World Wars
My Rating – 4.5/5
A subtle but deeply moving masterpiece.
“Indeed – why should I not admit it? – in that moment, my heart was breaking.” That was perhaps the only human line said by Mr.Stevens in the book. This book ploughed on for days and left me pulling my hair at the end of it. Really Stevens, REALLY?
Consumed by his occupation of being a butler to Lord Darlington, Stevens achieves his idea of greatness by his complete dedication to the life of a butler. He embraces to his core the refined “dignity” which makes him a “great butler”. And this dignity, he posits has to do with a “butlers ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.. they will not be shaken our by external events however alarming or vexing”.
These events in Stevens life include the death of his father, at which point Stevens chooses to prioritize his duties as a butler over spending time with his ailing father. Stevens feels the sorrow over his father’s death as if it is not him, but some unknown and external part of him that is shedding tears. He recalls this evening with “a large sense of triumph” and justifies this to himself saying this is what his father would have expected of him. There is evidence to doubt this point as his father pleads with Stevens to speak to him and the last conversation they partake in consists of his father telling Stevens he had not been a good father while Stevens is too pre-occupied with his duties as a butler to make any appropriate response. His father is a role-model to Stevens. One of the “great butlers”, the embodiments of “dignity”, Stevens highly looks upto him — but is it possible that in being a “great butler”, his father strips Stevens off paternal love? strips him off the love that makes one human? After all, any sign of love or human emotion, would, if presented be at the expense of a butler’s dignity.
The novel is a masterpiece in slowly unfolding events in Stevens life, which carefully peel away layer by layer the tragic stories behind the pitiful appearance of aplomb that Stevens keeps up. This is the story of a man who is destroyed by the ideas of “greatness” which he has built in his life. How many of us are destroyed in similar manners? How many of us are chasing a form of “greatness” which when the day is about to end, will fool us and protect us, make us too blind to see the majestic wasteland we leave behind.
It is, ironically, in pursuing this idea of being a great butler, that finally came between father and son. It bred deep resentments between the two, restrained them from articulating their emotions and destroyed any vestiges of a relationship between a father and son. Tragic. It also wrecks his only other chance of finding redemption, his chance of being together with his romantic love Miss Kenton. “Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” asks Miss Kenton revealing that his “dignity” has created a mask, a lie that he lives behind. Is it better then, to be dignified or to be wearing your heart on your sleeve? Is one necessarily better than the other? What is dignity and what makes it so great? Is it worth losing your chance at finding love?
It is in the service of Lord Darlington as a butler, that Stevens wishes to achieve his idea of “greatness”. He believes that history is being made in the halls of Lord Darlington’s house and by ensuring the smooth functioning of the house, he is achieving glory by serving his master. His greatest defeat therefore comes crashing down on him when his strongest conviction- that his master is working for the good of humanity is proved false. Lord Darlington is finally disgraced as a dupe and Stevens is forever tainted by his master’s fall.
Rendered incapable of living a fulfilling emotional life, or even detecting and expressing his emotions, Stevens is forever doomed to be led by his flawed idea of greatness. Stevens deceives himself at every stage, building a strong barrier between his feelings and his thoughts. It is this barrier, which saves him from confronting the terrible truth that his whole life has been a foolish mistake. And it is this barrier, which has been his undoing since the beginning. A most beautiful and tragic story. You could have Stevens, you could have, but you didn’t. This story is a warning to everyone of us who is being corrupted, protected and blinded by our ideals.