Monthly Archives: July 2013

Dramaturgical Analysis of Butlers and Gentlemen in “The Remains of the Day”

Two nights ago, I stayed up late finishing “The Remains of Day,” by Kazuo Ishiguro.  In the past, I’ve read Ishiguro’s book of short stories, “Nocturnes,” his novel, “When We Were Orphans,” and I’ve seen the film based on his book, “Never Let Me Go.”  The bittersweet themes in his work resonate a great deal with me considering the fact that most of our lives include both positive and negative elements.  Ishiguro writes fantastic first-person narratives, and he manages, at least in the books I’ve read, to show flaws and changes in his characters’ personalities.  Furthermore, he relates the individual characters’ lives to the larger social and historical forces surrounding them.

In “The Remains of the Day,” the narrative displays the sociological concept of dramaturgy, shows how the profession of butler changed over time, and demonstrates international changes in power and relationships.  Dramaturgical analysis, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is Goffman’s idea from his book, “The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life.”  Basically, we are performing in what amounts to stage plays in the different settings of our life.  We play certain roles, use certain scripts, wear particular costumes, and attempt to create certain impressions in the minds of those around us (Goffman).

This idea is implemented in multiple ways in the novel. First, the entire book is about the narrator, Stevens’, role as a butler for one of the “greatest” Lords in England and their lives in Darlington Hall.  The main character discusses the how dignity is part of the role of a butler.  He spends time outlining what exactly this means throughout the book: loyalty despite personal feelings.  For example, Steven’s father, who is briefly a character in the book, managed to serve the general whose actions likely led to the death of his other son despite his personal feelings and desires.  This demonstrates professionalism.  In terms of dramaturgical analysis, it means playing a certain role or sticking to an expected script.

If analyzing the occupation of butler as presented in the book, emotional labor seems a key trait.  According to “The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling” by Arlie Hochschild, emotional labor amounts to the idea that people are required to manage their feelings through controlling their facial expressions and body language, as well as a deeper type of acting in which they actually try to change their emotions.  A person would have to manage his or her emotions in order to fulfill their work obligations.  Hochschild, and many subsequent sociologists, have asked the question of how does emotional labor impact us.  She proposed that it could have a negative impact on our lives to distance ourselves from our emotions.

The narrator, Stevens, actually manages his emotions for his role as a butler and denies his feelings for Miss Kenton, who also works in Darlington House.  The book explores what he (and she) lost due to the role he played.  However, in classic Ishiguro fashion, the ending is bittersweet.  Stevens and Miss Kenton, who is now Mrs. Benn, discuss their past, and she returns to her husband.  He returns to the American who now owns Darlington Hall, which is no longer used to its full capacity.  The American owner, Mr. Farraday, puzzles Stevens at the beginning of the book because he attempts to banter with Stevens, which is nearly impossible for Stevens.  Steven believes that this directness is due to Mr. Farraday’s American nationality.  He worked so hard to be a great butler to a great household that he didn’t learn the skill that most people know of how to get along with other people.  During his travels, he realizes that bantering is how people connect with one another.  It isn’t just an American trait. At the end of the book, though, he notes:

“It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform.  I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible that I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done…I will begin practising with renewed effort.  I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him” (245).

The role of butler changed during the decades shown in the book;  the larger world stage changed, too.  The gentleman that Stevens serves follows traditional norms for interaction for people of his station.  For example, while Germany was an enemy in World War I, he felt that the treaty of Versailles caused too much harm to Germany.  He brings diplomats and important people from all over Europe to his home to discuss altering the terms of the treaty.  An American, who is exposed as a villain at the time, tells them “Let’s take our good host here.  What is he?  He is a gentleman.  No one here, I trust, would care to disagree.  A classic English gentleman.  Decent, honest, well-meaning.  But his lordship here is an amateur” (102).  He goes onto states that the international stage needs professionals, not gentlemen to make decisions.  As the book continues, Stevens reminisces about the mistakes that his employer made due to not fully understanding the world stage that he was playing on.  He introduces many people to Hitler’s associate in the book,  Herr Ribbentrop.  And as Stevens notes, Lord Darlington was one of many to err in this way.  The world changed in this era.  The role of leadership changed, similar to the role of the butler.  “The Remains of the Day” exemplifies how social forces change both occupations and the lives of individual people in a particular society.


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Buddhist Themes in Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

[Spoilers either the size of a pond or an ocean ahead.  This post will be less sociological than some of my usual posts.]

Neil Gaiman’s lovely, wise new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” meditates on the ebb and flow of memory, power relations between adults and children, as well interconnectedness and the nature of the universe.  I’ve been awaiting this book with giddy anticipation, and it was even better than I expected.  Elements of the book remind me of aspects of Gaiman’s other works like the gods (or in this case, goddesses) wandering among us in “American Gods” and the horrifying “other mother” with buttons for eyes in “Coraline.”  (These are fantastic books, if you haven’t read them.) While I noticed these parallels with previous stories, this story still felt unique and deeply true in a mythical sense.

Although it isn’t usually relevant to my blog, I’ve practiced meditation on and off for nearly a decade.  In my early twenties, I stumbled across a couple of books by Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally known Buddhist monk. His books on a variety of topics relating to meditation helped me to better understand my own mind and the world better.  In terms of podcasts, I really enjoy Buddhist Geeks episodes, and the episodes have improved over the years.  They look at the intersection of modern culture, globalization, technology, and Buddhism.  As with most topics, there are different schools of Buddhism, and people vary in terms of what they believe.  However, these differences are not the point of this post.  Years ago, when I read Neil Gaiman’s book, “American Gods,” it reminded me of Buddhism, although I’ve never tried to more formally analyze it.  “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” reminded me more strongly of Buddhist themes like suffering, craving, sitting with difficult thoughts and emotions, Bodhisattvas, as well as experiencing interconnection.  Buddhism suggests the end of suffering is possible.

The framework of the narrative in Gaiman’s novel is that the unnamed main character returns for what is likely a funeral based on his attire, and he returns to a place that allows him to remember the fantastical events of his childhood.  After a tragic event occurs, the narrator meets a girl, her mother, and grandmother: the Hempstock family.  They are powerful goddesses, in addition to appearing as somewhat odd, mortal women.  Around the same time, a villainous creature encounters them. It gives the other characters what they think they want regardless of whether it helps or harms them.  At first, it gives people money in terrifying ways like the narrator awakens choking to death on a coin.  People often crave money, and it makes them act in strange and selfish ways, creating a kind of suffering.  The creature tears the narrator’s  family apart by giving them the things that they crave beyond money.  For example, the narrator’s father has an affair with the creature when it appears to be a beautiful woman.  Most of the action in the book deals with escaping and defeating this monster, which isn’t actually the biggest danger the narrator faces in the book.

On a return flight from Boston to Raleigh, I got to a part of the book that gave me shivers and would have brought me to tears if had I been alone. The main character has been pulled into the pond/ocean of Lettie, the girl/goddess his age, after passing a test of various tricks and temptations.  Lettie asks him to step into a bucket which contains her ocean.  Her ocean, mind you, appears like a pond to the narrator’s eyes when he first sees it.  He complies and then experiences vast interconnectedness:

“The second thing that I thought was that I knew everything.  Lettie Hemstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe from Egg to Rose.  I knew that. I knew what Egg was—where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing  in the void—and I knew where Rose was—that peculiar crinkling of space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next big bang, which would be now, I knew now, nothing of the kind.” (143)

He realizes that Old Mrs. Hempstock existed at the beginning and would exist at the next beginning.  The rest of the passage is gorgeous, and the narrator realizes that he knows everything and wants to stay in the ocean.  Lettie informs him that he can’t stay there.  His sense of self would dissolve.  In the end, sacrifices are made by the characters for other characters, reminiscent of the sacrifice of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being, for other people.  This passage contains beautiful prose, in addition to showing interconnectedness—those fleeting moments when one understands interbeing.  Interbeing is Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea that all people or things are dependent on everything else.  We are not independent.  In the epilogue, the narrator’s memories of Lettie and his experiences during his seventh year are fading again, a testament to the delicate nature of memory and how we construct identity.

While I don’t know if the references to Buddhism were intended, I found this book to be an intriguing look at the nature of craving, suffering, sacrifice, and interconnectedness.  Later, I’ll write a separate post on power and age privilege in the book.  “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a fantastic adventure story with deep wisdom about memory and interconnectedness.


(1) Did I miss any important Buddhist related themes?  What are they?

(2) What do you think the ultimate nature of the universe is like?  Is Gaiman correct in that it is like an ocean that ebbs and flows?

(3) How did you like “The Ocean at the End of the Lane?” How did you think it compares to Gaiman’s other works?  Is it a Hugo contender for next year?



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