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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