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what remains

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“There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

A butler, Stevens, has dedicated his life to a large country estate. After prompting by his employer, he takes a “motoring trip,” deciding to visit an old friend, Miss Kenton, in the West Country of England. While driving through the “marvelous” English countryside, Stevens reminisces about the past, reflects on lost opportunities, and ponders his future.

20 years earlier, Stevens and Miss Kenton worked for Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall. As important members of staff, they worked closely together to keep the household running and to meet the needs of Darlington and the dignitaries who visit him regularly. We see Stevens, ever the professional, cool, calm, collected, dedicated beyond measure to serving contrasted with the warm, humourous, lively, witty Miss Kenton, whose efficiency and intelligence both attract and confound Stevens. Despite their growing attraction, Stevens is unable to let her in, and Miss Kenton leaves Darlington to marry someone else.

During his visit he and Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, talk about their lives, their shared past 20 years prior, their relationships, and their futures. In the most poignant moment of their visit, Miss Kenton tells Stevens that she once loved him. She admits that she often wonders if she made a mistake in leaving him. But she says to him, “There’s no turning back the clock now. One cannot be forever dwelling on what might have been.” Stevens is stunned. We see him, almost for the first time, feel. He loved her. What he thinks then is one of my favorite lines from the novel. ” Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.”

To know, in a moment, what your life has meant, what you’ve lost, is shattering. You’ve spent a lifetime denying what was true, and for what? His chance at loving and being loved in return is probably gone. 

This evocative and ultimately poignant novel is superb in so many ways; it won Ishiguro the Man Booker Prize in 1989. It is a pitch perfect depiction of a life of service at the end of the era of the great British country estate. It is a subtle, slow, and wrenching exploration of duty, loyalty, and dignity, and what we lose at their expense. It is a heartbreaking testimonial that what remains after the day is through is not what we’ve done but who we’ve decided to be. Miss Kenton loved Stevens and yet he was restrained, staid, detached. To him, service was more important than self. His inner life didn’t hold meaning for him the way his ideal of himself, his occupation, did. He let friendship, family, morality, and love go in service of a world that did not care for him the way he cared for it. And to me, this is the tragedy of the book. So why do I love it so much?

It is a reminder. Stevens is exactly who I don’t want to be. I don’t want to wake up one day knowing that I’ve left too much unsaid, too much unfelt, too much unexpressed. I don’t want to watch my life come to a slow, silent end, the way the sun moves across the wall, lower and lower, until it finally fades to black. I don’t want to sit alone, watching crowds of happy people walk the pier in the twilight, telling myself that I should just “try to make the best of what remains of the day.” I don’t want, at the end, to say that my dreams were irredeemable. I want to know that I’ve dreamed, and lived, and felt, and that the end, all that remained was love.

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