When ‘The Remains of the Day’ was published in 1989, it proved a critical success and consequently was awarded the Booker Prize of the same year. The novel’s positive reception earned its author Kazuo Ishiguro a number of plaudits. Ishiguro meticulously employs a narrator, named Stevens, who exhibits features of classic unreliability. Despite, or even because of, the evident ambiguity of Stevens, the reader is persuaded towards the author’s grand concepts of humanity.
Elements of contradiction, concealment and bad memory often intersperse Stevens’s narrative. Due to Stevens’s constant reliance on concealment in the novel, the reader is forced to concentrate on additional indicative factors of unreliability. This includes noting the reactions of other characters in most situations. As to views of other characters in ‘The Remains of the Day’, Miss Kenton can provide a valuable discourse for the cracks in the narrative.
Ishiguro has included stylistic components of unreliability in Stevens’s voice as well. Stevens exhibits verbal tics which signal to the reader problematic moments in the novel. There are a very large number of sub clauses in the narrative which show the intention of diverting attention and responsibility away from emotional intensity. It is obvious that the stylistic features of Stevens’s unsuitable formal language and use of ‘one’ instead of ‘I’ are all attempts to subvert personal opinions. The reader’s interest resides in our growing perception of the language’s inadequacy for what it describes.
There are various motives for Ishiguro choosing to create an unreliable narrator. Unreliability can display feelings and messages with a more powerful intent than reliable accounts. If Stevens had been consistent and honest, it would have made a rather uninspiring story about loss and mistakes. Purely due to Ishiguro’s type of narrative, the novel makes dramatic, complex statements on human nature.
In a historic narrative sense, the novel reflects the limitations of both public and private memories. Stevens’s chronicle reminds readers that Britain’s relationship to Nazi Germany was once very different than has been recorded in public history.
‘The Remains of the Day’ recalls a time when many distinguished gentlemen were inviting members of the Nazi party into their social circles. The grand narratives of historians often overlook these details, or regard them with disdain and criticism. Ishiguro’s fictional rendition of the period shows how possible it was for a highly esteemed figure, such as Lord Darlington, to fall under the spell of Nazi propaganda.
Whilst casting a doubtful shadow over public history, the novel takes the step of deconstructing the reliability of private history. However, the narration points out the fallibility of such reminiscences due to Stevens’s unreliability. As a result, private memory is proven to be just as poor a description of history as public memory. Ishiguro points towards a truth in history, that lies somewhere between the biased subjectivity of personal accounts and the overreaching objectivity of public remembrance.
It is only through an unreliable narrator that this message can be exposed.
Many criticisms of ‘The Remains of the Day’ have been tempted to draw a similarity between the constrained narrative of Stevens (who represents a stereotype of Britain) and the controlled nature often associated with Ishiguro’s native Japanese society. This assumption overlooks the intent of the novel to expand on universal themes of humanity. Leaving Japan at the age of five, Ishiguro does not wish to be considered for his Japanese heritage. He has always been most interested in writing about international themes and humanist concerns. And, although comparisons between Japanese and British culture are not viable, it does seem that Ishiguro has set out to ridicule a particular notion of Britain. The reserve commonly associated with a specific age and type of Britain, is revealed to be anunsatisfactory concealment for true emotions.
All of Ishiguro’s novels feature main characters similarly searching for compensation or consolation from losses or errors in their lives. Stevens’s unreliable narration is the perfect medium through which to express his penchant for disillusioning himself. The key component of the account is that Stevens unintentionally deceives both the reader and himself.
This type of narration works as an implicit didactic function for understanding human emotion. The protagonist displays a deep hunger for consolation and truth, and discovers the tensions between there. It is only through unreliable narrative that the reader can actively engage in Stevens’s search for some kind of emotional or personal truth. It is difficult to achieve this level of engagement through reliable narration.
In conclusion, several conditions and features of unreliability accord with the narrative in ‘The Remains of the Day’. Stevens’s contradictory, concealed and poorly remembered account could cause a certain degree of dejection from the reader. Conversely, it is precisely due to the unreliability of the narration that the reader acquires sympathy for Stevens. As a modern piece of literature, it could even be argued that Stevens’s unreliability constitutes the representation of narrator’s illusions and difficulties in making sense of their fictional worlds.