The tragedy in the Remains of the Day
15 August 2019
I bought Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day on my way home from IACR 2019. The story of a butler who renounces love in service of propriety and duty, it could not have been a better read after a week of discussing structure, agency, and the systemic constraints on human flourishing. Spoiler alert: the passages I cite below are from near the end of the book.
Two opposing passages struck me as particularly moving:
On the one hand, the protagonist, Mr. Stevens, finally reflects critically on his life of unquestioning service1:
Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really - one has to ask oneself - what dignity is there in that?
His employer, Lord Darlington, was a pawn of the German Ambassador in gathering support for German causes. The quote above is one of the very few examples in the book where he implies this may have been a mistake, not because the of the consequences for humanity or, ultimately, for Lord Darlington, but because he chose to go along the path provided. But then, a few paragraphs later, he expresses resignation:
The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and me, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.
Perhaps it struck me so deeply because Mr. Stevens’ tragedy plays out every day in work life (lost love aside). Maybe the tragedy is at a lesser scale–the book covers a lifetime–but I suspect the consequences are often dire.
I thought about my own past as an employee and reflected on some troubling parallels: listening to this employer or than rattling on, blindly following a predetermined path, without listening or wanting to listen to their employees who might be able to avert disaster? And then me, obedient and silent, choosing to go along.
Ishiguro, K. (1989). The Remains of the Day. Faber Modern Classics: London. pp. 256 - 257 ↩︎