The Question of Dignity in The Remains of the Day

One of the prevailing themes throughout Ishiguro’s novel is the question of dignity. This article will explore the notion of dignity as it relates to moral judgments and moral character and to what degree (if any) it is embodied by some of the major characters in the novel.

We will begin by looking at Stevens’ description of a great butler by defining him as one who is “possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position”. He goes on to say that “great butlers wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit”. There is no question that Stevens’ role as a butler is much more to him than a mere occupation, it is the embodiment of who he is. As such, it has a profound impact on his moral character. We will now look at some of these instances.

Steven’s total immersion into his role as a butler causes him to appear, on the surface at least, as something of a programmed automaton rather than a human being. This is evidenced by the cold manner in which he reacts to his father’s death and depicts him as a man of limited human feeling. His duties as a butler call to him more resoundingly than do his duties as a son. Another example is his cold attitude towards Miss Kenton when he receives word of her aunt’s death. In this scene where Stevens is debating whether or not to comfort Miss Kenton when he hears her crying, we see him almost crack the veneer of his role for the first time, but once again, his duties as a butler supersede his duties as a human being.

Iris Murdoch would probably not see Stevens as virtuous or dignified because he fails to put human emotions into the equation of his moral decision-making. Murdoch thinks it is wrong to make a distinction between thought and action and Stevens does exactly this on many occasions. At this point in the novel, Stevens would have defined himself as a dignified butler, But Murdoch would probably have defined him as a human being lacking all dignity.

Stevens can also be viewed as a tragic character because his entire set of values is based on a tradition that is coming to pass. Stevens strives for the impeccable standards of a “great” English butler, but he is left solely to judge his accomplishments since he is one of the few remaining individuals who have retained the set of values to be able to gauge the performance of a butler. Stevens’ new employer, Mr. Farraday, is in no position to ascertain the quality or standards of an English butler and, in fact, strives to engage Stevens in “bantering”, which falls far outside the realm of professional duties in Stevens’ eyes. To do so would take Stevens outside of his role, therefore, outside of his dignity.

At the point in the novel where Lord Darlington fires the Jewish maids, this raises moral questions on the part of Darlington himself, Stevens, and Miss Kenton. Stevens describes the hierarchical society in which he lives as a wheel where the gentlemen reside at the hub and where the rest of society strive to get as close to the hub as possible without crossing the boundary. I prefer to think of it as a giant swimming pool in which the upper tier of society is splashing merrily about and making the decisions that will affect all of the land-lubbers, while the middle-class and perhaps the “great” butlers reside on the outskirts of the pool, and the hierarchy continues all the way out into the desert where society’s dregs reside. Darlington, obviously, defines himself first as an elite member of the pool party, and second as an individual. This becomes evident when he fires the maids in spite of the fact that he may very well think it is wrong on an individual level. Darlington justifies his decision by saying that “there are larger concerns”, but later realizes that he has, in fact, peed in the pool. One gets the impression that Lord Darlington’s intentions were noble; he thought that he was performing an act for the greater good. But as a proponent of utilitarianism would say, his intentions do not ameliorate the consequences of his actions.

Stevens’ reaction to the firing of the maids is predictably apathetical when he reprimands Miss Kenton for her outburst, “Miss Kenton, I am surprised to find you reacting in this manner. Surely I don’t have to remind you that our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer”. Some would say that here, Stevens is deferring a moral decision to his superior. However, we later learn that Stevens found the dismissal of the maids distasteful. Therefore, his decision to defer to the wishes of Lord Darlington is a moral decision in itself. He decides to do nothing in the face of what he, himself, finds unjust.

In contrast to Stevens, Miss Kenton voices her outrage to the injustice being done and threatens to leave the employ of Darlington Hall if it is carried through. As we learn later though, she fails to act on her threat. Many would see this as an act of cowardice on the part of Miss Kenton for failing to carry through on her moral convictions. Indeed, Miss Kenton herself even says, “It was cowardice, Mr. Stevens. Simple cowardice. Where could I have gone? I have no family”. It is because of this passage, however, that I wish to argue that Miss Kenton is not necessarily a coward as much as she is a victim of the hierarchical system of which she is a part.

On this note, I am compelled to reveal a trapping of personal experience to clarify this position. During my years in the broadcasting business, I encountered a number of situations which I found morally distasteful. To give a specific example, while I was working as a newscast director at a local television station, we were providing coverage of one of the shuttle launches. On this occasion, we were flipping back and forth via a split-screen double box from reporters in our newsroom providing commentary to a direct feed from NASA of the launch. At some point during the coverage, the news director came into the control room where I was stationed and asked me to superimpose the custom logo for our local satellite truck over the NASA video. Obviously, this would be an attempt to make our viewers believe that our station had a live local crew in Cape Canaveral, and just as obviously, it would also be a blatant lie. I voiced my objections but the news director was persistent in his request and after some sarcastic mumbling, I finally deferred to the wishes of my superior.

There are numerous other examples that could be cited, not the least of which would be local media involvement in such altruistic causes as collecting food and clothing for the less fortunate, blood drives, etc. The moral goodness of these acts would seem to be unquestionable since the end result is unmistakably positive. However, altruism, in my estimation, is doing something for the common good for its own sake. Local media will unfailingly have numerous cameras and/or reporters present at these events to immortalize the “goodness” of their employer and to subsequently use it for shameless self-promotion. I daresay that if a law were passed to prohibit the use of community service to promote ratings for the media outlet who sponsors it, we would see a marked decrease in “altruism” on the part of our golden-hearted local media.

So, the questions raised here are these: Did I lose my dignity when I, like Miss Kenton, failed to act on my moral convictions? Is there dignity in an act of altruism which has a selfish underlying cause?

In response to the first question, I believe that it would have been impractical for me to have quit my job over this issue. As a young man in my early twenties, my opinions concerning morality had just as much spit and vinegar as other young bucks. However, when one gains a true insight as to how the world actually operates, and learns that the phrase “all men are created equal” is little more than window-dressing in one of our most revered documents, one must necessarily dilute the vinegar in his bottle of moral judgment. Would Miss Kenton have had more dignity as a pauper who acted on her moral convictions? Would I have had more dignity standing in an unemployment line wondering where my next job would be, and knowing that I will inevitably face the same kind of moral dilemmas there also? The answer to both questions, I think, is “no”. As to the second question, it comes down to a matter of motive and consequence. The moral goodness of the act of community service by the media can be arrived at by whichever of these, motive or consequence, is assigned the greater value.

The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of us temper our moral decision-making in deference, to some degree, to the world and life as it actually is. Ideals are fine, but they will not pay the bills. In this regard, most of us are no different than Miss Kenton. So, if Miss Kenton is a coward, I daresay that the vast majority of us are also cowards.

A thinker such as Nietzsche would probably find little dignity in any of the three main characters. Certainly, he would associate Stevens and Miss Kenton with the slave morality. Stevens’ entire identity is bound up with serving his master, and Miss Kenton’s actions (or lack thereof), reflect little better. Here, a Marxist viewpoint can be put forth that a socio-economic system that depends on servants requires that a segment of the population be denied its sense of self. This is exactly what Nietzsche disdains most vehemently. The Marxist view can be taken a step further when we recall that Farraday presents Stevens as a commodity, “I mean to say, Stevens, this is a grand old English house, isn’t it? That’s what I paid for. And you’re a genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one. You’re the real thing, aren’t you?”. Nietzsche would say that Stevens was Darlington’s slave and now he will continue to be Farraday’s slave as evidenced by his commitment to master the art of bantering at the end of the book.

Darlington would appear to be associated with the master morality, but Nietzsche would probably find little dignity in him either because Darlington defers his moral decisions to “larger concerns”. Nietzsche would disdain the notion that value grows out of our relation to one another or with the community.

Finally, it can be said that Stevens is a character who drained himself of individuality in order to perform his role, and during his road trip, he begins to realize the high price that he has paid for this. Stevens’ epiphany occurs when he breaks completely out of character in making a poignant confession to a total stranger, “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?”. In saying this, he finally rejects his justification of living not as a human being, but solely as a butler. Also, I disagree with the notion that Stevens’ desire to banter with Farraday is an indication of his continuing slave morality. Indeed, bantering requires the individual expression which had given Stevens so much trouble throughout the novel. I believe that Stevens’ first showing of true dignity occurs when he finally strips away the veneer of the perfect butler and shows himself to be a thinking, caring, feeling individual. To think as an individual is the greatest dignity that can be afforded to any of us, and this is exactly what Stevens has deprived himself of until he is confronted with the remains of the day.