Characterization in The Remains of the Day

Characterization in The Remains of the Day

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Characterization in The Remains of the Day

 
The Remains of the Day is a book that believes in defining its characters to remarkable detail. Even minor characters are brought to life, using a variety of methods; some subtle, others more overt. This essay will discuss the entire novel - just the first eight pages. Many novels would still only be setting the scene at this point but, with The Remains of the Day, many of the main characters have already been described in a fair amount of detail.

Creating detailed and believable characters is usually a key factor in a book's success. If a story contains rich, fleshed-out characters, readers will be able to understand and empathise with them, so becoming more enveloped by the narrative and, consequently, more enjoying the book. There are, of course, exceptions; in some cases characters are left deliberately vague so as to increase the atmosphere surrounding them, for example.

However, The Remains of the Day is a book which believes in defining its characters to remarkable detail. Even minor characters are brought to life, using a variety of methods; some subtle, others more overt. This essay title does not refer to the whole novel, though - just the first eight pages. Many novels would still only be setting the scene at this point but, with The Remains of the Day, many of the main characters have already been described in a fair amount of detail.

There are, generally, two methods of characterization. One involves merely stating character traits (along the lines of "the man was arrogant and obnoxious• - note that this is an example and not a quote from the text), a method which Ishiguro does not use in great abundance. He much prefers to reveal character information in more subtle and oblique ways, often through their actions and words. This allows readers to judge characters partly for themselves, without having them explicitly prejudged by the writer.

The character of Stevens is unique amongst the others in the novel, as it is written from a first-person perspective and he is the narrator. Ishiguro uses a wide variety of techniques to develop Stevens' character during the first eight pages.

The very fact that the novel has a first-person narrative is significant. This usually allows readers to know and understand more about the narrator's character, as the text is ?written' by him.

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In the case of Stevens, readers are strangely alienated from him. This is probably because of his tendency to withhold information about his personal life and feelings; these are the things that make up the core of a human being. Whilst this could have made the novel difficult to read, it instead allows us to understand Stevens' way of thinking.

This reluctance to divulge his inner feelings is made quite obvious on several occasions during the first few pages. Ironically, we discover this tendency because of his frantic attempts to disguise it. On page 4, he is discussing his reasons for accepting Farraday's offer of a holiday and mentions the arrival of Miss Kenton's letter. Whilst we would not ordinarily have taken a great deal of notice of this inclusion, Stevens' comment when he mentions the letter's existence - "and why should I hide it?• - instantly draws our attention to the remark. In trying to appear nonchalant, Stevens does exactly what he was trying to avoid. Subsequently, every time Miss Kenton is referred to, he swiftly follows with talk about ?professional matters' (pages 5, 9 and 10, as well as many other times throughout the novel), so attempting to change the subject.

It is clear from this that he has strong feelings for Miss Kenton, but is unable to voice them publicly or, perhaps, even to himself. Aside from these parts, the rest of this extract deals almost entirely with ?professional matters.' Readers can deduce from this that Stevens has a fairly inactive life beyond work and he does not feel comfortable talking about what little he does do in his private time.

Stevens also makes a number of na?ve assumptions, and appears somewhat arrogant in places. The first instance is on page 4. He states "As you might expect, I did not take Mr Farraday's suggestion at all seriously...• The words ?as you might expect' indicate that he assumes we have similar values and opinions to his own. On the next page he states "It is, of course, the responsibility of every butler to devote his utmost care in the devising of a staff plan.• The ?of course' displays possible na?vety, as he assumes all readers will be butlers, or have detailed knowledge of a butler's job; if he wrote his diary with this intention, then it is a perfectly harmless and acceptable comment, otherwise it indicates some ignorance on his part. These sort of sweeping assumptions are made numerous times - on page 7 he writes "Now naturally, like many of us, I have a reluctance to change too much of the old ways.• He is assuming far too much here, as he does elsewhere in the text.

The language Stevens uses also suggests certain things about him. He is extremely verbose for example, often digressing frequently whilst discussing something. He also pays great attention to what he writes, and attempts to cover every single angle to an argument to stop people from being able to counter his views. This punctilious nature becomes very annoying during the novel.

The tone of his writing is often condescending; not to the reader but to other characters, particularly Farraday. He regularly quotes Farraday in a faintly mocking way - Stevens evidently disapproves of Farraday's American habits and lifestyle; this is more due to Stevens reservedness rather than any shocking behaviour on the part of the American. Stevens' writing always appears to be very deliberate, over-complex and formal; very unlike normal personal writing (in fact, he writes his account as if it were an essay of some kind). One can imagine he is like this in conversation, too, and this supports the theory that he has difficulty expressing his personal feelings.

Interaction between different characters is also a good way of detailing a personality in a story. Stevens' relationships are just as cold, formal and detached as is his writing. He cannot associate himself with Farraday in any way; they have diametrically opposing personalities, both of which stubbornly refuse to adapt to the new situation. At this point in the novel we do not know much about Stevens' relationships with other characters; however, we can sense that he has strong feelings for Miss Kenton, feelings which are probably not also felt by Miss Kenton. The relationship between Stevens and his readers is more interesting. As mentioned above, his writing assumes a great many things about his readership - what they do, what they think - and is also very formal and over-explanatory. This inevitably creates a gulf between reader and writer (as in Stevens, not as in Ishiguro) which makes it hard for readers to sympathise with him, although he is the narrator.

There are also allegorical references in the text. Darlington Hall represents Great Britain; Lord Darlington was old, traditional Britain, whilst Mr Farraday is the new, changing face of the country. Stevens represents somebody who believes in the old regime, the old traditions and values, who, therefore, will dislike changes to the country - so, to continue the allegory logically, Stevens dislikes the changes happening at Darlington Hall.

All these different techniques could appear rather too obvious, crammed as they are into just the first eight pages. Ishiguro avoids this potential problem by introducing a single event in which he is able to outline many of Stevens' character traits. This event is the crisis that surrounds the faulty staff plan, a minor incident that Stevens places a great deal of importance upon. Whilst this event is useful in displaying some of his other habits, those described above, it also highlights how Stevens often makes unusual decisions regarding his priorities.

From all this, it may seem that readers know all they need to know about Stevens by page 10; this is definitely not the case. All the Prologue achieves is outlining the most obvious parts of Stevens' character. It is only after reading the rest of the novel that readers can fully appreciate all the subtle nuances of information that, when put together, create Stevens' unique personality. And, as is often the case with characters in good novels, the whole is very much more than the sum of its parts.

Works Cited:

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day [1989]. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
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