page 2 of 3
Stevens remarks that while Herr Ribbentrop is regarded today as a "trickster," around 1936–1937 he was regarded as an honorable gentleman who, when he dined at great houses in England, always did so as a guest of honor. Stevens is annoyed with people who talk of those times as though they had known all along that Ribbentrop was deceitful, because these same people also speak poorly of Lord Darlington. It was not uncommon for Lord Darlington to stay with Nazis when his visited Germany during those times, but Stevens emphasizes that many established ladies and gentlemen in England also did so, not knowing the true nature of the Nazi regime. Though the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley, visited Darlington Hall on three occasions, Stevens insists that these visits all took place before the fascist organization "had betrayed its true nature."
Again, Stevens reflects with great satisfaction upon the episode with Lord Halifax and the silver, reiterating that he is happy to have worked in a house that contributed to the course of history. Indeed, he feels he practiced his profession at the fulcrum of great affairs. Stevens thinks of an incident that alarmed him last April regarding the silver. One evening at dinner, he saw Mr. Farraday examining the tip of his fork, at which point Stevens quickly removed the offending utensil and replaced it with a new one. He says the mistake was due to the current staff shortage, and thinks that if Miss Kenton returns, such slips would become a thing of the past.
These two sections give us a number of examples that demonstrate how much Stevens is out of place with the present time. The manservant who refills Stevens's radiator exemplifies the new sort of handyman that has replaced the more specific employees—butler, under-butler, housekeeper, and so on—that large manor houses required before World War II. The manservant's comment that there "aren't many like [Stevens] left" is completely accurate: it is as though Stevens is a species on the verge of extinction. Furthermore, Stevens's failed attempt at bantering in the bar of The Coach and Horses again illustrates his inability to adapt to new situations. His attempt at a witty comment is overwrought and bizarre, with the result that his audience fails to understand what he is talking about.
The fact that Giffen and Co. is closing signifies more than the fact that the practice of polishing silver is becoming obsolete: it is symbolic of Stevens's profession itself. Polishing silver is no longer high on most people's list of priorities now that the days of manor house galas are coming to an end. In these two sections of the novel, Stevens shows himself to be so far behind the times that he is a somewhat pathetic character. It is sad that polished silver is Stevens's only concrete contribution to the course of history, and that his skewed concept of dignity allows him to take a great deal of pride in this meager claim.
However, Stevens's emphasis on the fact that Lord Darlington was not the only Englishman who was a Nazi sympathizer is accurate. Stevens makes a good point when he says that it is easy for people to look back and be critical, but that it was much harder to tell the true nature of the Nazi regime at the time. Lord Darlington's personal situation involving Herr Bremann also demonstrates why Darlington was especially prone to giving the Germans the benefit of the doubt in World War II, even though this course of action turned out to be the worst possible one. In the character of Lord Darlington we see that in war, motives and people are more complicated than they may first appear. However, there is little doubt also that in persisting to help Germans, Lord Darlington acted stupidly, even if he did so with the best of intentions.
Although Stevens says that the only reason he denies having worked for Lord Darlington is to avoid "unpleasantness," it is clear that this claim is flimsy. If Stevens were truly proud of Lord Darlington and had no doubts about the virtuous nature of his employer's actions, it seems that Stevens would take every opportunity to defend Darlington. Stevens's strange behavior demonstrates that he does have doubts of his own: perhaps, though Stevens will never admit it himself, he feels that Lord Darlington may have been mistaken in what he did. To admit this, however, would be to admit that he himself was also mistaken, as he lived to serve an employer he viewed as virtuous. Because it is difficult for Stevens to admit an error on his own part, it is a small wonder that he is loath to admit that Lord Darlington may have been wrong.
Take a Study Break!