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Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall, is the protagonist and narrator of The Remains of the Day. A mercilessly precise man, his relentless pursuit of "dignity" leads him to constantly deny his own feelings throughout the novel. For Stevens, "dignity" involves donning a mask of professional poise at all times. Although there is merit in the ideas of decorum and loyalty, Stevens takes these concepts to an extreme. He never tells anyone what he is truly feeling, and he gives his absolute trust to Lord Darlington—a man who himself makes some very poor choices in his life. Although throughout much of the story it seems that Stevens is quite content to have served Lord Darlington—believing that Darlington was doing noble things at the time—Stevens expresses deep regret at the end of the story for failing to cultivate both intimate relationships and his own personal viewpoints and experiences.
Stevens is strongly influenced by his father. He constantly speaks of his father as though the older man perfectly exemplifies the quality of dignity, telling stories of his father's brilliantly self-effacing execution of his duties as butler. It is clear that Stevens wishes to be like his father, and, indeed, he succeeds only too well. Though Stevens is clearly a very competent butler who is always gracious and precise, his inheritance of his father's impossibly formal interactions with other people ends up limiting his personal growth and relationships. The interactions between Stevens and his father are, for the most part, completely devoid of any sign of familial warmth. If Stevens's relationship with even a family member is so distant, we can easily imagine how difficult it is for him to break away from codes of repressed formality.
With Stevens, Ishiguro uses two levels of narrative voice in one character: Stevens is alternately a narrator who is superior to the story he tells, and a narrator who is a part of, or within, the story he tells. Stevens at once displays himself as both a paragon of virtue and a victim of historical or cultural circumstances beyond his own control. In this second role, he manages to cultivate our sympathy. His extra-narrative role crumbles at the end of the story when he realizes that the façade he has cultivated is a false one. Ishiguro subtly increases the amount of doubt that Stevens expresses about his past actions, so that by the end of the story, a fuller picture of Stevens's regret and sadness has emerged.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Remains of the Day!