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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The most notable symbols in The Remains of the Day are associated with people and events, not with objects and colors. The English landscape that Stevens admires near the beginning of his road trip is one such significant symbol, as we see that Stevens applies the same standards of greatness to the landscape as he does to himself. He feels that English landscape is beautiful due to its restraint, calm, and lack of spectacle—the same qualities Stevens successfully cultivates in his own life as a butler aspiring to "greatness." By the end of the novel, however, Stevens is no longer certain that he has been wise to adhere to these values so rigidly, to the exclusion open- mindedness, individuality, and love.
Stevens and Miss Kenton watch Stevens's father, after his fall on the steps, practicing going up and down the steps. The elder Stevens searches the ground surrounding the steps "as though," Miss Kenton writes in her letter, "he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there." The action of searching for something that is irretrievably lost is an apt symbol for Stevens's road trip, and indeed his life as a whole. Just as his father keeps his eyes trained on the ground, Stevens keeps thinking over memories in his head as though they will give him some clue as to how his values led him astray in life.
The silver polish company in Mursden that is closing down is a symbol for the obsolescence of Stevens's profession. Indeed, the butler is also almost entirely obsolete by 1956. It is significant that Stevens knows all about the quality of the silver polish, the houses in which it was used, and so on—though he knows an incredible amount of detail about all things related to the maintenance of a great household, his knowledge is no longer nearly as important as it once was. There is no longer the demand that there once was in England for either silver polish or butlers; they are a part of a bygone era.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Remains of the Day!