In assessing the answers Ishiguro’ novel makes to Miss Kenton’s question, it is important to emphasise that Stevens’ constant pretending really describes an inability on his part to display his true emotions. For Stevens, maintaining his role in costume is more than a choice, but a disguise he is verbally lost without. It is then more precisely the reasons for Stevens’ obsession with professionalism that concerns us. Such devotion inevitably infringes upon the man’s personal life, transforming him into an emotionally reserved individual.
Confrontation frightens Stevens who finds it very difficult to connect with the feelings of others. His ineptitude in the field of friendly ‘banter’ is at times almost laughable, for he is so used to communicating in the means with which he is most comfortable, as a professional. ‘I wonder if I may draw to your attention the fact that the bed linen will need to be ready by the day after tomorrow’. His words here for example as he addresses Miss Kenton reek of formality, for efficiency is Stevens only apparent priority.
However, the reader is also drawn to the idea that this is an unconscious yet feeble attempt to connect with Miss Kenton. This more relaxed side to Stevens’ personality, of which we see glimpses, is deeply entrenched behind a barrier of obsession with his career. Stevens feels uneasy when conversation lacks order as is the case in Moscombe where he attracts attention for his sophisticated manner. He is seemingly incapable of displaying how he truly feels, yet he has his own reasons for behaving as such. He strongly believes as he puts it ‘our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments’.
However Stevens is nonetheless emotionally immature and a woeful banterer, therefore far from simply keeping up a pretence Stevens may actually be entirely unable to discuss matters of a personal nature, as much as he may want to. The emotional void in Stevens’ life is partly founded on an unbearable discomfort with love, an emotion he complicates by, time and again, sidelining it in place of his professional duties. Stevens’ peculiar embarrassment when quizzed by Kenton over his reading of romantic novels is further proof of his inhibitions when it comes to showing love and affection, emotional qualities he lacks.
Stevens’ notes this particular instance in his pantry as a potential ‘crucial turning point’ in his life. Whether this is indeed the case or not has a lot to do with Stevens’ perceived, and actual identity. This concept is ironically brought to bear, with the villagers of Moscombe mistaking Stevens for a ‘gentleman’. Mr Taylor’s comment ‘you can tell a true gentleman from a false one that’s just dressed in finery’ is a startling reminder of the close similarity between Stevens and those he serves as a butler.
Stevens aspires to be able to mingle seamlessly with Darlington’s guests, so in this respect Mr Taylor simply alludes to the fact that Stevens is a truly great butler. However it also indicates Stevens’ supreme ability to perform in costume and thus as Miss Kenton puts it ‘pretend’. Stevens’ ability to lead a separate kind of existence in costume can also be included as a reason for him pretending. Stevens has the blind belief that he serves those of great importance, at the ‘hub of world affairs’. Though this false identity he dedicates himself to is ultimately flawed.
Mr Taylor’s presumption is, it would appear, a vision Stevens aspires to, for Stevens aspirations of greatness are, I would argue, tightly bound with a longing to emulate the ways of those whom he serves and indeed respects. Ironically, he is given the task of sexually educating young David Cardinal, a task rejected by Sir Reginald and Darlington who appear similarly uncomfortable with their own emotions. This sexual unease and discomfort lurking behind British aristocracy of the time (responsible for Stevens nurture), is a critical reason why Stevens emotions seem so painfully unattainable.
As we learn, Stevens cannot comprehend love in its most simple and natural form, and as such feels (perhaps unconsciously) he must not mix his professional duties with intimacy. His disregard of the importance of love is highlighted particularly well as he reads a line from Lisa’ letter of resignation. ‘We don’t have money but who cares we have love’. Stevens’ obvious distain for such an attitude draws us once more to the idea he places work above his personal life.
Stevens is absolutely dedicated to his duties, his reasons for this largely stem from the belief in a fixed set of ideologies, outlining what is required to be a great and dignified butler. As he continually informs the reader, Stevens’ handling of situations can be attributed to those ideals he has acquired from a series of debates with ‘great butlers’ over the years. Stevens’ quest to emulate past butlers is a further reason why he is so committed to fulfilling his job quota, and little else, in this way keeping up his pretence. A central reason why Stevens always pretends is based on his beliefs in what ‘dignity’ is.
Stevens believes a butler should remain self-restrained and highly professional at all times. He speaks of there being only ‘one situation’ when ‘a butler who cares about his dignity may feel free to unburden himself’, when he is ‘entirely alone’. Stevens is the portrait of a man whose dream of himself pushes him away from his fellow human beings, and is left trying to lead a very solitary sheltered existence, which such an extreme belief subjects him to. Steven’s views on dignity are in many ways false, for they are not innate but have been learned from numerous discussions with ‘great’ butlers, as he views them.
His encounter with Harry Smith lead Stevens to question these views, as he is challenged to accept that everyone can strive for dignity, ‘there’s no dignity to be had in being a slave’ he argues. This line is filled with irony, for Stevens accepts enslavement to his profession in search of dignity and greatness. Such beliefs were also held by his father whom Stevens greatly respects and admires. Indeed his seemingly obsessed devotion to his work is made largely as a tribute to Stevens Senior.
These ideas are most poignantly displayed in the way Stevens recollects examples of his father’s ability to remain restrained in tense situations. The story of the tiger is just one example. This very reserved yet dedicated approach outlined as his father ‘trademark’ by Stevens seemingly mirrors those ideals Stevens himself so highly values. In this way it is clear Stevens wishes to emulate his fathers take on life, thus illustrating the major role played by Stevens senior in steering his son toward the insular, emotionally insecure life he now chooses to follow.
On the night of the great 1923 conference we are presented with a vivid illustration of Stevens emotional detachment from his father, and the resulting relationship between two men who always put their work before their emotions. Their exchanges are always on a formal basis, lacking the spontaneity of a normal relationship. There is no exception even as Stevens Senior lies on his death bed. Stevens refers to his father in the third person, clearly uncomfortable speaking to him directly, ‘I’m very glad father is feeling better’.
As the plot unravels, Stevens moves further and further geographically from what he knows, but more importantly he also embarks on a journey through his memory, into previously unexcavated recesses. He begins to question the meaning of his entire lonely existence, and in so doing questions Darlington’s (and therefore his own) greatness. Stevens’ devotion to his work is really underpinned by an unfaltering belief that he serves those of importance with political power, potential peacemakers. He considers this the very pinnacle of achievement.
It is this blind devotion to such an ethic which in the end undermines decades of dedication, and Stevens true greatness as a butler. His employer Lord Darlington, whom he defends as ‘a classic English Gentleman’, ‘decent, honest, and well-meaning’, is ultimately disgraced as a Nazi sympathiser. It is thus deeply ironic that Stevens remarks ‘I think it fair to say, professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer’. As Phoebe-Lou Adams – the Atlantic, correctly analyses: ‘Questions of moral responsibility lurk behind the novel’s highly polished surface’
While Stevens appears to be working at the very peak of his career amongst the most distinguished of aristocracy, questionable moral values emerge. However it is Stevens’ commitment to such an illusion that makes him confident in pretending as a means to fulfilling his aspirations of greatness. For Stevens the idea that he was working for an employer with ‘moral worth’ was of unimaginable importance, for to climb the ladder toward ‘professional prestige’ a butler must work in a ‘distinguished household’ as outlined by the Hayes Society.
This provides a strong incentive for Stevens to concentrate solely on his work, and is a crucial answer to Kenton’s question. This deep-rooted value underlines why Stevens feels he has to pretend. It is at times displayed in a most ridiculous and obsessive fashion, as Stevens shuns everyday behaviour in favour of an extreme professional approach. An example is Miss Kenton’s thoughtful bringing of flowers in a vase to Stevens room. She tries here to shake him from his typically stiff unaffectionate attitude.
But when she then offers to ‘bring in some more cuttings’ he dismisses her suggestion claiming ‘this is not a room of entertainment’, acting only in a manner he perceives as ‘dignity in keeping with his position’. The above circumstance highlights the typically compassionate nature of Miss Kenton noted throughout the book, this in stark contrast to that of Stevens. This is important to acknowledge as it helps us to understand another reason why Stevens pretends. He is unable to come to terms with his own feelings let alone those of Miss Kenton who is so much more comfortable with her emotions.
He therefore perhaps at times unknowingly pretends in his efforts to articulate his feelings. Stevens confused reply to Miss Kenton’s question ‘why, Mr Stevens…..? ‘ illustrates this point perfectly, ‘I’m not sure I know what you mean. Pretend? ‘, his words while suitably professional are perhaps those of a man lost for an answer. The reasons why Stevens pretends can be significantly attributed to his carefully considered set of ‘beliefs’. Stevens has strong beliefs in dignity, a butler’s role in costume, but also in unquestionable loyalty for Lord Darlington.
He is forced to come to some sort of resolution as it becomes clear even to him that Darlington had become a political pawn for fascism, somewhat distant from the ‘great man’ Stevens believed he served. Stevens’ sense of self is founded on this blind belief in his master’s greatness. Yet he is modest and would never purport to having an intelligent opinion of world affairs, for to admit to having such a knowledge might embarrass his employer. Thus Stevens also pretends to retain Lord Darlington’s dignity and stature, qualities damaged by future revelations.
This is on occasions to his detriment as illuminated when several of Darlington’s guests rudely jest that the ‘common man’ in England had no idea about current affairs. Stevens takes this in his stride, seeing the occurrence simply as part of his service to his employer. Stevens’ beliefs are to some extent overly laboured upon by Ishiguro, dealt with perhaps rather repetitively, as alluded to by Sarah Hall: ‘Ishiguro constantly equating his self-restraint with his professional adoption of a role’ While this idea may be quite true, its use comes in helping the reader to understand Stevens’ obsessive preoccupation with being a butler.
It is also of great use for the purpose of exploring the title question, which delves into the links between Stevens’ role and persistence in remaining restrained. As a perfectly integrated plot, scenes such as the Jewish maids sacking incident image the whole novel, providing the reader with evidence to appreciate fully the scale of Stevens’ devotion to Darlington, an idea already well established. This instance is another example of the way Stevens is willing to suppress his emotions in order to serve Darlington completely and without complaint.
In this example his view on the proposed expulsion of the Jewish maids is irrelevant, indeed it would be unprofessional to as he puts it ‘allow sentiment to creep into our judgement’. The pretence he upholds on this occasion is clearly contrary to that of his personal opinion, as he articulates in private, ‘my every instinct opposed the idea of their dismissal’, yet he is conscious not to let this discrepancy in opinion overshadow his professional stance, which dictates that his employer’s words are superior and therefore final.
On a number of occasions Stevens is forced to pretend, deviating from the truth as a means of protecting himself against remarks that could potentially undermine those ideals he has stood by for so long. At Mortimer’s Pond Stevens denies any acquaintance with Lord Darlington, ‘Oh no, I’m employed by Mr John Farraday’. On this occasion Stevens is concerned to avoid any recognition of his association with the disgraced Darlington. Stevens is also anxious to protect those ideals he has stood by most of his career. When questioned over his beliefs in dignity by the locals in Moscombe Stevens seems unwilling to begin a debate.
He opts to remain quiet about his own opinions stating ‘I saw little point in attempting to explain this statement further’. He says this after recognising dignity to be the quality being referred to. Perhaps Stevens’ failings stem from his amazing dedication to his profession or indeed from a cold childhood. Whatever the reasons for Stevens’ endless pretence, his physical and emotional journeys come to a close at Weymouth. It is late in the day literally but also metaphorically, as we reach a final drawing to a close of a potential relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton.
Stevens’ claims ‘I know I’m not awaited by emptiness’. Yet the reader is all too aware this simply means work will always be there to occupy his time, but not his heart. The remains of Stevens’ day are a sad reflection of the outcome of a life centred on unwavering servitude. It appears therefore only fitting that the one woman Stevens seems to love shares his tremendous ability in her profession. Yet this is a love unfulfilled, for as Stevens comes to realise ‘in bantering lies the key to human warmth’, something Stevens may never experience.