The Return of the Naïve

As we do when joining any group of people, we make early and often incorrect judgments about the characters encountered in a novel or short story. Indeed, one of the most commonly held incorrect judgments relates to the principal narrative voices of the textbook.

All the way through high school, we labored under the assumption that the narrative voices of textbooks, however boring they might be, were correct and that we, however bored we might be, were wrong.

Then came the times when textbooks were no longer supplied to us; we had to buy them. Our tolerance for being bored was directly related to how much we had to pay for these assigned texts. Thus did our boredom and checkbook contribute to our scholarship in ways we’d never anticipated. By checking other sources, we discovered that textbook writers often combined boredom with wrong-headedness and political agendas, if not overt wrongness.

Fiction is another matter, although even there some writers are motivated by philosophical or political motives. Ayn Rand quickly comes to mind in this context, but so do such writers as John Steinbeck, Philip Roth, and Iris Murdoch. Into this midst comes a phenomenon called the naïve narrator, the character in the story chosen by the author to transport the events to the reader in such an artful way the reader quickly understands this individual’s intellectual, cultural, and moral limitations.

William Faulkner’s Benjy Compson is such a naïve narrator, a major voice in a novel whose title alone conveys his status. To those who know their Shakespeare, “The Sound and the Fury” is the giveaway, the tale “told by an idiot—“. To those who don’t get the clue, Benjy’s novel-opening account of a golf game in progress makes the point: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.”

In 1989, a promising young novelist, born in Japan and now a resident of England, published “The Remains of the Day,” a novel set in England after World War II, flashing back to capture the waning moments of innocence before that enveloping disaster.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” features the point of view and reflective angst of Mr. Stevens, head butler at Darlington Hall, a sumptuous estate in the English countryside. Stevens has devoted his life to service, first of all to Lord Darlington, but now an American, Mr. Farraday, who is after Stevens to loosen up, to be more amenable to banter, owns Darlington Hall.

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days,” Stevens says, launching himself and us into the narrative.

The expedition is a trip wherein he will visit with Miss Kenton, who was for some time the head housekeeper at Darlington Hall. She has written to Stevens in a manner that suggests to him her interest in returning to Darlington Hall for employment, her marriage plainly a disappointment to her.

Driving to the meeting with Miss Kenton, Stevens has time to reflect on such matters as his unswerving loyalty to Lord Darlington, his sense of gratitude to his late father for having trained him for the life of service and for instilling in him the sense of fulfillment that comes from aspiring to excel at what one does.

By subtle implication that is a tribute to Ishiguro’s talents at understatement, we come to understand the nature of the two major conflicts in Stevens’ life, one being his blind loyalty and devotion accorded Lord Darlington who, simply put, was more than a mere sympathizer with the plight of Germany after the close of World War I.

Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton is the other, larger area of conflict and I will not spoil the plot details except to suggest that events between the two and Miss Kenton’s recent letter to Stevens confirm any reasonable doubt that Stevens is anything but a naïve narrator.

“[E]ver since the prospect of seeing Miss Kenton again first arose some weeks ago,” he writes, “I suppose I have tended to spend much time pondering just why it was our relationship underwent such a change. For change it certainly did…”

In the title, “The Remains of the Day,” a great many ironies, plays on words, and discoveries reside, almost like abandoned buildings being inhabited by squatters. Darlington Hall, one of the last of the great English estates of another era, has become the property now of a wealthy American who rose from the working classes and looks to such as Stevens for clues about how to be proper in England. The term remains of the day also refers to Stevens having made incursions into middle age; he is no longer the young man of his memories; this is what is left of his life. Remains of the day, English friends tell me, also refers to the time-off hours employers occasionally give their help. “Take the remains of the day” translates to the American “Take the rest of the day off.” Not a full holiday, simply a magnanimous few hours of leisure.

Literally and figuratively then, we meet Stevens as he drives the country roads toward his meeting with Miss Kenton, who is now Mrs. Benn, and we learn how much being a butler means to him, how much of his life has been defined by his service to the late Lord Darlington, and how certain events, even though he was present and functioning during them, seem to have gone over his head. Not the least of these was that Lord Darlington, after a few visits from his German chums, had requested Stevens to discharge two maids who were thought to be Jewish.

In “The Remains of the Day” Ishiguro has caught the lyric beauty and soaring innocence of a noted composition, “The Lark Ascending,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. For a brief span between the two world wars, there was a sense of calm and beauty ranging over the countryside as England healed its wounds from one war and lurched hesitantly toward its involvement in another. Stevens, by all accounts a good, thoughtful man, becomes bigger than his own life in this masterfully ironic portrait of a love and a world gone wrong.

“The Remains of the Day” leaves the reader with an aching wrench for awareness not fully realized or understood. It has the power and ache of Thomas Hardy in “Tess” or “Jude,” rendered with pitch-perfect replication of all those involved in its drama.

It is no more difficult for the American reader to grasp Stevens’ goal than it is for the English reader to understand the intensity of forces propelling “Fast Eddie” Felson in Walter Tevis’s 1959 thriller, “The Hustler.” Both are about dreams, realities, and the murky landscape in between.