Monday, April 03, 2006

 

English butlers have feelings too!

If we have learned one thing from class discussions and the blogger project, it may very well be the difficulty of attaching the label of “happy” or “sad” to the endings of the post colonial novels read thus far. Mixed feelings regarding the ending of A House for Mr. Biswas were expressed in class and there was ample textual support for both opinions. The same is true for Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The post colonial literary tradition has been to “remodel the master’s house” while exploring traditional novelistic forms. Characters in these novels no longer only identify with British culture, as we have seen in past novels such as Jane Eyre and Middlemarch. Instead, post colonial novels written by Rushdie, Naipaul and Ishiguro feature hybrid characters undergoing major life changes.

The ever changing world, and the “remodeling of the masters house” provides a context in which one can understand the resolution of The Remains of the Day. Stevens is not a character who undergoes a completely successful transition in a neatly packaged pilgrimage as Jane Eyre does. His is a constant internal struggle, one that is not linear in progression. However, there is internal development and growth, and this contributes to the position that the ending is a happy one.

In an earlier part of the novel, other characters draw attention to his feelings or point them out by saying “Stevens, are you all right? You look as though you’re crying” (105). Stevens has an entrenched alienation and resistance to intimacy and feelings brought on by the butler lifestyle. At the resolution, the break in self and emotions is not fully restored, but there is progress for this reconnection. Stevens recognizes that his heart is breaking during his final conversation with Mrs. Kenton (239) and he also gives her the advice to make the last years of life “happy ones for yourself and your husband” (240). Stevens has finally acknowledged the importance of happiness not only confined to work and professional life. He begins to hope for happiness outside of the paradoxical life of a butler existing for someone else’s pleasure and comfort.

Stevens becomes committed to learn the proper techniques of bantering and I would see this as support for the reading of this ending as “happy.” At the conclusion, he decides to work on his bantering skills so that he may “pleasantly surprise” (245) Mr. Farraday. He is learning to not take himself so seriously. The very act of bantering is bringing him out of the paradoxical nature of a butler’s existence. Stevens is no longer trying to only maintain the “balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting” (72). By learning how to banter with his employer, he is partly abandoning the belief that his presence is “inhibiting the conversation” (72) by actively becoming an integral comedic part of it.

Stevens finds himself triumphant the night that is father dies and he is able to continue on with his duties. In fact, he labels his emotionless response as a “turning point in [his] professional development” (110). At the resolution of the novel, Stevens begins questioning his past commitment to professionalism and distant interpersonal relationships.

Ishiguro does not end the novel on a completely tragic and depressing note. Reflecting on Stevens’ life decisions and experiences certainly bring about glum attitudes and responses. Ishiguro is careful to point out that it is never too late in one’s life to become a more fully developed “self.” A broken character does not have to remain that way for an entire lifetime. Stevens recognizes that he is not alone in feeling discontented with his life. The man he has a conversation with at the end says, “Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. And all right, you can’t do your job as well as you used to. But it’s the same for all of us, see? We’ve all got to put our feet up at some point. . .keep looking forward” (243). It is important to note that Stevens is actually listening to the stranger’s words and not walking away, as he does in earlier scenes in the novel.

So while The Remains of the Day does not contain a traditional happy ending, it is hopeful and it does show the main character making some internal progress. Life is more complicated for these hybrid characters, and their resolutions will be complex as well. Stevens is looking forward to the future, intent to make it different and more rewarding than his past.

Comments:
Excellent job of making connections (now I feel very self-conscious about using that word) with our other texts. Would the rest of you agree that this difficulty in characterizing the endings is a main point in the works/the class?
 
I definately agree that trying to put a blanket "happy"/"sad" ending on these novels is difficult if not impossible because I feel that that is not what these authors set out to do. While not tearing down the Master's house, they are definately remodeling it, and in doing so, making stories more real. Stories, in real life, rarely wrap themselves up in neat little packages, something that was neglected in the traditional Victorian Novel. These postcolonial authors attempt to tell similar stories (family centered, etc.) but with a more realistic twist to them. There are fewer objectively good or bad characters or good or bad situations, to put it in Rushdie's terms, some snakes are ladders and some ladders are snakes. Thus, at the end of Stevens' life, he acts the way an old man should. Do people really expect an old man to sit on a park bench and completely denounce his life, admitting to anyone who will listen that he has wasted it? Of course not, he'll look at what he's done, take the good with the bad, and then do the best that he can with what remains of his days, like a real person would do.
 
I absolutely agree that there is no way to characterize the ending of The Remains of the Day as either clearly "sad" or "happy" -- like every other work we've read so far this semester. The post-colonial novel is more realistic in this way, focusing on both sides of people's lives, just as real life is a combination of good and bad. The Remains of the Day is just like Rushdie's "for every ladder there is a snake; for every snake there is a ladder."

I think Stevens did develop as a character; he was able to grow emotionally (or rather he permitted a "birth" of emotions). However, I'm not satisfied with the ending of the novel because of this realism and lack of romantic optimism with a complete and definite conclusion. I have to admit though, this book was much more enjoyable and easy to read.

I would argue that the overall impression of the The Remains of the Day depends in large part on the reader's personal experiences (if he or she can related with some of the characters' problems or achievements) or even the reader's mood. Depending on the way I feel myself, my perception tends to be more or less optimistic.
 
I do agree that it is difficult to label the ending of this book as happy or sad. I think the only emotion that I expressed at the end of this book was pity. I truly felt sorry for Stevens. Even though many have said that the ending is more or less "hopeful", it still is fairly depressing that it took Stevens his ENTIRE life to see what he had missed out on. While it is true that Stevens has learned something out of his trip and may be able to enjoy the last few years of his life, how many of us, if in his shoes, would call this a "happy" ending to our lives? If anything, I think the ending is a more of a moral to the reader to not live a life of "quiet desperation"; instead, we should take chances when they come our way and not let our work consume our lives and emotions.
 
I feel that most of these novels' endings have been difficult to characterize as happy or sad. However, while I agree with Lisa and see the hopeful and happier ending of Remains of the Day, I can easily prove the more sad and "too little, too late" ending. Stevens progress as a character is extremely different than Jane Eyre, in that his progress occurs at the very end of his life. On the other hand, Jane grows in time to amply pursue and realize a happy life. On the other hand, Stevens does not recognize or identify his feelings until his later years when pursuing Miss Kenton, no longer a “Miss,” is not an option. The reader feels sympathy for Stevens because after all his years of servitude and helping others, he cannot serve to his own needs. It seems like Stevens deserves a happy ending most, when compared to other characters we’ve studied this semester, due to his intense self-restriction, lack of freedom, relinquish of control, and absence of understanding toward human love and emotion. Stevens, of all characters, earned his rights to happiness, and the fact that he still defines himself through his employer makes the end of the novel disappointing. The book concludes with Stevens explaining the remains of his “day.” Stevens describes his remaining goal that “I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him” (245). After 200+ pages of actualization about freedom and integrity, the reader can easily read Stevens as a tragic hero. The novel’s last sentence shows that Stevens still prioritizes his employer’s happiness (being able to properly banter, a skill that will please Mr. Farraday and only please Stevens because it will please Farraday), the professional as his personal means to happiness. Stevens’ inability to find love and fully appreciate his time as a self-defined, free individual leaves the reader with a sad (but effective) ending novel. Yet, a case can be made for Remains of the Day as a happy or sad ending novel. In being the more optimistic young woman I am, I prefer Lisa’s interpretation: rather than the more sad, “too little, too late” feel I just made a case for, I read the novel's ending with a hopeful, “better late than never” tone.
 
I'd like to be able to disagree just for arguments sake so this blog doesn't seem so one-sided, but I admit I agree with lisa and the rest of my fellow classmates who have posted here. It isn't as simple as saying this book has a "happy" ending or a "sad" ending. These aren't fairytales. The purpose of these novels is to portray a sense of realism. Salman Rushdie showed us that realism doesn't necessarily mean "real." His realism is more about the emotions his characters experience and the way we as the readers experience those emotions through those characters. In Remains of the Day we see that even with just the thoughts of one character, the outcome is not a cut and dry opinion of happy vs. sad. Even people who sympathize with Stevens' character see the sadness in a man recognizing his wrong choices so late in life. Still at the same time, even those of us who weren't crazy about Stevens can say "well at least he figured it out in the end... kind of." Life isn't that easy, so it only makes sense that writers trying to emphasize the real wouldn't make their novels that easy.
 
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