Stevens thinks of his identity as a butler as his full, authentic self. But there is also a deeply performative aspect to his role as a servant at Darlington Hall, as well as to the roles of the other employees at the estate. The novel examines how performance and authenticity are not, in fact, always in opposition: indeed, Stevens is an extreme case of the notion that performing a certain self can lead to becoming that person.
The performances required to maintain formality and dignity in the aristocratic household lead to some of the few moments of humor in an otherwise nostalgic, even tragic novel. For example, when Stevens is asked to instruct Lord Darlington’s godson in the facts of sex, he struggles to figure out how to do so while continuing to perform his regular duties of discretion and dignity. Other servants, like Miss Kenton, tend to think of their duties more as performances than as identities; that is, they can turn off their work behaviors once they are alone or away from the extravagant public spaces of the house. The duties they perform are not their “real” selves.
In some ways, Stevens’s view is more “authentic,” in that he cannot be one person in some situations and another person in others. But while that might mean he is always his real self, it might also mean that he is deceiving himself by always performing—and, more troubling, that he cannot tell the difference between the two. Miss Kenton, in particular, strives to unmask Stevens’s prim, proper exterior, yearning to connect with him on a deeper level. At certain points, Stevens, too, seems to want the same thing. But his difficulty in communicating with Miss Kenton ultimately seems to stem from the fact that the only way he knows how to act (or to be at all) is through the performance of his professional role.
Stevens continues his performance even to the reader. Although the novel is structured as a diary, Stevens often addresses the reader as “you,” as if asking the reader to confirm the way he views his own past and the conclusions he’s drawn from it. This narrative choice allows Stevens to avoid confronting his memories alone, on their own terms, as he seems to prefer to address the past in the presence of an audience, which indicates a troubling insecurity. Even when Stevens remains within a first-person narration, he toggles between self-knowledge and self-deception. Stevens sometimes relates a memory through his own eyes, inviting the reader to believe him, but then later acknowledges that things actually happened differently. Without an “objective” source other than the narrator, it’s difficult to know how much to take Stevens at his word, even though he seems to yearn for greater honesty over the course of the novel. This yearning—and his difficulty in fulfilling it—seems damning to the role he has played for so many years, implying that it has irrevocably shaped him into someone unable to confront (or even identify) reality and without a deeply-rooted self.
Authenticity, Performance, and Self-Deception ThemeTracker
Authenticity, Performance, and Self-Deception Quotes in The Remains of the Day
It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern.
Such difficulties as these tend to be all the more preoccupying nowadays because one does not have the means to discuss and corroborate views with one’s fellow professionals in the way one once did.
And now let me posit this: “dignity” has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the façade will drop to reveal the actor underneath. The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost. […] They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.
Of course, if two members of staff happen to fall in love and decide to marry, it would be churlish to be apportioning blame; but what I find a major irritation are those persons – and housekeepers are particularly guilty here – who have no genuine commitment to the profession and who are essentially going from post to post looking for romance. This sort of person is a blight on good professionalism.
Even so, if you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the fact of everything, at least in some modest degree a ‘dignity’ worthy of someone like Mr. Marshall—or come to that, my father. Indeed, why should I deny it? For all its sad associations, whenever I recall that evening today, I find I do so with a large sense of triumph.
A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume.
It occurs to me that elsewhere in attempting to gather such recollections, I may well have asserted that this memory derived from the minutes immediately after Miss Kenton’s receiving news of her aunt’s death; that is to say, the occasion when, having left her to be alone with her grief, I realized out in the corridor that I had not offered her my condolences. But now, having thought further, I believe I may have been a little confused about this matter; that in fact this fragment of memory derives from events that took place on an evening at least a few months after the death of Miss Kenton’s aunt.