Although Stevens has, by his own account, spent his life attempting to embody dignity, he also spends much of the novel pondering what precisely that means. To be a great butler, in Stevens’s terms, is to have dignity, but there is never one single definition of dignity given: instead, Stevens offers a number of examples and anecdotes as he feels his way towards an understanding of how he has structured his own life.
Stevens’s father is offered as one model of dignity. He is utterly committed to his work and refuses to allow personal affairs to get in the way of his professional requirements: even when he collapses while pushing a trolley, an event that will lead to his death, he continues attempting to push it from the floor. Stevens adopts this mode of discretion and professionalism, which he doesn’t link to the status of a credentialed expert (in fact, he’s skeptical of this definition), but rather to the necessity of following the duties of one’s position. Calmness, tact, and circumspection are especially important for a butler, who is meant to act as if invisible in the presence of employers: Stevens sometimes reflects on the need to balance a sense of constant availability with invisibility, especially when he’s serving only Lord Darlington and a friend in the massive dining room, for instance.
Towards the end of the novel, Harry Smith proposes another definition of dignity: that dignity is inherent to every British citizen, who—as a member of a democracy—has both the privilege and the right to contribute to the country’s progress. Stevens thinks that Smith is overly idealistic—another aspect of dignity, in Stevens’s view, is precisely that it needs to be attached to specific circumstances and positions. He obviously doesn’t think that a butler cannot have dignity and pride, but it is a specific kind of dignity—one that can and should be distinguished from the dignity attached to someone like Lord Darlington. Indeed, much of Stevens’s sense of dignity has to do with the moral status of his employer. He constantly insists on Lord Darlington’s morals, although he sometimes seems to collapse his employer’s ethics with the external, social qualities of being a “gentleman.”
Stevens and Ishiguro both show a certain insecurity throughout the novel as to whether dignity is helpful, or conversely, whether it can be harmful and even dangerous. The same coolness and detachment that Stevens has learned to embody from his father makes him unable to attend to his father at his deathbed, or to express vulnerability to Miss Kenton. Lord Darlington’s dignity, meanwhile, comes to seem more suspicious in light of his earnest belief that Britain and Germany can just “work things out” like two gentlemen having an argument at a dinner party. As the senator Mr. Lewis warns during the international conference, this belief in the inherent dignity of people—and especially in the relevance of personal dignity in international politics—is naïve and may well prove devastating to European politics. On the other hand, Stevens himself, when faced with Harry Smith’s definition of dignity, comes to express uncertainty as to whether or not dignity should be democratic. Even if he ultimately insists that Smith is wrong, Stevens’s own uncertainty signals the ambiguous role that dignity plays throughout the novel, as something to aspire to but also in many ways a relic of a past in which “great” countries were ruled like gentelmen’s clubs. The novel treats Stevens’s view of dignity as admirable, in some senses, but also as tragically limited, in ways that Stevens largely—though not entirely—remains unable to see.
Dignity and Greatness ThemeTracker
Dignity and Greatness Quotes in The Remains of the Day
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 yet what precisely is this “greatness”? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware that it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.
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.
To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them. It was the aspiration of all those of us with professional ambition to work out way as close to this hub as we were each of us capable. For we were, as I say, an idealistic generation for whom the question was not simply one of how well one practiced one’s skills, but to what end one did so; each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.
I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was. I was particularly disappointed, I suppose, because I have been devoting some time and effort over recent months to improving my skill in this very area. That is to say, I have been endeavouring to add this skill to my professional armoury so as to fulfil with confidence all Mr. Farraday’s expectations with respect to bantering.
“Does it not occur to you, Mr. Stevens, that to dismiss Ruth and Sarah on these grounds would be simply—wrong? I will not stand for such things. I will not work in a house in which such things can occur.”
“Miss Kenton, I will ask you not to excite yourself and to conduct yourself in a manner befitting your position. This is a very straightforward matter. If his lordship wishes these particular contracts to be discontinued, then there is little more to be said.”
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.
There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them contribute “strong opinions” to the great debates of the day cannot, surely, be wise. It is, I any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a person’s “dignity” in these terms.
Throughout the years I served him, it was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm. And as far as I am concerned, I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider “first rate.” It is hardly my fault if his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste—and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.
“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?”
After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.