It is difficult to tell where Stevens’s professional commitment to discretion ends, and where the trouble he has with expressing his feelings in a private setting begins. Regardless of their origin, his shyness and social awkwardness become a source of regret as Stevens looks back on his life throughout the novel, and much of his regret has to do with things that went unsaid and events that could have gone otherwise—although how they could have, given the rigidness of his character, remains in doubt.
The retrospective, flashback-heavy structure of The Remains of the Day makes it well-suited to such questions of regret stemming from contemplation of the past. In the present time of the novel, Stevens is driving to see Miss Kenton, whom he hasn’t seen in many years, but he is also recalling a number of events related to her, and related to their lives at Darlington Hall more generally. Many of Stevens’s regrets have to do with his relationship to Miss Kenton; only at the end of the novel is it mentioned explicitly that she would have liked to marry him, but this has been clear long before, though the extent to which Stevens knew this, or understood even subconsciously, remains ambiguous.
This ambiguity is key to the novel’s ideas about a person’s relationship to the past. All past events in The Remains of the Day are told in flashbacks from an unreliable narrator who tends to tell a convenient story and then only partially correct himself. As a result, it’s unclear what Stevens really understands or knows about his own past. Does he know that he loves Miss Kenton, for example, or has he repressed this even from himself? And, more to the point, is Stevens’s extreme repression emblematic of a more general tendency for memory to be provisional, partial, and malleable? The novel implies that the answer to the latter question is yes, in no small part because a person’s life is not just difficult to understand in retrospect—it’s impossible to understand as it happens in the present, too, and so memory will always be cobbled together and partially invented. When Stevens relates how he responded to the news of the death of Miss Kenton’s aunt, for instance, it is obvious that his actions were deeply hurtful to her. But Stevens struggled to understand that at the time, and thus, even in retrospect, he is unable to see how he might have acted differently.
These questions take on larger importance as the vagaries of personal memory become inextricable from the larger movements of history; Stevens’s troublesome reflections encompass not only on his own memories, but also historical events that led to Britain’s role in World War II. Stevens is unable to admit—at the time, or in retrospect—that his employer’s political dealings aided the Nazis. Likewise, many important politicians and aristocrats in England failed to truly see what was happening before their eyes as Nazi Germany rose to power. The novel suggests that one of the pitfalls of memory and history is the tendency to impose a coherence and inevitability onto events that did not exist when they were unfolding—to look back, that is, on the events leading up to World War II and assume that the war “had” to happen. At the same time, though, the novel can also be understand as a damning indictment of the naïveté and historical blindness of key factors in British history: a blindness only enabled by the ways in which wealthy Englishmen lived, cloistered away on their ancient estates. By linking Stevens’s personal retrospection to the political one, the novel explores the ways in which telling a story can both clarify what was at stake, and also show how impossible it is to recognize this without the benefit of hindsight.
History, Retrospection and Regret ThemeTracker
History, Retrospection and Regret 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.
But now that I think further about it, I am not sure Miss Kenton spoke quite so boldly that day. […] I am not sure she could actually have gone so far as to say things like: “these errors may be trivial in themselves, but you must yourself realize their larger significance.” In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have a feeling it may have been Lord Darlington himself who made that particular remark to me that time he called me into his study some two months after that exchange with Miss Kenton outside the billiard room.
“He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentleman amateurs. The sooner you here in Europe realize that the better. All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over. Except of course, you here in Europe don’t yet seem to know it.”
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.
Let me say that Lord Darlington was a gentleman of great moral stature—a stature to dwarf most of the persons you will find talking this sort of nonsense about him—and I will readily vouch that he remained that to the last. Nothing could be less accurate than to suggest that I regret my association with such a gentleman. Indeed, you will appreciate that to have served his lordship at Darlington Hall during those years was to come as close to the hub of this world’s wheel as one such as I could ever have dreamt.
And then again, you will hear these same persons talking as though Lord Darlington did something unusual in receiving hospitality from the Nazis on the several trips he made to Germany during those years. […] The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentleman were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders, and I can vouch at first hand that the great majority of these persons were returning with nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts. Anyone who implies that Lord Darlington was liaising covertly with a known enemy is just conveniently forgetting the true climate of those times.
Naturally—and why should I not admit this—I have occasionally wondered to myself how things might have turned out in the long run had I not been so determined over the issue of our evening meetings; that is to say, had I relented on those several occasions over the weeks that followed when Miss Kenton suggested we reinstitute them. I only speculate over this now because in the light of subsequent events, it could well be argued that in making my decision to end those evening meetings once and for all, I was perhaps not entirely aware of the full implications of what I was doing.
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.
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.
I remember this American chap, even drunker than I am now, he got up at the dinner table in front of the whole company. And he pointed at his lordship and called him an amateur. Called him a bungling amateur and said he was out of his depth. Well, I have to say, Stevens, that American chap was quite right. It’s a fact of life. Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.
And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long—my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been.
“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.