The Remains of the Day is a deeply personal account of Stevens’s life that is staged alongside the histories of Great Britain and Europe in the years preceding and following World War II. Just as Stevens sometimes recalls his personal memories incorrectly to preserve a narrative to which he is attached, his staunch loyalty to Lord Darlington reveals a disjuncture between Stevens’s own characterization of certain political events and how those events appear to anyone who knows the broader political history of the time.
From the beginning, Stevens acknowledges that the reputation of Lord Darlington has suffered—if not been destroyed—following the war. It slowly becomes clear that Lord Darlington spent much of the 1930s attempting to promote cooperation and good feeling between England and Germany under the Nazis. From Stevens’s account, this attempt was entirely benign, evidence of Lord Darlington’s character as a gentleman who truly believed that polite conversation over dinner could solve any disagreement. Yet Lord Darlington’s assurances that Nazi atrocities were a “misunderstanding” are at best naïve and at worst actively harmful, and Stevens’s insistence that Lord Darlington was never anti-Semitic—while still recounting Darlington’s explicitly anti-Semitic comments and acts—comes to seem similarly troubling. Because he is so loyal to Lord Darlington, Stevens himself contributes to this norm by firing two Jewish maids under his employer’s orders. While he’s uncomfortable with this action, he never questions whether or not he should follow the order, and he’s shocked that Miss Kenton would think of disobeying on moral grounds. One’s own beliefs and opinions, he thinks, should never get away from the only ethical requirement he finds worth following: that of fidelity.
There is a parallel between the personal and the political that is constructed throughout the book, in the argument that it is always easier to understand the truth in retrospect rather than in the process of living. But there is also an unmistakable difference between Stevens’s misunderstandings, and the choices that the wealthy aristocrats around Lord Darlington made (whether actively malicious or simply misguided)—a difference that turns on the power that these men continued to wield at a perilous time in British politics. Only gradually does Stevens begin to wonder if the fierce loyalty he showed to Darlington was correct. At the same time, Stevens is rather quick to forgive Lord Darlington for his own political choices. Even if Darlington chose a certain political path of collaboration with true evil, Stevens ends up blaming himself, not necessarily for helping Darlington do so, but for failing to make his own decisions and his own mistakes. It’s unquestioned loyalty more than politics that Stevens begins only belatedly to question—and only fleetingly, as he almost immediately returns to thoughts of how to be loyal to his new boss, Mr. Farraday.
Politics and Loyalty ThemeTracker
Politics and Loyalty 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.