Telling Positions: Country, Countryside, and Narration in the Remains of the Day

By Trimm, Ryan | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Telling Positions: Country, Countryside, and Narration in the Remains of the Day


Trimm, Ryan, Papers on Language & Literature


There is, in retrospect, a certain inevitability about the 1993 Merchant/Ivory cinematic adaptation of The Remains of the Day. The novel itself seemed made to order for the team's literary sensibilities: an opulent period piece centered on the gradual coming to emotional consciousness of a central character whose life work placed him at the "hub" of unvoiced class conflict. Not unsurprisingly, the film's release on the heels of their adaptations of E.M. Forster novels had the effect of underscoring the implicit Forsterian values of Ishiguro's novel: responsibility, the importance of "connection," a liberal vision of the Condition of England. Indeed, the release of Howard's End just the year before furthered these links--critics pointed out that the latter film's recasting of Remains's leads (Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and similarities in setting (country houses in some now lost past) and thematics (those Forsterian values again) had the effect of serializing the two films. In this Derridean imbrication of source and response, the romance plot that remains a narrative loose end in Remains is happily resolved in the adaptation of Howard's End, a film set decades before Remains. Such retroactive resolution also serves as perhaps the calling card for a genre that had become virtually synonymous with the Merchant/Ivory team over the course of the 80s and early 90s--the "heritage film." (1) It thus seems fitting that this cycle, one characterized by Edwardian and Georgian settings and adaptations staged in front of luxurious upper-crust settings, would conclude by making the country houses that had been the back-drops for the genre characters in their own right. By doing so, both films--and their source novels--come to stand as summary statements of the debates surrounding the heritage films: that their narratives were short-circuited by a fetishistic focus on aristocratic settings, that the liberal ethics of the source novels had been defused by an imagery that owed much to Margaret Thatcher's "heritage politics"--in short, that a Saatchian sheen speaks louder than Forsterian narration in these films. As such, these films ironically serve as very different Condition of England narratives in their schizophrenic deployment of conservative imagery and liberal narrative judgment. They thus vividly depict a crisis in national identity, one that is written back into the novels themselves. It is through the prism of this rewriting that I will examine Englishness in The Remains of the Day, a national identity that is both figured in--and affected by--the recirculation of heritage imagery back into novelistic form.

Because of this iterative tension between iconography and evaluation, Remains poses an interpretative problem: to what degree is the house and the relations it embodies ironized? Indeed, this issue raises the further problem of the connection between Ishiguro's novel and the loss of Empire: on the one hand, the novel studiously avoids any direct treatment of imperial relations; on the other, as Salman Rushdie points out, the fact that the novel's present is the very month the Suez crisis began with Nasser's nationalization of the Canal is no accident (246). It is precisely this obscuring of relations that I will track in Remains. In addition to the novel's country house, Darlington Hall, this cloaking operation drapes itself around the sites of the English landscape and the village of Moscombe, all of which are important settings for the novel's articulation of a pastoral and nostalgically positioned Englishness.

My argument here depends on postcolonial accounts of Englishness: that this national identity was formulated in large part through the "traumatic scenario of racial difference" encountered in the colonial crucible (Bhabha 107). (2) Englishness was formulated by retroactively identifying the key features of English culture seen to distinguish colonizer from the radical alterity of the colonized.

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