Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Misrecognizing History: Complicitous Genres in Kazuo Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Misrecognizing History: Complicitous Genres in Kazuo Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day

Article excerpt

The theme of guilt looms large in Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction. A locus classicus for Ishiguro criticism is an explicit observation concerning the dramatization of regret: "What I'm interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret.... I'm interested in how they come to terms with it." (1) In this essay I will pursue the issues of guilt and regret in The Remains of the Day (2) beyond the narrator's record and investigate how the novel deals with a complicity that is inherent in the very forms it relies upon for its disclosure of the theme. In Remains, guilt as complicity is a principle at work on the level of genre as well as in the imagined lives of the characters. Furthermore, at the level of genre it is involved in the real historical processes that are partially evoked in the fictionalized characters. That is, while the fictional and fictionalized characters, who move about in a history evoked and analyzed by the fiction, may appear complicitous with certain historical forces, the genres that constitute their ground are more directly the accomplices of a less visible history. It is the effect of this narrative to expose the characters more than the cultured forms in which they are given to us. The guilt obsessively repressed by the butler, Mr. Stevens, is exposed by the story as a sedimentation of emotions attaching to the romantic failure vis-a-vis the one-time housekeeper, Miss Kenton, and to the historical-political failure to evade complicity in the appeasement policies of Lord Darlington. The "unreliability" of the narration introduces few doubts as to Stevens's final guilt or his recognition of it. Mike Petty puts it well, when he says that "[i]ndeed, unreliability is so matter-of-fact in Remains that the reader quickly adapts to it." (3) What remains unexposed by the irony of the narration, however, is the structural complicity of cultured forms that narrativize and defuse guilt even as they perform the service of exposing it.

To call these genres "complicitous" marks a particular suspicion on my part. The postmodern novel, it has been argued, is almost by definition "subversive" of the literary tradition to which it self-consciously belongs. The relationship between the two, we have heard on many occasions, is insistently ironic. It is indeed a postmodern commonplace that the undermining of genre is a structural function of any incorporation of other genres into the novel. Certainly, it is an effect of the code by which novels are read (and written) at this juncture. Linda Hutcheon's label of historiographic metafiction has been crucial in this regard, and it may well be appended to Ishiguro's novel, along with the labels of postcolonial and postimperialist. (4) One purpose of my investigation here is to introduce some doubts regarding this blanket assignation of subversiveness, and suggest that the postmodern irony may even tend to conceal cultural patterns that may legitimately be held to account by a less postmodern sort of critique. The ironic, postmodern staging of history in my view amounts to a misrecognition of history.

Briefly, the story told in Remains is about the narrator Mr. Stevens's lifetime of professional service as a butler, told in the form of a journal he keeps during a few days of traveling through the southwest of England in July 1956. In reminiscences from the 1920s and 1930s Stevens recounts telling episodes charting his relations with his employer Lord Darlington, to the housekeeper Miss Kenton, and to his father, at the time serving as an under-butler at Darlington Hall. The reader is soon given to understand that Stevens is withholding as much as he is expressing. The disastrous effects on Lord Darlington's reputation as he works diplomatically in favor of the German cause before and after 1933, the failure of Stevens to display any feelings other than professional concern for Miss Kenton, his inability to communicate with his father--these are all on display to the reader even as Stevens tries to fit them into his narrative without acknowledging their full import. …

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