Academic journal article ARIEL

"Spontaneous Mirth" out of "A Misplaced Respectfulness": A Bakhtinian Reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day

Academic journal article ARIEL

"Spontaneous Mirth" out of "A Misplaced Respectfulness": A Bakhtinian Reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's the Remains of the Day

Article excerpt

In the beginning of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, we meet a dignified, old-fashioned English butler serving his new American employer. The butler, Mr. Stevens, tries hard to respond appropriately to the bantering of his jocular employer, Mr. Farraday. Finally, he thinks of something funny to say and, after saying it, expects to see the right reaction from Mr. Farraday:

 
  And I followed this with a suitably modest smile to indicate without 
  ambiguity that I had made a witticism, since I did not wish 
  Mr. Farraday to restrain any spontaneous mirth he felt out of a 
  misplaced respectfulness. (17) 

But Farraday does not understand Stevens, and the scene ends in mutual awkwardness. Stevens's misplaced witticism, however, does not go entirely unnoticed; it is the reader, not Mr. Farraday, who cannot restrain his/her "spontaneous mirth" at the failed attempt by this extremely dignified and stylized butler. In fact, mis(dis)placement, highly stylized deference, misunderstanding, and laughter on the part of the reader are recurring themes throughout the text, whose main purpose is to reinterpret a supposedly authentic ideal of "Englishness." Several critics have commented on the way Ishiguro's novel uses these themes to reconfigure national/cultural signifiers. John Su argues that Ishiguro displaces a quintessentially English literary form centering on the grand country estate to revise and rewrite the idea of what constitutes English character; Rebecca Walkowitz points out that Ishiguro's "indirect style," rhetoric of misunderstanding, and idea of "treason" contest and challenge cultural allegiance; John McCombe and Susie O'Brien analyze Stevens's shifting, displacing, and ambivalent voice in terms of a new global order and postcolonial conditions. The purpose of this essay is to add another perspective from which to read the reconfigured "Englishness" in this novel, one that draws mainly on Bakhtinian concepts. Focusing on the "misplaced respectfulness" and "spontaneous mirth" in The Remains of the Day, this essay explores the particular way in which Ishiguro decenters and reconceptualizes national/cultural signifiers through the Bakhtinian ideas of "stylization," "chronotope," and "the carnivalesque."

Bakhtins theory of the dialogic bears strong relevancy to The Remains of the Day. According to Bakhtin, discordance between a word and its actualization in an utterance and the consequent comic effect, which this novel so insistently invokes, create a space for the inscription of new inflections and meanings. As Marie-Christine Leps points out, such Bakhtinian terms as parodic stylization, hybrid constructions, double-voiced discourse, and the carnivalesque designate this multi-layered space in various ways (272). The linguistic displacement and disturbance in discourse that these Bakhtinian terms point out can also be extended to a discourse of culture--that is, to an intersubjective practice and cultural interchange decentering the rigid and monologic signification system of national/cultural signifiers. This, in fact, is precisely what Ishiguro's novel tries to do with the signifier of "Englishness." Moreover, Bakhtin's attempt to renew literature by reconceptualizing "the novel" as a genre is exactly in line with Ishiguro's career-long search for a new type of fiction that loosens the tie between literature and national culture. Some of Ishiguro's novels, like The Unconsoled or When We were Orphans, are more obviously daring in narrative experimentation, but even works that apparently adhere to the realist tradition find a way to transgress the norm to a certain degree. The Remains of the Day is no exception. While drawing on the genre of the country estate novel made famous by Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, and Henry James, Ishiguro overcomes the reverence traditionally associated with the form by mocking it, thus challenging the authority of English literary tradition. …

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