Comparing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to Never Let Me Go

I recently read two of Ishiguro’s best known books, in quick succession. Never Let me Go, a tale of a dystopian 1950s, where certain children are bred simply to donate their healthy organs and then die is a life affirming, optimistic tale, of the pursuit of love, hope and life. The Remains of the Day, a story of an aged butler, taking a charming holiday driving through beautiful English countryside to visit an old friend, is a dismal, bleak look at wasted life and opportunity.

Confused? Let me explain.

Ishiguro himself stated in an interview that Never Let Me Go is his most cheerful book (Source I can easily see why. Although the fate of the children in Never Let Me Go is sad, and raises interesting questions of morality, humanity, and to what extent our ever advancing capabilities in medicine and science means that we’re playing the role of ‘god’, I never actually found the story of the donors to be the main draw. Sure, Ishiguro lures you in to the story at the start, raising your curiosity with his slow, drip feeding of information. I imagine it is much the same way that the children learn of it as they grow older, and accept their fate, because they simply know of no other.  It’s a great technique.

However, for me, this was much more of a coming of age story. The children learn to navigate the complex world of friendship and popularity, they discover sex and relationships, and finally they learn about love. Most importantly, two of the characters finally admit their attraction, and share some precious time together at the end. They even try to desperately find a way to be allowed a few more years together, by collating art work to prove their humanity. Despite their fates, they always had hope . Their lives were short, but they loved and were loved, even for a little while.

Now on the other hand, we have The Remains of the Day. Here, our poor Butler, gifted with a long and seemingly healthy life, leaves love far too late. He lets Miss Kenton, the woman of his dreams, go in his younger years, never admitting his feelings, and remains married to a job that eventually breaks his heart in more ways than one.  Here Ishiguro’s writing really comes into its own.

A master of smoke and mirrors, we initially see the idyllic Darlington Hall as a charming portrait of upper class English life. The butler is a man renowned for his talents and a man seemingly content in carrying out his duties. Yet Ishiguro serves up small, surprising snippets of information that hints at a dark side. For example, we find out that the Butler’s master was actually a Nazi sympathiser and that he wasn’t always on the right side of history. Yet our Butler makes excuses and tries to explain away his master’s errors of judgement. In a parallel narrative, our Butler also explains away his moments of tension with Miss Kenton, never actually admitting his true feelings, forever in denial.  And so is the reader perhaps, until the final few chapters where we really acknowledge, as does our flawed hero, that his duties were wasted twofold. Yes, he served the house and allowed it to play its part in history, but it played the wrong part and all his efforts to serve his homeland by serving his Master were to waste, as well as losing out on the life he might have had with Miss Kenton. After a lifetime, and a novel, of denial, it is with heavy heart that both Butler and reader drive away into the English countryside.