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Wonderful first person narrative
on 23 December 2015
Written in the first person singular this is Stevens the butler’s story, but like Gone with the Wind before it, it signifies the end of an era. The loss of the great houses and their structured way of life as Darlington Hall is sold to an American. Now staff numbers are reduced as they are no longer needed. The narrator’s voice is that of the very formal butler, Stevens, who attributes a decline in standards due to staff not having enough work and too much time on their hands. Dignity and professionalism are words constantly used throughout the book and this is something the narrator obviously values and is very proud of. He refers to conversations with colleagues where the merits of individuals are discussed. How those who rise through the ranks quickly are often not of the same quality as those more experienced. He makes reference to the Hayes Society and how they only admitted the best. In the writers opinion his father would have been an ideal candidate due to his dignity in office.
There is a tension between Stevens and Miss Kenton over how to address his father, since tradition demands he is addressed by his Christian name as the under butler, but Stevens maintains she should address him as Stevens Senior as befits his status. When his father passes away he maintains his sense of duty saying that is the way his father would have wanted it. Another example is when he refuses to acknowledge he had previously worked for Lord Darlington, the idea of maintaining privacy and confidentiality.
The idea of tradition, dignity and hierarchy is challenged at the end of the book when he is forced to stop at Morecombe. The villagers assume he is a titled gentleman, but more educated eyes see through this and recognise the traits of Stevens’ profession. It is here that Stevens’ long held belief is challenged. “Dignity isn’t just something every man and woman in this country can strive for and get.” This is referred to as a certain pride and respect which everyone deserves. Stevens’ response is interesting. “There is surely little in his statements that merits serious consideration. Of course one has to allow that Mr Harry Smith was employing the word ‘dignity’ in a quite different sense altogether from my own understanding of it.” There is a snobbery here which seeks to lift dignity out of its common meaning and turn it into a status symbol. Equally the learned hierarchy suggest, “there is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know..” The speaker goes on to say, “Is it any wonder, saddled as we are with our present parliamentary system that we are unable to find any solution to our many difficulties?” The contrast is drawn between the parliamentary system and the rise of fascism in Germany and in hindsight how mis-guided that faith in the German system was.
The novel ends how it begins, on the subject of bantering and how informal conversations and relationships have become in the modern world. Stevens now has to try and accommodate this new tradition and incorporate it into his duties, something he will now try to do with more diligence as befits his profession. Perhaps the irony is, that if he had cultivated Miss Kenton’s feelings for him, instead of maintaining their professional relationship, conversations, or bantering may have come more easily to him.