What happens when we long for a past that never was

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel has lessons for the Trump Era.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel has lessons for the Trump Era. AP

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day,” two Jewish maids are fired when their employer, Lord Darlington, becomes a Nazi sympathizer in the run-up to WWII. The head housekeeper is appalled by the injustice and declares that she will quit in protest. Stevens, Darlington’s butler, assures her that protesting is not appropriate. It is, in fact, not her place to pass judgment on those in authority.

It’s a chilling scene nestled in a quiet book. It’s also a cautionary tale about the banality of evil – how ordinary people are coerced into silence or conformity by other ordinary people, and how small acts can cascade into unspeakable horror.

Last week when the Swedish Academy announced that Ishiguro is this year’s Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, I thought about how “The Remains of the Day” is more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1989. Who would have thought that Americans would hear neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and white nationalists praised as fine people? That they would have the ear of the president and his advisors? That average citizens would applaud the rise of authoritarianism and the loss of civil discourse?

The book explores what the Swedish Academy called “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” If that doesn’t describe the mood of anyone watching the news these days, I don’t know what does.

I’ve read most of Ishiguro’s work, but “The Remains of the Day” is the one I teach to my AP English seniors, partly for the masterful, spare prose but also because Stevens, the butler, is such an exasperating character. As he reminisces – often dishonestly – about his service, he worries that his own legacy is compromised by the actions of Lord Darlington. He longs for a return to a time when the nobility ruled and butlers aspired to work for the important men of the realm. As Stevens tells the housekeeper, a great butler sets aside his own desires and opinions and does as he is told.

He spends most of the book ruminating about the nature of greatness– what makes the country great, what elevates a person to greatness. That, too, makes the book timely, when “Make America Great Again” is heard as a racist dog whistle and an amnesiac longing for a past that never quite existed.

For Stevens, the past was his moment of greatness. Although he worked for a man who later became reviled and died in disgrace, Stevens served with professionalism and dignity. By his standards he was, indeed, a great butler. But by the larger measure, he has been complicit with great evil, and no amount of justification can erase his guilt.

Like all good literature, Ishiguro’s novel is an invitation to step outside ourselves and dwell inside a fictional world for a time, learning what we can while we visit. Stevens is a warning about what happens when we hold dear a past that never was, when we value conformity over self-actualization, when we confuse greatness with notoriety, when we are afraid to speak truth to power. It is a warning that an abyss looms large under us, and if we are not careful, the fragile bonds that hold us up and connect us to each other will break.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: