The Remains of the Day

Topics: ArtSymbolism

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Last updated: April 7, 2019

‘Veteris vestigia flammae’. Translated as ‘the sparkles of my former flame’1, in just the epigraph of his poetry Thomas Hardy captured the allure that memories can hold for writers. It captures the past’s beauty and power, as Hardy reveals his regret at opportunities missed through his poetry of 1912-13, as Stevens denies the power of time and memories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and as A.

R. Gurney explores memories’ permanence in Love Letters. Each work is connected by loss, allowing the writers to access the deepest realms of human emotion as their characters deal with past mistakes.This is evident where Hardy explores memories’ pain, particularly in The Phantom Horsewoman. This poem expresses his feelings during his pilgrimage to Cornwall after his wife Emma’s death to revisit his memories of their courtship that were so different from those of their eventual estrangement. The persona remains anonymous, watching a man and contemplating what thoughts torment him – although this device could represent Hardy stepping back and gaining a greater perspective on his own emotions.In the first stanza, ‘careworn craze’2 epitomises this turmoil, trying to reconcile himself with the deterioration that he allowed within their relationship. ‘Craze’ depicts the conflicting forces – trying to move forward while his memories hold him in the past – while ‘worn’ shows how this wears him down, breaking him as he is pushed to the brink of what he can cope with.

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Even the phrase’s dissonance highlights the disjointedness between the physical world and the land of his memories.Hardy continued writing about Emma even after his second marriage to Florence Dugdale, further proof that he could never move forward, perhaps due to guilt about his new-found love and happiness after denying Emma these very same things. This idea is continued in the third stanza by the simile ‘drawn rose-bright’3, with ‘drawn’ suggesting the permanence of what he faces – as if the memories were etched onto his mind’s eye – and ‘bright’ highlighting how they shine out while everything else fades in comparison.

The poem’s structure supports this as the first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, leaving the reader suspended as Hardy is within time and his created worlds. However, these ideas are perhaps best expressed in the second stanza: ‘a phantom of his own figuring’4. This image shows how the memories haunt him, with ‘phantom’ suggesting that they lurk in the shadows of his thoughts yet with ‘his own’ showing how he holds the power. He has chosen this path, electing to live in his haunted mind. A similar theme is present in Gurney’s Love Letters as in his last letter Andy writes of how Melissa’s death ‘fills [him] with an emptiness’5.

This shows how his memories of their time together have consumed him; however, the juxtaposition of ‘fills’ and ’emptiness’ suggests that for him these memories represent a void that has engulfed him, rather than a new land. Ishiguro also explores memories in The Remains of the Day, showing how living in the past controls the protagonist, Stevens. This is demonstrated through his memories’ details, retaining every action as if he had replayed it in his mind repeatedly, for example when Stevens recalls how, when he spoke to Miss Kenton after her aunt’s death, before she left she ‘closed the sideboard’6.This is such a small event that his remembering it shows the details consuming him, as if trying desperately to pinpoint something that marked the ‘turning point’7 in their relationship. This is highlighted by the use of ‘then’8 to show the events’ progression in his mind as he replays each in order, afraid of missing anything which may be key. However, Stevens seems unwilling to define anything beyond the facts, using ambiguous terms like ‘as though’ and ‘something’9 when delving into emotions.This highlights how he is unwilling to enter unknown territory, remaining with the definite rather than stepping into the dark by trying to define what he cannot comprehend. He claims to be ‘forever speculating’10 about what might have been, with ‘forever’ highlighting how his memories are inescapable and ‘speculating’ showing how he can never be certain – he can only guess.

His memories will always hold this power over him while he can turn them over in his mind, replaying the possible outcomes.James Lang argued that Ishiguro’s work explores ‘the conflict between public and private memory’11, an idea demonstrated here as Stevens attempts to reconcile himself with the differences between what he saw at the time and what, in retrospect, he feels he should have seen. This could symbolise an attitude which Ishiguro saw after WWII as different nations attempted to come to terms with the atrocities that had been committed in their name. This topic was also addressed in Ishiguro’s novel The Artist of the Floating World which used memories to explore a Japanese painter’s conflict as he looked back on his role in the war.Both he and Stevens are at odds with themselves, their memories controlling their lives as they realise the impacts of their actions. In Love Letters memories’ power is shown through writing’s permanence as the letters that the characters write give the memories a physical presence to be shared, as Andy claims that when he writes he is ‘giving this piece of [himself]’12 to Melissa. In Hardy’s poetry this control that memories hold is again explained; however, the persona has gone further than writing his memories, instead seeing them played out in the surrounding world.This can be seen in The Spell of the Rose and At Castle Boterel, as the former’s final stanza explores how a rose’s ‘glow’13 allows the persona to truly see his late wife for the first time.

This situation is reflected in Hardy’s life as he and Emma became estranged (partly due to her reaction against the views of marriage that he presented in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure) and he only began to regret this after her death, realising the extent of what he had allowed to slip away from him.The latter poem depicts Hardy’s choice between memories and life as he stands at a fork in the road and gazes back, remembering scenes that took place there. The metaphor of ‘the fading byway’14 shows how the past stretches out behind him, his life’s trail that he must snatch a final glance at as he fears heading into an unknown future. This is even shown through the symbolism of the ‘junction’15 which represents the two paths that he may take. However, the personification of time in the sixth stanza shows how its passing can destroy memories.

The capitalisation of ‘Time’16 denotes it as a proper noun, giving it a greater importance as it becomes something of standing to be considered, rather than something to simply pass by. Its ‘mindless rote’17 portrays it as an unfeeling force, with ‘rote’ suggesting that its actions are mechanical, without consideration for emotion. The ‘primaeval rocks’18 in the fourth stanza illustrate the strength of the memories pulling him, with ‘primaeval’ evoking images of permanence – the rocks remain unchanged for millennia as he feels that his memories will – yet also of something primitive.This pain is something that humanity has experienced throughout the ages, drawing people together from all times and places.

Hardy claims that he ‘shall traverse old love’s domain never again’19 with ‘traverse’ suggesting the hardship that he has endured – reinforced by the adjective ‘old’, highlighting his feelings of experience – and ‘domain’ creating the sense of power that love held over him. His memories of the past created his future for him with a finality that is even apparent in the poem’s rhyme scheme as each stanza’s final two lines rhyme, giving the work a feeling of an ending or conclusion.This is typical of naturalism, of which Hardy’s work is a part, which is known for its pessimistic views of life and for its arguments about the influences of fate and free will. Here Hardy appears to be making his own decision; yet, it could be argued that he made this choice due to his past experiences, suggesting the importance of environmental factors that naturalist writers emphasised. In contrast, some writers see memories’ power as cause for their characters to create a distance between themselves and their past.

James Procter wrote that Ishiguro’s writing focuses on how memories ‘haunt the present’20; however, it could be argued that his writing instead focuses on his characters avoidance of the memories that haunt them, hiding behind their created persona or account of events. In The Remains of the Day this is shown through Stevens’ use of Standard English, and by implication Received Pronunciation, throughout his narrative, using no colloquial terms although he appears to write for himself rather than a reader.This suggests a persona that he has made for himself as he cannot escape his butler fai?? ade even when expressing memories that hold some of his most powerful emotions. He has held this adopted personality for so long that he cannot escape and connect with his memories of what happened. This is also clear in the imbalance of some of his sentences, for example, when he marvels that ‘such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable’21.The juxtaposition of ‘small incidents’ and ‘whole dreams’ shows how he downplays the events – with ‘incidents’ suggesting that they were insignificant occurrences – which highlights how he creates a distance to remove himself from blame, as if he could not possibly have realised the implications of what had happened.

Even his narrative’s structure supports this, especially its non sequiturs whenever it threatens to reveal too much emotionally.He begins a new paragraph by claiming that he is ‘becoming unduly introspective’22, with ‘unduly’ depicting how he sees the expression of emotion as excessive and unwarranted. However, ‘introspective’ suggests that it is not the expression of emotion that he disapproves of, but rather looking into himself. He cannot cope with what he sees there so hides it away, not daring to look for fear of what he might discover. This is a feature of postmodernism, to which Ishiguro’s novel belongs, which celebrates incoherence and rejects genre distinctions.Using Stevens as the novel’s narrator takes away the reader’s certainty and places them at the mercy of what he is willing to tell, emphasising his denial as the reader is forced to deduce his emotional reaction from the few clues that they receive. This denial is also explored in Love Letters as Andy creates excuses for why he and Melissa cannot be together, citing ‘too much old baggage’23 to discard any future hope for their relationship.

Like Stevens, he denies the truth for fear of his emotions, choosing the safety of his marriage to Jane instead of his more passionate, but ultimately more tumultuous, love for Melissa.This denial of emotions and memories can lead to the protagonist’s sense of desperation or hopelessness, as in Love Letters when Andy cannot meet with Melissa. The use of ellipsis here represents how she cannot imagine a life without him – with her sentences trailing off to show this lack of direction – and her claim that he is her ‘anchor man’24 suggests that he is what grounds her so his loss leaves her without this connection to what lies beneath her emotions.A similar sense of emptiness is present in Hardy’s poetry, for example in The Walk which describes the different atmosphere of his home after his wife’s death. This could have been particularly poignant for him as during the last years of his marriage to Emma they spoke very little as she became increasingly eccentric, so after her death Hardy would have recognised how the different atmosphere of the house must simply have stemmed from her presence there.Laurence Coupe argued that The Voice – in which Hardy tries to ascertain whether a sound he hears is the voice of his late wife – shows ‘the failure of the bereaved soul to find sanctuary from his pain’25, a view supported here. The cadence of ‘call to me, call to me’26 in the first line creates a feeling of anguish as the falling inflection of the phrase suggests a yearning, with the voice lowering to create a sense of hopelessness. The phrase’s repetition supports this as it could be either highlighting his distress as he breaks down or an echo, emphasising the emptiness of his life now.

The rhetorical question ‘Can it be you that I hear? ’27 shows how he doubts himself as he loses further hope, not even trusting his senses as he sinks into despair. Yet he sees himself ‘faltering forward’28, a metaphor for his life as he struggles to drag himself onwards, away from the past which pulls him back. In reality, the past did appear to have a hold on Hardy as at his request his heart was not buried with his body in Westminster Abbey but with Emma in Stinsford, showing the power of memories and regret leading on beyond life and into death.

This is emphasised by the poem’s structure with the lines shortening towards its end as if even words are failing him as he faces such powerful emotions that he cannot communicate them, with shorter lines also suggesting that he has been broken or worn down. Hardy’s own religious beliefs are present in this poem as during his time in London he came to question his faith and believe that Man exists in ‘a Godless, purposeless universe’29.In The Voice he seems to raise these same questions again, trying to believe in the afterlife that will bring him hope but being forced into resignation as he attributes the phenomena to the ‘breeze’ rather than a voice from beyond the grave. In The Remains of the Day Stevens also experiences hopelessness; but, whereas Hardy’s stems from struggling to deal with a situation which is out of his power, Stevens’ seems to come from the blame that he places upon himself.In the novel’s final section, as Stevens sits awaiting the turning on of the pier lights, ‘I’30 is repeated instead of ‘one’31 which was often used previously. This brings the blame for the situation back towards Stevens as ‘I’ is personal – it takes until the end of his narrative for Stevens to stop trying to create a distance and to identify the issues as his own.

He meets this realisation with an attitude of disgust, saying that he ‘can’t even say [he] made [his] own mistakes’32 which suggests that he blames himself for allowing others to control his life’s path.However, Stevens could also be distancing himself from the situation again due to his suggestion that he did not make the mistakes – he did nothing to stop them, but was passive rather than active. This idea is continued as he speaks of ‘fate’33, suggesting that everything turned out as was intended and that even if he had acted, the outcome would not have differed. Even after realising his errors, he cannot face an emotional connection that places the blame entirely with himself.Instead, he faces what ‘remains of [his] day’34, with ‘day’ symbolising his life which he must continue alone. The noun ‘remains’ adds a sense of poignancy to the metaphor with its suggestions of wastage. Through his actions he has been left by the wayside, living out what is left of a life that was lost to him as he followed what he now knows to be misguided notions. This impact of the past on the present would have held a particular resonance for readers at the time of the novel’s publication as this was just two years after the end of the Cold War which had been ongoing since 1945.

The public had seen first-hand how past actions can resonate for decades afterwards so would have understood Stevens’ situation, torturing himself for the end that came of such ‘small incidents’. In conclusion, it appears that it is through the power of memories over the present that writers find their greatest expression. For Hardy, this expression is an attempt to fill the void in his life, expressing the emotion that he regrets having held back from before Emma’s death.

In Gurney’s play, it is the characters who are the writers with their relationship providing the material for letters which grant the memories a permanence and power over their lives. Yet, for Ishiguro it is Stevens’ lack of expression that helps him to find his greatest expression. It is what Stevens does not tell the reader that tells them the most about him, with his denial allowing them an unparalleled view of his troubled mind. It is the absolute intensity of the pain and loss that each of these characters faces that truly allows their readers to see them, and to experience with them the control that the past has gained over their lives.

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