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The theme of Regret in The Remains of the Day

Henry David Thoreau once said : Never look back unless you are planning to go that
way. The very first sentences of The Remains of the Day are about Stevens making plans.
They are written using the simple future tense, which will soon be replaced by the past
simple : we travel from Stevens plans to his recollections by the end of the second
sentence of the novel : an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of
the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from
Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days. The relation between time and space is
made absolutely obvious by this sentence : it seems that the simple evocation of Darlington
Hall immediately makes the whole book pass from the West Country future plans of
Stevens to his memories of Darlington Hall. The relation between the beginning of the novel
and Thoreaus quote becomes crystal clear : Stevens seems to follow Thoreaus advice,
but not in the commonly understood way (which would simply be not looking back) : he
seems to be planning to go that way. As a matter of fact, just look back and read the
very first sentence of the novel again : It seems increasingly likely that I really will
undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.
If this sentence provides us with the plot of the novel (will Stevens have the courage to go
as far as this expedition should lead him ? Will he achieve the realization of his plans ?), we
nevertheless do not know anything about the nature of the expedition that Stevens will
undertake . We only get its impact on Stevens mind, and more specifically on his
imagination. The sentence may in fact have a double meaning : on the one hand, one
may simply understand that this expedition preoccupies Stevens because the future is
uncertain and he does not really know what will happen during this expedition. But on the
other hand, one may understand that the expedition Stevens is talking about is the novel
itself, an interpretation that makes the sentence quite ironic : in fact, the more you read, the
more increasingly likely it becomes that Stevens will undertake the expedition, which
would here mean writing the whole book ! The next sentence linking this one with the rest
of the book through a jump into the past makes this first and single future tensed sentence
quite artificial and sets it apart from the rest of the novel : the future tense will only be used
in those very first lines and in the very last ones. This first sentence therefore seems to be a
kind of warning from Stevens that the content of the novel will be very subjective and will
rely on his imagination, not on his objective observations. Mixing the two interpretations,
we understand that Stevens knows that such a road-trip will have him also travel through
his recollections. The two very first sentences of the book clearly echo Thoreaus sentence :
Stevens will look back, because he plans to go that way and he warns us about how
subjective such a trip might be. He moreover reveals his fear of going that way, of
undertaking such an introspection through the word preoccupying : Stevens already

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knows, as Thoreau warns, that such a trip will drive him through the dangerous roads of

The first appearance of regret finds its roots in the mistake made by Stevens in one of his
staff plans, at least according to the narrator. It is introduced by the first appearance of
Miss Kentons name : The fact that my attitude to this same suggestion underwent a
change over the following days indeed, that the notion of a trip to the West Country took
an ever-increasing hold on my thoughts is no doubt substantially attributable to and
why should I hide it? the arrival of Miss Kentons letter, her first in almost seven years if
one discounts the Christmas cards. Such a sentence already warns the reader that he
wont be able to trust the words of the narrator : the narrator will do what he should do and
not what he wants to do, as suggested by the question and why should I hide it? : if
Stevens had estimated that this fact wasnt good enough to say, he wouldnt have told us
about it. Stevens, as a narrator, will provide us with a Stevens character that matches his
best looking instead of his true one, even if that invokes more his imagination than the
factual and objective truth. He is going to deliver us only a biased part of the truth. Stevens
even seems to be cheating with himself, he doesnt confess the whole truth even to
himself. He is making up his own reality according to his own point of view of the events of
the past. And that is what the reader gets. Therefore, we understand that the non-said will
have a predominant place in the book and that the way Stevens tells his own story will
most of the time be more important than the story itself. As a matter of fact, the question
and why should I hide it? reveals how important the fact Stevens is talking about is for
him. When one then understands that this fact is the arrival of Miss Kentons letter, one
immediately suspects Stevens of being in love with Miss Kenton, although one does not
even know who Miss Kenton is. The next sentence makes it even more obvious, as
Stevens seems to try to convince us that our suspicions are wrong : But let me make it
immediately clear what I mean by this; what I mean to say is that Miss Kentons letter set
off a certain chain of ideas to do with professional matters here at Darlington Hall.
Stevens defends himself from something that he hasnt even told us! This is the way regret
will be present in the book : Stevens regrets what he does not say, and it is made obvious
by the style of his writing or him denying things he has not even written. Such a technique
makes regret quite hard to establish in the novel : regret is a wish that things that didnt
happen would have. So Stevens not telling us his regrets seems quite fair, as those things
just didnt happen. However Stevens will not liver his true feelings, and that is where the lie
stands : Stevens mostly provides us with true facts, but whenever a fact gives away his
true feelings, he will modify the truth and try to make the fact look as it should look. We will
therefore search for regret through the distance between what happened and what should
have happened, although Stevens tries to constrain his tellings to what should have
happened. Regret will reveal itself through the distortions of Stevens tellings.

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In our quest to find the appearances of regret, we will have some help : first, Stevens going
back on his words and feeling that he should explain further some sentence he has just
written betrays his forgetting to relate what should be and makes the supposedly
misunderstood sentence very valuable for the reader, as Stevens feels it is too distant from
what should be. Those sentences express at least partially Stevens true feelings, which in
fact explains Stevens feeling not comfortable with such sentences : Stevens has always
seen himself as what he pretends to be. Second, the others characters will be a great help
for us, as Stevens simply relates their true sayings. While reading the book, we slowly
understand that the real plot of the novel will be about the truth of Stevens tellings about
himself and his convictions : will he admit that his father is now a simple employee of the
house and that he is too old for doing some tasks? Will he admit that Lord Darlington had
been politically used by the Nazis? Will he finally admit that he has always been in love with
Miss Kenton? Therefore the only words that the reader can really take for truth-saying are
the one reported by Stevens, such as Mr. Farradays or Miss Kentons. They will provide us
with a new and less biased point of view : when those characters talk to Stevens, they
want him to understand something he does not see and therefore does not tell us. As a
matter of fact, Mr. Farraday will immediately catch the main reason of Stevens accepting
his proposal of an expedition : My, my, Stevens. A lady-friend. And at your age.. Miss
Kenton provides us with many examples of her trying to make Stevens see a truth that he
doesnt want to admit, such as the Chinaman episode. The housekeeper even highlights
Stevens not telling the truth to himself : Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always
have to pretend?. Another help in our quest for Stevens regret is him seeing in the others
what is in fact true about himself. During the second day of his trip, Stevens tells us about
Miss Kentons feelings: At this very moment, no doubt, she is pondering with regret
decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and
desolate. And it is easy to see how in such a frame of mind, the thought of returning to
Darlington Hall would be a great comfort to her. Stevens seems to think that his
imagination is universal. The fact that Stevens immediately focuses on the regrets of
Miss Kenton when learning that her marriage is now ending in failure reveals his sharing
the same regrets. It does in fact reveal more his regrets than Miss Kentons as he just
proves his suppositions with the former housekeepers letter : during his travel, Stevens will
increasingly admit the most probable little significance of Miss Kentons words in her letter.
Therefore, Stevens interpretation may reveal something true about himself. However, as he
does not dare to admit it, he has Miss Kenton play his part and accuses her of what he in
fact accuses himself. The proximity of Miss Kenton and Stevens is wished by the butler,
who actually melts her and his memories. It is something of a revelation that this memory
from over thirty years ago should have remained with Miss Kenton as it had done with
me. Another example is given by Stevens feeling that Miss Kenton is regretting her

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rudeness about his father, while he is the one that should be regretting to have given his
father so much work when he couldnt deal with it. No doubt, she was feeling a certain
sense of guilt as the two of us watched from our window my fathers figure down below.

With such clues, we can now distinguish two forms of regret in the novel : one is immediate
regret, which is Stevens regretting the sentence he has just written or his spoken words
and the other is long time regret, which is Stevens regretting some of his actions and
thoughts while he worked for Lord Darlington and the way they have influenced his life. The
first kind of regret often allows us to detect the second one, as Stevens rarely admits this
last kind of regret, constantly trying to hide his true feelings about it. We may add one kind
of regret, which would be possible future regret. That is regret that might have existed, but
Stevens takes the right decision. It mostly appears in the novel through the examples
provided by some fellows that Stevens meets during his trip and who tell him to visit one
particular spot, or he would deeply regret it then. Those three kinds of regrets definitely
echo the classical division of time : past, present and future.

The past regret, which is the regret of Lord Darlingtons time, divides itself through two
different objects of regret : one is sentimental, which is Stevens love story with Miss
Kenton, and the other is about pride and dignity, about the supposed greatness of
Stevens former employer, Lord Darlington.
We soon understand that Stevens has loved Miss Kenton and that he has let her marry
another man. He now wishes he could make up for the lost time and believes he can now
correct his past mistakes. This love story is boldly veiled and we can at first catch it only
through the clues described before. During the whole novel, we expect Stevens frank
confession, a confession that will finally arrive at the end of the book. It stands as a reaction
to Miss Kentons confession : But that doesnt mean to say, of course, there arent
occasions now and then extremely desolate occasions when you think to yourself:
What a terrible mistake Ive made with my life. And you get to thinking about a different
life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I might have
had with you, Mr Stevens. Stevens cannot handle such a confession. He is so shocked
that he forgets to relate what should be and finally reveals his true feelings As you might
appreciate, [these words] implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow
within me. Indeed why should I not admit it? at that moment, my heart was
breaking. We, readers finally get a glimpse of how human Stevens may be, we finally get
some true feelings of the butler. It is a surprise we didnt dare hope for anymore. Therefore
we express for the butler a new sympathie due to us finally getting a view of his human
nature, we finally get a glimpse of Stevens as flesh and blood, as Miss Kenton would
put it ( Can it be that our Mr Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot fully trust
himself? ). We therefore sympathise with Stevens in his sorrow and fully understand

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how painful those regrets may be for him. Before this sentence, Stevens had censored his
own regret and his true feelings because he felt that this is not how a butler should behave.
A great butler should not relate his feelings, even in the most extreme cases, that is part of
his dignity according to Stevens, as shown by the tiger example given by Stevens
father. But at this intense moment, Stevens cannot handle it anymore, he has to tell us the
truth and straightforwardly exposes his feelings and deep regret. This regret comes from
Stevens own heart and sentimental life. It is pure regret that is not mixed with any other
On the contrary, the kind of regret that Stevens has about dignity and pride melts into
shame. During the novel, Lord Darlington being manipulated by the Nazis becomes more
and more obvious. The role of Stevens employer may have been unconscious, without any
doubt badly biased. As Miss Kenton says about Lord Darlington firing two housemaids just
because of them being Jewish : Does it not occur to you, Mr Stevens, that to dismiss
Ruth and Sarah on these grounds would be simply wrong? Stevens conception of
dignity evacuates the question of what is right or wrong and leaves it into the hands of the
employer of a butler. However, in such a case, Stevens not trying to fight against such a
racist decision makes him definitely guilty. We in fact understand that Stevens knows that
his behavior was wrong thanks to his not admitting that he has worked for Lord Darlington,
which he does twice. The distorsions between Stevens recollections of the greatness and
the huge influence of Lord Darlington (and Stevens pride about him) during the twenties,
the distressing time of the thirties and the currently ruined and empty Darlington Hall
account for Stevens revelations about his former employer. If Darlington Hall is now ruined,
it is mainly because of the political orientations of Lord Darlington and his mistakes in
choosing his orientations and allies. In spite of the feeling of pride that Stevens gets from
being in service with Lord Darlington, he definitely feels ashamed and eludes, suppresses
and doesnt want to confess this shame. Stevens attaches a lot of importance to the moral
stature of his employer and his ambition is to serve people that contribute to the progress
of humanity : Where our elders might have been concerned with whether or not an
employer was titled, or otherwise from one of the old families, we tended to concern
ourselves much more with the moral status of an employer. [] What I mean is that we
were ambitious, in a way that would have been unusual a generation before, to serve
gentlemen who were, so to speak, furthering the progress of humanity. For Stevens, the
house where you serve is definitely a condition for greatness or dignity. That is why Stevens
source of pride is also the source of his shame. He had always thought that he was shining
thanks to the light provided by Lord Darlingtons greatness, but now he has to share his
dishonour or (which is maybe even harder) confess that his own professionalism has had
no real part to play on the scene of History.
I believe that the novel is a mean for Stevens to get rid of all those regrets. In fact, I would

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say that, by writing such a novel and relating his recollections, Stevens manages to avoid
the mistake that his father has done : Stevens father reveals his regrets on his deathbed:
I hope Ive been a good father to you. I suppose I havent. At that moment, Stevens
refuses his fathers regrets: Im afraid were extremely busy now, but we can talk again in
the morning. The main reason of this refusal seems to be his father being a model for him
: his father regretting would be a terrible disappointment for Stevens and a complete
redefinition of what is important in life, of what he should do. In fact, Stevens goal is to
reach dignity as a butler. However, his fathers last words are about him regretting his
family life, and the little time he has spent with his child because of his job. Maybe then
should Stevens admit (faster than his father did) that his family and sentimental life is
morose and frankly expose his regrets so that he can now focus on the future while getting
rid of the approved past : this past would in fact be approved by the reader that gets
Stevens words and acts as a kind of new memory for it. That is why I like to believe that the
book in itself is a great achievement in Stevens fight against regret. By sharing his feelings
and his regrets with the reader, although implicitly, Stevens makes sure that the past is
remembered and can now move on. Stevens constantly talking to us of his past acts as a
real treatment for the butler. Literature and dialogue are a great medicine against regret. By
writing this book, Stevens avoids making the same mistakes his father did : his father never
said to Stevens that he regretted his family life and therefore carried this burden all his life
up to his deathbed. Stevens livers his past life in a book that will help him moving on. He
releases this heavy burden that he had been carrying on through the writing of the novel
and can now focus on solving his relation with the other kinds of regret, such as immediate

We may follow the development of Stevens behavior concerning the regret of what just
happened (immediate regret) through the theme of bantering. What does not allow Stevens
to be good at bantering is that he immediately regrets what he says, because it might not
be what it should be. To be able to banter, you have to trust what you say and how funny it
is, otherwise you may find yourself in a quite odd situation. You cannot immediately regret
your words because you do not know how people may have understood them. By the way,
you regretting your words because they may have a strange significance makes people
aware of this odd significance, at least in your mind. That explains most of Stevens
mistakes concerning bantering, and the silences his jokes provoke. Through his road trip
and the writing of the novel, Stevens seems to slowly understand this, and the end of the
novel reveals his progress about the consideration of the bantering question : Stevens
understands that bantering is about spontaneity and must therefore come from what you
really feel and not from what you should feel. What you should feel is not funny at all and
recalls everybody of their duties, while what you really feel may have this little thing that may
amuse one. Although Stevens still considers bantering a professional skill, he understands

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at the end of the novel the true nature of such a skill : particularly if it is the case that in
bantering lies the key to human warmth. The question of bantering is a fight of Stevens
against something he at first does not understand. However, he will finally understand that
the question of bantering is connected to the one of immediate regret and that the solution
to improve his bantering skills is to be true to himself and the others, and assuming the
words he has just said, assuming himself as he is. The last sentence of the book brilliantly
echoes Stevens achievement : I should hope, then, that by the time of my employers
return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him. Surprise is exactly what bantering
is about, and Stevens had never seen it that way. If Stevens has not completely solved the
issue of bantering, he has understood the real causes of his repeated failures and can now
begin practising with renewed effort.

Finally, the future regret, which is a regret that might have happened, is always introduced
by people that Stevens met during his road trip and that echo one another. As a matter of
fact, many of them advise Stevens to have a look at one particular spot, or he would regret
it later. The first time this situation takes place is during Stevens very first day of motoring,
and he first declines the invitation of the stranger because to see the best before I had
properly begun would be somewhat premature. However, the stranger insists : Better
go on up while you still can This quite offensive sentence seems to decide Stevens,
and he will not regret it at all, on the contrary. This is the very best souvenir of his first
motoring day : the should be order (a crescendo according to Stevens) is completely
reversed by the beauty of the spot and Stevens is surprised by such a beauty, which
probably opens a little bit his eyes on how he might have missed so much beauty on the
account of what should be. Beauty is something that is not conventional. It cannot be as it
should be because it finds it roots in something true and therefore unique. Stevens must
face facts : what should be fades away in front of the truth of some spots beauty, a beauty
which might provide one with very intense feelings of greatness. Stevens discovers through
the beauty of the English land and of the unknown another kind of greatness, one that is
probably stronger than what he calls dignity.

This greatness is the same one that lies into the necessary spontaneity that comes in great
bantering, it is the same one that lies into literature and allows Stevens to get rid of his old
regrets. This greatness has nothing to do with what should be. It is by definition a creative
greatness, because it is a true and therefore unique one. And ones deep regrets, as a true
feeling, are part of it. Thoreau would agree with such a statement : Make the most of your
regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate
and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh. Stevens seems in fact to live
afresh as he wonders if he will be able to surprise his employer. Moreover, The Remains of

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the Day definitely has a separate and integral interest and Stevens making the most of
[his] regrets has ushered in a beautiful piece of literature.

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