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  • Myth and Mimetic Failure in The Remains of the Day
  • Monika Gehlawat (bio)

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels frequently rely upon a first-person voice to show how narrative reveals knowledge about its characters through its formal structure. Formalism is the key to The Remains of the Day, and for this reason, Ishiguro’s project is inextricably bound up with that of his protagonist Mr. Stevens. In both novel and protagonist, the problem of presentation and staging becomes the very texture of the emergent object as well as its central motivation for being. The Remains of the Day is constructed as a kind of Russian nesting doll of creative workmanship; there is no ontological basis for the subjects and objects we find within it. That said, I don’t propose to conduct a poststructuralist reading of Remains but rather look to Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic and cultural theory to understand how formal inquiry can produce the grounds for ethical critique within the novel. Contrary to critics like The New Yorker’s Terrence Rafferty who suggests that Ishiguro “spends all his imaginative energies in ‘artifice’ rather than an expression of life” (qtd. in Parkes 72), I believe that it is precisely through the novel’s hermetic formal structure that socially charged—or to use Adorno’s term, “world-historical”—processes complicate its otherwise finely calibrated surface.

In particular, Adorno helps us to identify the coextensive relationship between the formal projects of the novel’s author and its protagonist. Adorno’s theory of mimesis helps to show why the novel and Stevens must strive to express a self-contained and formally flawless existence, even as their lapses in this effort [End Page 491] result in a kind of mimetic failure. This failure, in turn, introduces the critical divergence of values stemming from how and why Ishiguro makes his world and Stevens, his. Namely, Ishiguro aims to deconstruct myth, while Stevens wants to sustain it. This fundamental difference emerges vis-à-vis the formally congruous affective projects of the two, perhaps most notably in the performative restraint of the first-person voice. By turning to Adorno’s conceptualization of mimetic failure, we can correlate Stevens’s failure to perfect his own objectification with Ishiguro’s willingness to allow subjectivity to penetrate the art form of the novel.

Failure, which plays such a central role in The Remains of the Day on both a symbolic and incidental level, also testifies to the novel’s preoccupation with the crisis of subjectivity. While many critics attend to the errors and slippages that occur on the novel’s surface, they frequently read these failures as evidence of Ishiguro’s textual play and use of the ironic mode. However, by reading the novel alongside Adorno, it becomes possible to recognize these errors as expressions of a subjective wound, which in turn introduces a dialectic of agency often overlooked by reviewers, many of whom read Stevens’s character either as a self-punishing and pitiful character or as a stoic individual with the personal discipline to pursue his frequently misguided life goals. The dialectic of agency that I highlight in the novel reveals that these two readings are in fact linked. It is the very power of Stevens’s subjectivity that leads him to take on the impossible task of self-objectification, a task which will result in a weakening or compromising of that very self. Stevens’s many mistakes and failures show that he cannot achieve this elusive goal of objectification, and therefore he will retain the self that enables him to pursue it in the first place.

If we read the novel with this dialectic of agency in mind, we can also begin to see how critics who limit their discussion to the textual play of The Remains of the Day miss the flawed, human trace that anchors the novel in social and ethical critique. B. G. Ekelund, for example, criticizes the overlapping formal projects of Ishiguro and his narrator in his article on complicitous genres. Ekelund believes that Ishiguro’s use of the formal techniques of [End Page 492] “evasion, distortion and self-justification” compromises the critical force of his novel and demonstrates a kind of “complicity” with...