2017 Nobel Literature Winner on Sycophancy

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day

Posted Oct 06, 2017

  • ​​Kazuo Ishiguro

    Source: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, the recently announced 2017 Nobel winner in literature, offers a stunning examination of the strange psychology of sycophancy in The Remains of the Day. The narrator is an aging English butler who served the aristocrat Lord Darlington during the build-up to WWII. Over the course of the novel which is relayed in eight sections resembling diary entries, Stevens ponders his life of devoted service to Lord Darlington in the 1920s as he drives to meet Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper thirty years later. His memories reveal that Darlington had been a Nazi sympathizer before the war, for which he spent the remainder of his life in disgrace. The novel exemplifies one of Ishiguro's favorite themes--how individuals, communities and nations not simply remember the past but bury it.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Source: EkkapopSittiwantana/Shutterstock

Much of Ishiguro’s exploration of sycophancy focuses on Stevens’ anxiety about the nature of service--and herein lies the character's sycophancy.Much of Stevens’ narration is defensive, a kind of anxious special pleading that seeks to justify the pandering and humiliation that his job entails. Stevens carefully develops his professional ethos through a series of anecdotes, from which he draws certain lessons that illustrate a good or even “great” butler. A “great” butler will, according to Stevens, only “abandon the professional being he inhabits” when he pleases. In the course of the novel, the idea of a "great" butler crumbles.

This crumbling is especially evident when Stevens recalls one particularly humiliating episode of service. When a guest at one of Lord Darlington’s banquets wishes to show the limitations of democracy, he peppers Stevens with questions about trade relations and other social issues in order to expose the butler’s ignorance. Stevens performs his humiliation satisfactorily: "[I] saw the situation for what it was; that is to say, it was clearly expected that I be baffled by the question. Indeed, in the moment or so that it took for me to perceive this and compose a suitable response, I may even have given the outward impression of struggling with the question, for I saw all the gentlemen in the room exchange mirthful smiles."

So long as Stevens can “inhabit” the role, he can make himself small for the amusement of the guests without any sense of shame. He tells himself that he maintains his dignity so long as he performs well. When the guest shows the ignorance and incompetence of “our good man here” as well as “the few million others like him,” the others present erupt with laughter at Stevens’ expense. Class plays an ugly part in this humiliation of the butler. Stevens consoles himself by recalling that “any decent professional should expect to take such events in his stride.” Can the extinction of the self go any further? Ishiguro paints an exquisite picture of what he's described in an interview as a "painful reassessment" of what one has done "from the perspective of error."

Key for Stevens’ maintenance of dignity here is the illusion of choice. He controls his deference, and he plays along with the role, even increasing the comedy by appearing flummoxed as he is questioned. He makes himself small out of professionalism. And with such self-deceptions, Stevens transforms a range of sycophantic roles—from the “yes-man” to the reliable doormat—into something positive.

Ishiguro might have plotted the novel more conventionally, but the brilliance of this work lies in the narrator’s unreliability, another of the author's trademarks. Stevens is always on the verge of unhappy revelations about himself, Lord Darlington, and the nature of his service. Like a word forever on the tip of one’s tongue, this full consciousness never emerges.

The Remains of the Day offers a brilliant portrait of sycophantic self-nullification.


Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

"Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the Nobel prize in Literature 2017," The Guardian 6 October 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/05/kazuo-ishiguro-wins-the-nobel-prize-in-literature

Famous and infamous bootlickers, suck ups, toadies and sycophants, Pinterest. https://www.pinterest.com/deborahwparker/famous-and-infamous-bootlickers-suck-ups-toadies-a/