What Does the Concept of Dignity mean to Stevens?

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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Stevens is a unique character whose life evolves solely around his profession and how he can both maintain his dignity and become recognised through his work. The concept of dignity has ruled his entire life and he believes it his duty to remain dignified in all circumstances in order to be classed as a "great butler". His metaphorical journey however reveals that in trying to accomplish this, he has lost the vital element which must be sustained in life, human warmth.

Stevens defines dignity as, "Something one can meaningfully strive for throughout one's career", compared to Mr Graham's views that "dignity is something one possesses," which seems more reasonable from the reader's point of view. The critic Richard Locke asks what dignity there is in not making one's own mistakes and refers to the consequent sorrow and remorse that follows, saying "such rueful wisdom much be retrospective. " This certainly explains Stevens' unemotional behaviour in his mission to attain dignity because he has since regretted not "making his own mistakes" and living life to the fullest.

Instead, he delicately portrays his Father's views, who was "indeed the embodiment of dignity", because he is not able to conceive his own opinions having followed Lord Darlington's orders all his life. Furthermore, Stevens has incorporated the Hayes Society perspectives of dignity and related them to that of his father stating that he had, "Dignity in keeping with his position", again proving that he can not form his own views and has again had to use someone else's.

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Stevens is so concerned with dignity and yet his misinterpretation of it, together with the emphasis his father put on it, has left him unable to calculate his own ideas on what dignity actually is and has thus naively lead him into an empty life. It is his father's stress on the tiger anecdote that has in my view confused Stevens, the idea being that a butler resorts to dramatic lengths to ensure that "no discernible traces" of the tiger "are left".

It is the fact that his father "knew instinctively that somewhere in this story lay the kernel of what true dignity is," and Stevens does not, but yet continues to follow his father's perspectives because he considers him a "great butler". Everyone is motivated by aspirations to climb higher, and Stevens' ultimate goal is to be acknowledged as a "great butler". He feels he comes significantly closer to his quest at a conference Lord Darlington, holds for the most important delegates in Europe.

At the conference he believes that he is heavily relied upon to oil the friction between the delegates from different countries by ensuring that the guests have nothing whatsoever to complain about. Whilst the delegates attend these various conferences, Stevens' father is very ill, however Stevens is more willing to return to work than attend to his sick father who is the only family Stevens has left. There has always been a cold relationship between the two, both of them only conversing over professional issues, and Stevens respects his father not for being a good father but a good butler.

As Stevens is devoid of sentiment he can only judge others based on their dignity and we see how important Stevens' views on dignity are because it defies how he interacts and relates with others. Not only does he describes his father as "dark and severe", which is dignity personified, he refers to him in the third person, "I hope father is feeling better now. " His lack of emotion proves to the reader how empty Stevens is, and in order for him to fill this emptiness, Stevens primarily concerns himself with dignity.

Despite his father always being detached, he ironically asks, "Have I been a good father? " However, Stevens coldly dismisses his gesture, and in doing this, he loses any chance of a positive relationship with his remaining family. Furthermore, it is his arrogant ignoring of Mr Cardinal who tells him of Lord Darlington's wrong attitude to the Nazis and of Miss Kenton's attempts to give him one last chance to propose, that severely damaged his chances of becoming a "great person" and hence a "great butler".

However, he ironically recalls this experience with "a large sense of "triumph", and consequently dismisses any hope of happiness as he is prepared to place professionalism before relationships. Stevens is also unable to communicate to the reader his true intentions for undertaking the excursion, stating that he wishes to improve the current "staff plan" however the reader perceives that he wants to visit Miss Kenton, and hence becomes "an unreliable narrator", always placing a professional spin on everything. He believes that he is respected for his dignity, and thus judges others on how dignified they are.

Dignity means everything to Stevens, it being all he has and hence his profession becomes his life, unable to even call holiday clothes by their true name but instead a "costume. " A costume implies a disguise worn to hide the true person underneath thus stating that Stevens is not the person to undertake holidays as it distracts him from his work. Another significant point demonstrating Stevens' unreliability is his relationship with former employer Lord Darlington. Everyone must feel good about themselves in order to remain optimistic in life and Stevens accomplishes this by feeling good about being a good butler working for a good master.

Despite dedicating the best years of his life to Lord Darlington, Stevens is then quick to deny any knowledge of his former employer once we hear of his connections with the Nazis in World War Two. At Mortimers Pond significantly halfway through the novel, another butler of a lesser stature than himself attends to his car and he asks if he actually worked for Lord Darlington, to which Stevens replies, "Oh no, I am employed by Mr John Farraday. " Stevens is deliberately misleading about his past relationship with Lord Darlington because of his associations with the Nazis, as the truth would have severely damaged his self-esteem.

However, the reader is first given a hint of Stevens' unreliability through his deliberate changing of his mind and misinterpretation of events which have occurred. Stevens corrects himself when he recalls passing Miss Kenton's room and originally believes that she is crying, however on reflection he realises that it is not due to the untimely death of her Aunt, but her acceptance to marry Mr Benn, and that her efforts to provoke him into action had gone unnoticed.

Miss Kenton asks him "Do you want me to stay", giving Stevens the opportunity to react and tell her how he feels, however he ignores these blatant signs and continues to neglect the forming of relationships in order to protect his reputation. The reality is that he changed his mind about these events in order to shield himself from the painful truth that he is destined to spend the rest of his life alone because he chose dignity above warmth.

Everything Stevens encounters on his excursion, he relates to his profession. He travels to Mursden, not as a tourist, but an admirer of the famous silver polish, and naively believes that using this has had positive repercussions all over Europe. However, Stevens has again attempted to selfishly pass something off as his own, so that he can feel good and important, helping him to fill the emptiness left from a lack of human warmth and intimacy.

Despite Stevens' clear longing for a close relationship with anyone, he still feels the urge to place his pride above what really matters. At Mortimer's Pond, he refuses to walk around it for fear of dirtying his shoes because no self-respecting butler would allow that to happen and says, "My footwear is not such as to permit me easily to walk around the perimeter. " Stevens gullibly believes that others really care about how he looks and acts, and he must therefore strive to create a good impression and remain dignified.

He sadly also realises that in order to qualify as a "great butler", he had to work for an employer of proven "moral worth", yet he has just disowned any knowledge of working for Lord Darlington when quizzed about it earlier. Realistically, Stevens is living in the past and refuses to change his ways because they have brought him his dignity, and his archaic, well structured English clarifies the fact that he has learnt his English from historical, classical books and not social context or conversations.

The mere fact Stevens lives in the past is saddening as life should be full of new experiences, but instead he effectively shields himself behind his profession and exploits it as an excuse to visit new places. His old-fashioned lifestyle furthermore forbids him to look symbolically beyond the surface at Mortimer's pond and delve underneath to find the truth, and only when he meets Miss Kenton is he forced to change his perspectives and views on life.

His relationship with Miss Kenton has allowed him to modernise his views as he would before judge people on the surface and converse with them on purely professional terms. Although his liaison with Miss Kenton has not altered his perceptions on dignity, he has become aware that there is perhaps more to life than work Although the reader may sympathise with Stevens and respect him, his pitiful behaviour is also both extremely noticeable and frustrating.

In the unfortunate incident concerning the dismissing of the two Jewish maids, Stevens will not admit that he did not stand up for something he knew was wrong. He says, "We must not let sentiment creep into our judgement", but ironically it is his higher regard for dignity which has ensured that he avoids sentiment throughout his entire life, and once again the reader becomes aware of Stevens' outdated response because he is prepared to place dignity above what is right. Furthermore, he ironically says that dignity is "not removing one's clothing in public".

Whether he is attempting to banter is left deliberately ambiguous, however what he says is ironic to the reader because he does not remove his clothes in private and maintains his professional persona even in his social life. To remove clothing suggests relaxation and freedom, a characteristic the reader never associates with Stevens because of his overwhelming obsession with dignity which has cost him so much. Stevens views dignity as a key to success, living his whole life by it and striving to remain dignified in every single possible circumstance he is subjected to.

In his fixation with dignity, he has ultimately committed the deadly sin of pride and has thus condemned himself to a life of emptiness. He is deliberately aiming to aspire to the stature of his father, Stevens believing that he achieved so much acclaim through his dignified manner. However, at the end of the novel, it is left ambiguous whether he will strive to maintain his dignity or seek to change his ways and become more intimate and emotional with people when he discovers that "bantering is the key to human warmth. "

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What Does the Concept of Dignity mean to Stevens?. (2017, Aug 21). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/concept-dignity-mean-stevens/

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