Teaching & Articles

The Majestic Remains

By: Melinda Sheffler, October 31, 2002

During and before World War II, both in the US and Britain, there was a place for everyone and everyone generally stayed in their place. The Post-Holocaust, nuclear world that arrived after the war left many people dazed and unsure where they stood in humanity's midst. Many people lost their sense of purpose as a result of choices they made before, during, and even shortly after, the War.In order to live as real, whole people they had to find where they left their humanity, and return to it if they could.As fiction portrays life, so do post-war stories deliver that sense of journey towards a state of human self-awareness. Two such people on quests for truth are Stevens, from Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and Peter Appleton, fromThe Majestic. The reason these two particulartales are being paired here is the amazing similarities in the paths both men must take: neither of them have identities outside their work, they are both forced to leave home on a journey, and both of them are propelled forward during their mental journey by various people they meet.

In The Remains of the Day, Stevens is the perfect English butler. Carrying out his endless duty for one of the most important houses in Britain, he seems to have no soul but what his work gives him. Success in Stevens' job means doing and being what other people want him to do and doing it well. Work is all that seems to drive him. Over the years, he slowly loses all humanity to his job. Just as Stevens was plodding along in his world, Peter is driving away with his. In The Majestic, a recent American film, Peter Appleton is a screenplay writer for a major production company in Hollywood, California. Being a writer in Hollywood with a job as a writer, as every third person in Los Angeles will longingly say, is a success story. To have that success, however, Peter has to bow to every producer's whim. Rarely does his work remain his own. And, while Peter Appleton watches the heart and soul go out of his screenplays, so goes his soul with it. Left feeling sucked dry by the people he works for, he too slowly loses his humanity.

Great searches for truth do not usually just happen; there must be some important impetus for the journey. In the case of Stevens, Mr. Farraday tells him he should take a trip. Stevens' employer's words alone would not have been enough to arouseStevens from his routine; however, this, along withthe shortage of help at the mansion, his former co-worker Miss Kenton's sad letter, and his wish to fix both by bringing her back to Darlington Hall with him was enough to set him on the road. Likewise, Peter's being blacklisted as a Communist may not have sent him out on such a stormy night for a drive; but the fact that he loses his job, his girlfriend, and any future he might have had in the movie industry all in one go sends him out of the studio door and into his waiting convertible. Just in case that wasn't enough to make him continue, Peter rolls his car over a bridge trying to avoid a possum, the car falls into the river upside down, and he hits his head on the bottom of the bridge as he floats down river, making him lose even the memory of his name. Little choice remains for either Stevens or Peter, they must escape their current lives.

One rarely finds great truths sitting at home on the sofa. Most heroes have to go out and find who they are, away from the inner-sanctum of everyday life. So it is with Stevens and Peter. Both go out for drives in lovely vintage style cars, hoping to relax and set their thoughts in order. Stevens leaves for a five-day vacation to West England on a mission, while Peter goes for a drunken night drive that turns out to be weeks longer than he had planned.

As in every good quest story, the seekers must meet people along their journey that further their search. Since Peter and Stevens search for humanity, they must meet people who have either found that quality, know where it is, or have such a lack of humanity that it points out the same lack in the protagonist. Over the course of their voyages they both meet old men of great wisdom, towns who have great sorrow, and lost loves. Through these archetypes they see a past that they never had and a way to start over with a new life-map.

Both Stevens and Peter meet wise old men at the beginning of their journey. They don't seem that wise in an obvious way.At first, Stevens takes his old man for a scruffy vagrant on the road to Salisbury. Then, upon closer inspection, Stevens sees him as just some local fellow enjoying the fresh air and summer sunshine (24-25). Similarly alone and out enjoying a bright summer day, Peter's older chap is a local fisherman who helps him into town after Peter's car rolls over a bridge. Both of the older gentlemen give off the air of casually knowing more about the main character than the reader, or even the protagonists know about themselves.

Stevens' vagabond, seemingly talking about a scenic spot at the top of a hill, says "you'll be sorry if you don't take a walk up there. And you never know. A couple more years and it might be too late" (25). His words do not just seem to be only indicative of the hill, but also seem to cover the breadth of the changes in Stevens during the journey. Earlier the fellow says, "if I was in better shape, I'd be up there. You won't get a better view in the whole of England" (25). These early words seem to back up his aged wisdom. He has been there, found himself, and now directs Stevens' path toward a better view of life. Peter's old man literally helps him along his journey. Finding him half-dead at the river's edge, he practically carries Peter into Lawson (the nearest town). Rather than giving cryptic advice this gentleman seems to help Peter along merely by being infinitely calm, helpful, and by both physically and mentally introducing Peter to Lawson.

Lawson represents the next entity the traveler must meet—a town with sorrow. "There's so many," says Peter as he walks into town with the old man. He is speaking of the pictures of the small towns young men lost to the Second World War displayed in local windows. "Well, all told," the old man replied, "this town gave sixty two of its young men to the war. More than our share." This is mirrored in Moscombe, an isolated village that Stevens becomes stranded, in much the same way as Peter is stranded in Lawson. Harry Smiths wife, who takes Stevens in for the night, tells Stevens."This may seem like a small, out of the way place we have here, sir, but we gave more than our share in the war. More than our share [sic]" (187).

Moscombe and Lawson have several details in common: small population, isolation, large number of souls sacrificed to World War II, and a sense that their enormous sacrifice has somehow been forgotten by the rest of the world. The fact that these towns are small and isolated not only helps the plot by isolating the main characters from the everyday world, but it forces Peter and Stevens to see the world outside the shells of their existence. Peter is more familiar with rushing around, trying to make a living in L.A. Stevens has always been rushing to take care of Darlington Hall. Neither of them makes any time to really take part in anyone else's life, perhaps not even their own. They are not really living, just going through the motions.

Being stranded in Mascombe and Lawson forces them to really listen to what other people have to say. Do the people speak? Yes! In Remains, Harry, a local activist, says this: "That's what we fought for and that's what we won. We won the right to be free citizens. You can't have dignity if you're a slave. But every Englishman can grasp it if only he cares to. Because we fought for that right" [sic] (186). In Lawson the problem is similar. The people of Lawson, however, are only sure of these ideas of freedom and positive emotions because they think Peter is Luke, one of the lost boys come back from the War. His presence reminds them that although it is important to remember the sacrifices of the past (i.e. the war heroes), you have to really live because so many people died courageous deaths to make sure we could. They can then teach this to Peter, simply by living full happy lives.

Though romance plays a key part throughout the whole of both tales, it seems to have little purposeful effect on either Stevens or Peter. Perhaps love can only do so much with half a person. Miss Kenton and Adele do, however, try to help along the journeymen's memory and urge the protagonists down the path. Peter doesn't even remember his name - the label of his past identity. His new love Adele therefore tries to help him find his past. She leads him to the Mayor's basement where she used to play with Luke and the lighthouse where she first kissed Luke, because Adele hopes he'll remember that he is Luke. Unfortunately, not really knowing that he isn't Luke, she isnt very helpful. She merely encourages his improvement.

Miss Kenton is presented through Stevens' flashbacks throughout the story. She too helps her man remember the past. He sees her previous acts of kindness for what they really were, not so gentle nudges toward humanity, instead of glossing over them as he did when they were given. In that way, she reminds him what really happened in Darlington Hall, the love she felt for Stevens and the Nazi influence she saw in the Hall.

Eventually, all memories are restored to both characters, Stevens and Peter Appleton. The idea that Peter's past as Luke Trimble is only a dream almost turns Peter back to his old life. He wonders if it could ever have been real. Reading the letter from the dead soldier, however, reminds him that this Luke Trimble was real. He had real love, real fears, and real courage. To deny that they existed would be to doom those truly human qualities in himself. Peter's life could have been as real as Luke Trimbles, and could still be, if he made the right decision in that courtroom in front of everyone he cared for. And, he did. He basically told the Commission (part of the witch hunt for Communists in the late 1950s) that they had no right to question his political leanings past and present. Calling the First Amendment of the Constitution a 'contract with the American people,' he says that it is "one contract that cannot be renegotiated." This comes from the man who at the beginning of The Majestic tells his agent, "I'm a writer. I'll make up names if I have to. Leo, were talking about my career, my life. Christ, I'll give 'em anything they want." Clearly truth has prevailed. Another example: when he returns to his job at the end of the movie the powers that be begin to tear apart his movie in an almost identical scene to the one at the beginning of the film. This time, however, he walks out on them and leaves his job forever. He has found enough of himself that he can change his image. He will start over with a new life in Lawson.

Stevens' future path is less sure. He sits on a bench and stares into space as if he's had a mental breakdown. Really, he has only found the truth in his now clear memory. His life's work at Darlington Hall has been less than futile, as he was unknowingly helping the Nazi cause during the War. Also, the only love he has ever known, Miss Kenton, has gone back to her husband and will not be returning to the Hall with him. He is old and unsure of where to go, so he sits on the bench and stares. In the end it is a fellow butler who knocks him out of his stupor. It is another older butler that reminds him that he can't change what has gone before. Stevens says, "Perhaps there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day" (244).

We cannot tell if Stevens will truly change, not seeing the new persona in action. However, it must be assumed that he will follow through with his intentions of starting over. The old man by the side of the road at the beginning did say he still had time and that he still had some life left in him.

Clearly these stories are similar. The surface has barely been touched here and could go on for some time if allowed, but these are the basics. Both characters are removed from their surroundings in order that they might relax and remember who they are. There are several people along both of their paths that help them with their remembrances. Once they know who they are, there must be a moment of truth. The characters must decide to either follow the old path they have always traveled on, or take the one less traveled by. The characters here choose well so that, hopefully, real life will someday learn from art.

Works Cited

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

The Majestic. Dir. Frank Darabont. Perf. Jim Carrey, Martin Landau, and Laurie Holden. Warner Bros, 2001.

This article was written in conjunction with a graduate class at Kansas State University.