Why Stories Matter

I love to learn and soak up new ideas, so I mostly read non-fiction.

Every once in a while, though, a novel comes along that teaches me more than a non-fiction treatise ever could.

When I first read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, I found myself thinking for days on end about its implicit themes.

It changed me.

Set in rural England, the novel depicts an aging butler, Stevens, who manages the household affairs of a once prestigious estate.

Like the antiquated manor, Stevens finds himself in a modernized world that views butlers as mere relics of the past.

The butler devoted his entire life to mastering the art of service, which sounds quite noble, even Christian. But by the novel’s end, Stevens must face the truth. He had been so prideful of the service he rendered that he never questioned whom it was that he served.

He realized later that his boss was a Nazi sympathizer who financially supported the fascist regime. Stevens rationalized his reasons for staying with his long-time employer, but if he had been more honest with himself, he would have seen the truth all along.

In the end, Stevens recognizes with excruciating clarity that, while the service he rendered was indeed exceptional, he served the wrong person.

The last scene finds Stevens sitting on the pier, watching the sun descend into the ocean’s unseen abyss. Just as evening is on its way, his final years of life are also fast approaching. Stevens has two choices:

Will he focus on the remains—the decayed ruins—of his past?
Or will he focus on the time that remains for him in the future?

We all must ask ourselves these same questions. Most of us — at one time or another — have made choices we regret. Most of us have also relied upon rationalizations to make ourselves feel better about those very choices.

The Remains of the Day subtly exposes this human tendency in all of us. And that is what great literature does.

Stories matter when readers can relate to the characters and decide to make positive changes in their own lives because of what they have read. That is the power of a well-told story.

The life of Stevens, an aging English butler, reminds me of another servant facing the end of his life. Joshua. When Joshua spoke to the nation of Israel for the last time, he said:

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . .
But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
~ Joshua 24:15

I don’t want to get to the end of my life and regret the choices I made. I want to be a servant like Joshua, who crossed treacherous waters and entered the Promised Land.

Do you have a favorite book that changed the way you viewed something?

I’m linking up today with Anne at modernmrsdarcy.com, writing about a book that changed me.

*While the film adaption is performed by excellent actors, the movie cannot capture the interior dialogue that makes the narration in this story so worthwhile. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking novel that is beautifully written, I highly recommend the book over the movie. And don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled the ending.

12 thoughts on “Why Stories Matter

  1. This is a beautiful post!

    My head master once required the eleventh and twelfth grade students to read The Remains of the Day for summer reading. I thought they really lacked the life experiences to appreciate the sense of irrevocable loss Stevens feels at the end of the novel. But maybe I was wrong. Do you think high schoolers could benefit from the story?

    • I think you make an excellent point. I wouldn’t assign this book as summer reading for 11th graders. My daughter is an 11th grader, and I want her to read it, but at this age, it’s important to talk about the story as it progresses.

      When I taught this novel to my college freshman, I was surprised at how much of the finer nuances they picked up on ~ if not at first ~ certainly after our class discussion. We talked about about each section as we read through it together. I also had my students do some historical research on the Treaty of Versailles, so my students would have a greater understanding of the time-bound context the story takes place in. Even the guys in my class liked the book, especially the historical study of it.

      Of the three main essays my students wrote that semester (a personal narrative, a response to literature essay, and a research paper), the essays on this novel were my favorite. They showed some depth of thought on the part of my students. It was really fascinating. Even a little surprising! 🙂

  2. This book sounds very interesting, plus I love stories and movies set in England. I am a Jane Austen fan! I like the insight that it sounds like this book provides as well.

  3. Oo, very thoughtful post here. How important it is to consider both “the remains of the day/life” and its focus, but also whom/Whom I’m serving.
    I also read mostly nonfiction now, too, but fiction sometimes conveys messages more effectively. And there are things you can say through fiction that you’d better not through non-fiction!

    • There are so many different angles to focus on in this story. I had 30 college freshmen each take a different theme and write an essay on it. And they did a superb job. It showed how many different levels of themes and symbols this book portrayed. It’s really beautiful. 🙂

  4. Denise, this story hit so close to home. I will have to find a copy and read it for myself. I have read a balance of fiction and non-fiction, sometimes one more than the other. I have probably been changed more by the fiction I have read. Biographies have also been life changing. There is definitely power in a story! I have probably drawn the most lessons from Corrie Ten Boom’s life. What a woman! Hadassah caused me to see my husband in a whole new light and gave me a renewed desire to please him. The movie based on the book is titled One Night with the King and it is terrible. Read the book. Don’t watch the movie. 😉

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