Stevens determiners (‘your’ and ‘my’), alongside military semantics
Stevens and Dowell present themselves as the entrapped victims of other characters in order to remove their own culpability from for their inaction. Dowell implies his lack of autonomy by suggesting that Florence entrapped him within the same continent and enslaved him as her ‘sedulous, strained nurse.’ The asyndeton and stress that lies on the sibilant syllables make the statement more emphatic to convey his drudgery. With 60,000 suffragettes demonstrating in London only four years before Dowell’s narrative is set, historical context intensifies his presentation of Florence as it casts her as the scheming ‘New Woman.’ Just as Florence’s cuckoldry of Dowell within the ‘small household cockle shell’ of their marriage entreats the contemporary reader to sympathise with him, Stevens recalls Miss Kenton in a highly selective manner to assuage his guilt for inertia, highlighting her belligerency to the exclusion of other aspects. Filtered through Stevens’ consciousness, the scene where Miss Kenton enters his office morphs into a metaphorical rape: ‘I object to your appearing like this and invading my private moments.’ In light of the decolonisation of India in 1947 and Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956, the conflict set up between the opposing determiners (‘your’ and ‘my’), alongside military semantics with ‘invade’, converts Miss Kenton’s sexual transgression into an imperialistic crossing of borders to colonise Stevens. By presenting himself as an enslaved victim, Stevens removes his autonomy and thus culpability for failing to cross these very boundaries in the memory that haunts him. The figure of an overarching woman, seen in both The Good Soldier and The Remains of the Day, is more explicitly utilised by Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited to shift the blame for Sebastian’s demise. Although supposedly recounted verbatim, Charles’ memory warps Anthony Blanche’s damnation of Lady Marchmain: ‘She sucks their blood. You can see the tooth-marks all over Adrian Porson’s shoulders when he is bathing. (…) They never escape once she’s had her teeth into them.’ Like Miss Kenton’s reversal of sexual penetration, Lady Marchmain punctures the skin of men to warrant his claim to becoming her unwilling victim. By suggesting that her force cannot be contained within reality and must be cast into the supernatural, Charles removes his autonomy and assuages his guilt for involving himself with the Flyte family at the risk of aggravating Sebastian’s alcoholism. Dowell also justifies his inaction through presenting the wrath of scheming women as supernatural. His description of Florence and Leonora’s plotting, ‘like ghouls with an immobile corpse in a tomb beside them,’ hyperbolises the wrath that Ashburnham incurs for being sexually impulsive. Dowell justifies his inertia by implying that his cuckoldry is a better alternative to Ashburnham’s eventual death and entrapment within the confines of a ‘tomb’. This removal of autonomy starkly contrasts with McEwan’s Briony Tallis in the metafiction Atonement who takes responsibility for Robbie’s incarceration and pays penance as a nurse: ‘Vacated lockers were scrubbed, mattresses fumigated, brass coat-hooks, door knobs and keyholes were buffed.’ Despite the ‘door knobs’ and ‘key holes’, Briony enacts the physical entrapment and the confinement to a role of service that both Dowell and Stevens claim to have been forced upon them. This contrast illumines how the narrators’ presentations are driven by their purpose: while Charles, Dowell and Stevens present themselves as ensnared by others to remove their culpability, Briony entraps herself in order to repent for the actions she regrets.