The essay creates a dialogue between two disciplines that are rarely brought together: narratology and analytical philosophy. In interpreting Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, it points to similarities between the recent interest of analytic philosophers in self-deception and the interest of literary scholars in narrative unreliability, showing that a better understanding of self-deception can be achieved by a mutual illumination of philosophy and literature: the reading of Ishiguro’s novel relies on distinctions used in analytical philosophy, but the novel, in its turn, provides a further contribution to philosophical discussions.
As Ishiguro’s novel shows, narratives in which the narrating character is self-deceived tend to create an oscillation between (at least) two tenable versions of the story: one that imputes self-deception to the narrating character and one that accepts the plausibility of his version. They also tend to give rise to two hypotheses concerning the motivation of the narrating character to perform the narrative act. One hypothesis is that the motivation is to reinforce self-deception; the other is that the act of narration is motivated also by a (partly unconscious) desire to reveal the truth and comprehend the course of events that has led to self-deception.
When both motivations of a self-deceiver’s narration are operative, the verbal expression of self-deception is considerably complicated. The butler Stevens’ words, like the words of self-deceivers in general, both disclose and conceal, express guilt and deny it, try to comprehend the incoherence of his beliefs and to blur it. Works of literature remind us that self-deception is not a constant state of mind or the final stage of a process but a constituent of many mental processes that may be transitional and dynamic.