In Some Situations, It May Be “Better” to Be an Obliger Than an Upholder.

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I love to re-read, and I love to read on airplanes, so it was with great pleasure that I re-read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Isiguro on my flight back from the Podcast Movement Conference in Anaheim.

Maybe you’re read the book — it was hugely acclaimed and won the Man Booker Prize. Or maybe you saw the Merchant-Ivory movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

The narrator is Stevens, the English butler of Darlington Hall who is taking a trip to visit Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper with whom he worked for many years.

As the story unfolds, many things become gradually clear to the reader. Stevens is extraordinarily removed from his own feelings; he devoted his life to Lord Darlington, a man whose efforts to further the German cause leading up to World War II led to ignominy; he has deep love for Miss Kenton that he could never express; he revered his father and never told him; etc. etc. It’s a beautiful, compelling book.

These days, I see everything through the lens of the Four Tendencies, and it was fascinating — and enormously instructive — to read this novel.

It’s an incisive portrait of an Upholder. Stevens shows all the strengths of the Upholder, and all the weaknesses.

But what was most instructive for me was to understand something that truly, I’ve never quite grasped before: the advantage, in some circumstances, of being an Obliger instead of being an Upholder.

All the Tendencies have their own strengths and weaknesses, and this showed me how Obligers have a strength that Upholders may lack.

Bear with me. This is a little complicated, but it’s important.

Obligers and Upholders have a deep affinity: they both respond readily to outer expectations.

Upholders also respond readily to inner expectations, which means that they can much more effortlessly meet their own inner standards. Most of the time, this is a useful quality.

While Obligers (like Upholders) readily meet outer expectations, they struggle to meet inner expectations. This dynamic can lead to the striking pattern of Obliger-rebellion, which is when an Obliger meets, meets, meets, meets an expectation–then snap, the Obliger refuses. Obliger-rebellion can be small and symbolic, or it can be huge and destructive.

I’ve come to understand that Obliger-rebellion, though it can be destructive, is also highly constructive. It’s an escape hatch for Obligers. It’s meant to protect them, to eject them from situations where expectations are unrealistically high, where they’re being exploited, where they’re being ignored, etc.

However, I never before grasped how Upholders were disadvantaged by not having the instinct for Obliger-rebellion. I thought that the fact that Upholders meet inner expectations was protection enough (though to be sure, some UPHOLDER/Obligers do show forms of Obliger-rebellion).

The Remains of the Day shows how this absence of Obliger-rebellion can at times be a problem.

In a real Upholder way, Stevens gets enormous gratification from “dignity”–a word he examines and discusses several times throughout his reminiscences. In his mind, it’s his dignity as a professional that allows him to set aside his personal desires and needs in order to serve Lord Darlington’s household perfectly. As it happens, the household is entertaining important guests — and is therefore in a time of high expectation — when Stevens’s father is dying, and at a crucial moment in his (thwarted) relationship with Miss Kenton. At least until his epiphany at the very end of the book, which takes place years after the events described, Stevens takes tremendous pride in the fact that he could live up to his expectations for himself, and others’ expectations for him, to be the perfect servant, even in the face of great personal sacrifice.

Now, according to his lights (until the epiphany at the end), this is right and justified.

But as I read, I thought, “Hmmm….if Stevens had been an Obliger, maybe he would’ve given that great service, but at some key point, thought, ‘After all I’ve done, what do I get? My father is dying, and they expect me to serve tea? This, I won’t do!’ or ‘I’ve given Lord Darlington so many years of service, but this demand is just too much, so Lord D can just wait a little while before I rush back to his side.”

For Stevens, such moments of Obliger-rebellion might have led to a much happier, richer life. His Upholderness held him in place.

What has struck me most about the Four Tendencies is how much we can learn from each other.

As an Upholder myself, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Rebels: we’re more free than we think.  And I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Questioners (like my husband): always ask why. And I’ve learned a lot from Obligers: if someone demands too much, refuse.




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