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    Remains of the day as a postmodern novel Essay

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    Postmodern literature has its many spokesmen. Many would agree that Kazuo Ishiguro is not the most typical representative of this somewhat anarchistic literary and social movement, but he is certainly one of its most subtle and valuable artists. He uses the principles of post modernistic writing in a very meaningful way, and only after a thorough analysis can one fully appreciate all carefully constructed and presented elements trough which he successfully delivers his story. Remains of the day, as a novel, is a unique example of how a story of a personal fate of one man can reflect on such large, historical and social scale.

    Above all other motifs, the one of history, especially personal, individual history is the idea that dominates all novels Ishiguro wrote, Remains of the day in particular. In Linda Hutcheon’s words “the departure, rather than reworking of mimetic novelist tradition” is a definition that helps understanding the mechanism, the strategy Ishiguro uses to communicate this story to the reader. Focus on biography, personal history represents a break with the traditional approach to history and historicity. Dealing with past (private or public) and confronting it, is an important subject that reoccurs within the discourse of British postmodern prose.

    Concerning Ishiguro’s work itself, and Remains of the day as an example of his manner of narrating, this subject of history is precisely the thing that dominates the discourse and captures reader’s attention (the plot in classical sense is quite static). Stevens, alike all of Ishiguro’s narrators, is not at all objective and trustworthy. His memory plays tricks on him (motif especially present in his earlier two novels with Japanese protagonists), his language distorts to reveal the actual truth that is buried under layers of self-deception.

    The language is seen as an important weapon, and as much as it is used by Ishiguro’s narrators, as the means of suppression of the actual state of affairs, it is also the very thing that unmasks them. The Suez Canal crisis and Nazi propaganda in pre-WWII Britain, as a historical background, are present in the novel, but they are tackled with in a rather indirect way, barely even mentioned. It is a scene set for the “real history” Ishiguro deals with, the individual one – a retrospective of Stevens’ life. The socio- historical issues are present, but rather out of focus.

    Postmodern prose is by definition self conscious, full of inter-textual references. The intention is revealing its artificiality. An abundance of “blank spaces”, puns and irony serves as a constant reminder of the fact that postmodern writers do not attempt to create an illusion of reality, but quite the opposite. By emphasizing the actual body of a novel as a construct, they, more or less successfully, attempt to provoke an inner dialogue, a discussion between the reader and the writer, or the narrating character.

    The reality, claims the postmodern fiction, is already irreversibly compromised and altered by the cognitive mechanisms and even more so, the language itself. In this novel, the use of the language is to reveal the character behind it, although at the beginning it is a weapon Stevens uses to disguise the truth. The style Stevens uses, particularly his formal tone and the choice of certain words (bantering) excellently present his character. Often he even repeats some phrases, or sentences, word by word.

    However, Ishiguro himself is rather reluctant of making the techniques he applies too visible and obviously revealed in his writing. He states: “[F]or me, while the nature of fiction or fictionality are things that writers might need to be concerned with to get on with their work, I don’t believe that the nature of fiction is one of the burning issues of the late twentieth century. It’s not one of the things I want to turn to novels and art to find out about. ” The artificiality of fiction is something he doesn’t directly insists on, but certainly makes a good use of it in his work.

    This fine balance between “realism” and “experiment” is probably best achieved in this particular novel. The eclecticism of post modern culture reflects in the postmodern art. The identity of a subject also subdues to these tendencies. The previous, modernist attempts of making a literary subject a stable and realistic construct is replaced by characteristic lack of fixation, lack of concern about durability and persuasiveness. Literary subject becomes not only visibly artificial, but even fragmented.

    Stevens’ artificial behavior and unreliability of the story he is telling is obvious from the perspective of his lacking of personal moral perspective over the actions of his employer. The most obvious example is the incident of firing of the two Jewish maids, which is the clear hint to the reader that Stevens’ perspective of life in Darlington hall is distorted. When he needs to question his absolute attitudes of duty and professionalism- the tern he himself uses is dignity- he goes into extremes (death of his father) and refuses to face the reality. Mrs. Kenton, threatening to resign on account of that incident, makes no such mistake.

    The delaying to “inform” the reader about the important events (such as his conversation with Cardinal which is of a great importance to clarify the role of lord Darlington in the Nazi propaganda) This, again, shows his delusions and misplaced trust, and we must rely on the behavior of other characters rather than Stevens’ words. As Salman Rushdie comments, the story of Remains of the day, told by Stevens, is primarily about regret (although the ending rings a bit more optimistic than expected) “The Duty”, mask of formality, and dignity of a butler deprives his life from essential human values, private life and emotions.

    His chances of having a fulfilling relationship with Mrs. Kenton falls pray to his understanding of professional commitment. His rhetoric is completely formal, and he always seems to be debating, he seemingly tries to persuade the reader, and himself, in truthfulness of his attitudes, and, the more story progresses (until the culmination in his final breakdown), the more he realizes that he failed in the attempt to make sense out of the obsolete system of values that deprived his life of true meaning. He never becomes an individual in the true sense of the word- he only reflects his employer’s views, desperately trying to justify him.

    The ethical message of the writer is left for the reader to put together, and the narrator is an obstacle in this process. But, by the careful observance of deconstruction of Stevens’ facade, a careful reader may discover the real message Ishiguro is trying to deliver. The text is full of subtle hints, without vast number of characters, or shifting of reader’s attention. The historical circumstances conditioned the differences between the two generation of butlers- the generation of Stevens’ father and Stevens himself.

    Stevens realized that the real great decisions that influence the fate of “the small man” are really made in privacy of noble houses, like the one of lord Darlington’s. The history, through Stevens’ eyes, is understood as a wheal set of concentric circles, rather than a line with its beginning and the end (which is a typical view of history of a Christian civilization), and at the centre of it are the places of true power, the aristocratic hoses where the power is concentrated. The secrecy and deception of this shows the deceiving nature of modern world; the hierarchy, the order of modernist era shutters, its hierarchy becomes anarchy.

    The social, class element of the story is hereby strongly present, but again, the focus is on the tragic impersonality of lower class representatives, a servant, here a butler, and Remains of the day are actually the remains of Stevens wasted existence. The character of Stevens, whether or not redeemed by his final tears of regret, is very robot-like. He doesn’t even have its own mistakes, opinions, whereas lord Darlington at least has the privilege to make certain (although wrong) decisions. The new, changed view postmodernism introduces contrasts the system of values typical of modernism.

    What is moral or amoral in literature becomes relative; the certainty in the supreme nature of art disappears. The system of values of older butlers and their code of behavior of Stevens’ father is no longer unquestionable. New epistemological questions arise, creating confusion and doubt, but also a certain relief and new-found freedom of choice. This is what Stevens fails to perceive, rationalizing his life-style and actions in a self-deceiving way. The ultimate breakdown of the old philosophy, and with it, the old life style and metaphysical system of values, was inevitable.

    There is an opportunity for a change through the acceptance of the new, represented his new employer places upon him. At first Stevens finds this “bantering” (a symptomatic expression to show the stiffness of Stevens’ character) repulsive, and reacts completely inadequate. His attempt to apply his obsolete ways of rezoning to something that should be completely spontaneous and relaxed is one of the humorous moments of the otherwise rather gloomy novel atmosphere. This ironic approach can be seen as another marker of postmodern fiction.

    The author no longer attempts to be a prophet of a dying world, who indulges in metaphysics, and is in a deep search for the meaning of life through art as its medium. Now, there is no deeper meaning, no stability, nor attempts of coherent structure. If words themselves are deceiving, the structures they create are no more meaningful. What remains unspoken sometimes carries equal or greater importance than the word play. Narrative is now anti-narrative. The hero of the novel, Stevens, is not exceptional; he is weak, indecisive and utterly self-deceiving.

    His principles failed him, and what he sacrifices only goes to waste. But, he is not strong enough to face the truth. The elements of modernism which are sometimes considered to be the remnant of previous era of Romanticism, indirectly made possible the passive, or in the case of lord Darlington, affirmative attitude towards totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Fascism. The romantic ego-genius only carries the mask of impersonality. The disillusionment of postmodernism sheds a new light over this, and in the Remains of the day, there is a sharp view of the dangers it brings.

    But this awareness also led to a drastic scaling down of expectations and aspirations, and as shown in the Stevens example, the process of facing reality is extremely painful. It is often stated that postmodernism reveals “a gap between signifier and signified”, language and supposed reality. Merging of reality and fiction, unreliability of narrators, subjectivism, brings language down to a level of “self-referential code”. When it comes to an attempt of objectivity, this code is found lacking.

    Stevens is by no means an objective narrator, but this also means that there isn’t one. Not only that Stevens’ story is a construct; he himself is an author’s construct too. Repetition of certain words, phrases, “parrot-like” behavior leads us to this conclusion. But, Ishiguro avoids writing too self-consciously; in his own words, he finds it unnecessary and tedious. That why the hints are given, but not in a too obvious manner. This is not typical for the postmodern fiction, which places severe accent on the process of creation and techniques applied by the writer.

    Ishiguro is also not interested in giving lessons and interpretations. We are left to make most of the conclusions ourselves, being observers of Stevens’ life story, but not invited to judge him- rather, to show compassion. By definition, postmodernism is against interpretations, it poses a problem, but does not attempt to search for just one solution. This is one more feature that shows disillusionment typical for postmodern fiction- not even art is a thing of an absolute value. Stevens is a clear example of focusing on rhetoric rather than semantics.

    The previously mentioned lack of his credibility as a narrator is not immediately visible; it increases as the novel progresses towards its climax, his brief encounter with Mrs. Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, at the very end. We are usually indirectly informed, through the words and reactions of other characters, about Stevens’ true feelings and behavior. In the moments Stevens’ father is dying he chooses to follow his rigid professional ethics and attend to the “needs” of the French diplomat, a guest in Darlington Hall. But, the words of lord Darlington reveal that Stevens looks “as if he’s been crying”.

    Although he claims that this event is the very high point of his carrier as a butler, we are right to suppose an extremely painful experience. Other examples may be found in the hopes he clearly has about rehiring Mrs. Kenton, which is of an obvious personal interest to him, although he claims that it to be purely professional. At the end, when his hopes are crushed, and when Mrs. Kenton makes a direct reference to the life she could have had if she married him, he says, for the first time, that his heart is breaking. This statement, coming from such a reserved and stiff character is especially tragic and effective.

    Even in the end, in the final chapter, we only realize that he is crying because the man sitting next to him is passing him a handkerchief. The reader is at that point deeply aware of Stevens’ subjectivity, and inability to fully grasp both sides of the imaginary debate that takes place in his thoughts at the beginning of the novel. His arguments now lose their credibility the bleak reality of his life and emotions he was suppressing are finally allowed to reach the surface. The dominant motif of the novel, regret, and Stevens’ personal tragedy, reveals itself in a particularly moving manner.

    The sympathy the reader feels for Stevens is Ishiguro’s greatest accomplishment in the novel. It is the feature that makes it, in fact, relevant to the reader, the possibility to empathize with a main character, although he is proven to be flawed, emotionally restricted and conservative. The fact that his attitudes and philosophy are completely denied through the course of the novel does not harm his character in any serious way; on the contrary, his breakdown makes his character more human. Narration of Remains of the day requires a deeper analysis.

    The manner in which it is conducted is characteristic for Ishiguro, who gives the language of his narrators a revealing role, even more so in his other novels. Here, there are two levels of narration: Stevens is, in the first level of narration, a subjective and superior narrator- he presents himself as “a paragon of virtue and a victim of historical and cultural circumstances beyond his own control. ” This is an extra-narrative role, which at the end crumbles as he manages to gain our sympathy through the other level of narration- being “inside” the story he tells, and interacting with the other protagonists.

    Other characters often serve as the signposts of important, crucial moments in Stevens’ life- they reveal his true feelings and crises through their words or reactions. The main characteristic of Ishiguro’s narration style is subtlety. He gradually increases the level of tension and mistrust towards Stevens’ words, and, by using the post-modernistic technique of deconstruction, he reveals the falseness of the whole Stevens’ system of beliefs- his illusions of objectivity, based on the denial of essential human emotions which are to be sacrificed to “professional dignity. The process of “humanizing” Stevens has its parallels in postmodern fiction- the use of conventions in order to expose them in their false claim of absoluteness is one of the major features of postmodernism. At the novel’s beginning, there is a seemingly firm life-philosophy Stevens created. He always speaks of “the good old times”, mentions his role models- his father, his colleagues, uses words such as duty, honor, dignity, etc. There is a lot of repetitive talk, which strikes the reader as artificial, constructed.

    We no longer trust Stevens- the self- deception becomes increasingly obvious. Postmodernism in general questions the function of language, especially its role as a medium of perception and communication. It is a question of whether words can be relied on in order to fully reflects someone’s state of mind, or objective reality. Apparently, the answer is negative. The new discoveries in science (Einstein, Heisenberg), psychology (Freud vs. Lacon) and philosophic theories (Marxism) emphasized the relativity of all knowledge the previous era has been founded on.

    Moreover, rather than being a completed work, literature becomes provisional, investigating based on improvisation. Nothing is absolute. The epistemological doubts of modernism became ontological, purpose becomes play, design is now game, hierarchy- anarchy. It is only that all of this is only hinted in Ishiguro’s Remains of the day; it is placed in the background of a simple story of a personal tragedy. A reader puts the pieces of the novel together, without an explicit aid of the narrator, and in the effect reveals Ishiguro’s ethical message.

    Political and social dimension, inseparable here from a view of history (on smaller, personal, and grand, world, scale) is presented through a contrast of reactionary and naive Stevens’ attitudes towards competence of “common people” to grasp the complicated issues of authority and politics. He is faithful to his role of a servant, putting his complete trust in the hands of those in power. Modern, revolutionary ways of thinking of people such as Harry Smith and Reginald Cardinal make him very uncomfortable.

    A touch of Ishiguro’s fine irony- Steven thinks very highly of his “role” in making history- a perfectly polished silver cutlery. We are led into an elaborate philosophic discussion in which our narrator seemingly proves his point about the necessity of social classes in a civilized society, and gradually, we see it all fall apart. Through the post-modernistic method of “using and abusing” certain conventions of the previous era, Ishiguro in fact criticizes elitism and class barriers British society is so prone to.

    Lord Darlington serves as an example of obsolescence of such society- he is an old- fashioned gentleman, elitist, blind to the reality, and ill-intentions of politicians. Although an amateur in politics, he is still determined to correct the injustice done to the Germans after the WWI. The fact that Stevens denies repeatedly that he worked for lord Darlington help seeing through his facade, and at the end of the novel he even calls his life “a sad waste. ” The inconsistencies of Stevens’ theories about the purpose of his life reveal “the emptiness of hierarchy, and as a result, the emptiness of his life. The decline of the Victorian era is caused precisely by questioning of these moral values and social structures. Finally, although Stevens cannot possibly erase the traces of his mistakes, or attribute some meaning to an already wasted life, at least his final outburst of emotions can give him some “retribution for his suffering. ” The younger, post-war generation, impersonated in Harry Smith, introduces the new, democratic ideas, and glorifies the freedom of choice (“there is no dignity in being a slave. ). This is a sharp contrast to Stevens’ colonial attitudes about a life of dignity achieved through a service to the aristocratic elite: “That’s what we fought for and that’s what we won. We won the right to be free citizens. And it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out.

    That’s what dignity’s really about, if you’ll excuse me sir. ” It seems that Stevens refuses to admit these arguments; later, at the moments of rare insight, he realizes that the damage has been done- in a particularly crucial moment he realizes how misplaced his trust has been, and pronounces the most self-revealing lines in the novel:”At least lord Darlington had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakesAs for myself, I cannot even claim that. The bitter taste of the supposing optimistic ending, when Stevens decides to learn the skill of bantering (again to distort the language in order to please his employer), only emphasizes how emotionally damaged Stevens has become (quote). The use of language by Stevens- its utilization- is one of the impressive moments of the novel. In a way, he is an ideal colonial subject. His respect and admiration for the upper class is brilliantly reflected in the utilization of the upper- class English.

    Stevens uses the characteristic diction, pronunciation, and speech rhythm in order to create an illusion of likeness to the people he serves, avoiding potentially troubling differences. Although he claims that achieving a “good command of a language” is only a superficial characteristic of a proper manservant, it is obvious that his efforts are a bit too intense. He communicates in this way not only to his employers, but also to his father and Mrs. Kenton, which is of course grossly inappropriate.

    This way of speech also separates him from the people in the inn, who mistakenly consider him to be “a distinguished gentleman. ” This lefts him without peers; willingly, he places himself in a position of being only “a vessel for other peoples ideas. ” Even when he encounters, and unsuccessfully tries to imitate, the new way of employer- employee communication (the bantering of the new owner of Darlington Hall, an American), he is untrue to himself. Although more natural and relaxed (at least theoretically), it is again an act of submission.

    The motif of falseness of Stevens’ conduct reflected trough language, shows the relative nature of one’s identity, and how much it depends on various influences. Stevens basically has no idiolect- and which is understandable because of his striving to become completely unemotional. The more his attitude changes, the more his words become meaningful and sincere. An interesting example found in the novel: Stevens is having a rather uncomfortable conversation with a guest, Mrs. Wakefield, and she inquires about the authenticity of house ornamentation.

    She claims that the arches in one of the premises look 17th century, but she believes that they are actually a mock period piece. She praises their beauty, but still dismisses them as fake (“very skilful, but a mock. “) Immediately after, she inquires Stevens whether he had worked for lord Darlington, which he denies. This passage emphasizes the motif of imitation- things are not what they seem at Darlington Hall, and a parallel of falseness is made between Stevens and the place he works in. Another example: In one of his conversations with Mrs.

    Kenton, she exclaims: “Why, why do you always have to pretend? ” showing that his unnatural behavior is in fact quite obvious. The other characters, rather than Stevens, will reveal the objective state of affairs (if, regarding postmodernism, there even is one). As much as Ishiguro’s Remains of the day is a post- colonial, social novel about English cultural identity at a certain turbulent time of history, it is also a psychological novel about an emotionally inhibited individual, again as a product of an era that is in its decline.

    This is the matter of a true interest to the writer: not so much the questions of style of writing and the problematic of language use, but a personal (petite) history, in an adequate social framework. A particularly interesting comment Ishiguro made about the novel is the account of his attempts to expose a false idea of English cultural identity, based on a myth about the cultural-national values of the “good old times”: “What I’m trying to do there [] is to actually rework a particular myth about a certain kind of England.

    I think there is this very strong idea that exists in England at the moment, about an England where people lived in the not-so-distant past, that conformed to various stereotypical images. That is to say, an England with sleepy, beautiful villages with very polite people and butlers and people taking tea on the lawn [] The mythical landscape of this sort of England, to a large degree, is harmless nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist. The other side of this, however, is that it is used as a political tool [] It’s used as a way of bashing anybody who tries to spoil this Garden of Eden.

    This can be brought out by the left or the right, but usually it is the political right. ” This is the major flaw of the film that was made based on the novel shortly after the publishing. The plot-line, and even the choice of the actors (Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Mrs. Kenton), who are somewhat of a symbol of “Englishness” to a foreign public, reinforces, instead of deconstructing, the very myth of “the old English country house” Ishiguro is truing to subvert.

    In the process of emptying himself of a personal history, and replacing it with a kind of secondary signification of who he is, Stevens becomes “a myth of a Butler. ” His identity is possessed by the codes of behavior whose meaning he tries to embody, and, in postmodern terms (of Ronald Barthes in particular), Stevens degrades from an individual to a mere semiotic system. The better explanation of this process is perhaps the following: “Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all historythis miraculous evaporation of history is also the form of a concept common to most bourgeois myths: the Irresponsibility of Man. Similarly to Stevens being a mythological image of a butler, and therefore, a typical Barthesian myth, we are presented an image of Darlington Hall. Although Ishiguro primarily deals with a feud between illusions and reality, which takes place in a mind of one man- typical representative of lower class, the same process is visible and applicable to the entire society of “respectable English gentlemen”, embodied in the many visitors of Darlington Hall at the times of its prime. The unifying feature is, in fact, precisely the location where it all takes place.

    Myth of an English country house clearly represents “a chosen emblem of what is considered to be humane, orderly and of enduring value. ” At the light of this it is obviously a subverting move to place a Nazi sympathizer and a number of manipulating politicians in such environment. The deceiving nature of the symbols Darlington Hall represents is made obvious when we realize that it is actually the setting for the secret political meetings, a place where the real political power is concentrated.

    It operates in the shadow of the protected, idyllic environment, behind the back of the people it represents. What is more, wrong and harmful decisions are made in a completely undemocratic way. The illusions Stevens cultivates about the competence of lord Darlington to deal with global politics last only while he makes no contact with the outer world; as soon as he moves away from the sheltered environment, the absurdity of his beliefs is clear. Without a context he can see himself in, he is useless, like a discarded object.

    Under the pressure of reality he is forced to face his empty personal life and the opportunities he wasted- no wonder he eventually bursts into tears. History as Stevens sees it, presented in an image of a wheel, is rather symptomatic and worth mentioning: entire world revolves around houses such as Darlington Hall, which are the centers of true power. The best a common man can do is to attend to its needs, give his small, anonymous contribution that will not be printed on the pages of history, but is nevertheless still needed.

    This disturbing image is a sharp contrast with the Taylor house, described as cozy, poor but clean place- there, anybody can engage in a political discussion, without being ridiculed or oppressed. The historical and political dimension in Remains of the day has been interpreted as the critique of imperialism and the British Empire. There are even some critics who refer to the novel as post-imperial. As such, it requires certain knowledge of certain historical events and people (“the Prime Minister” is obviously Neville Chamberlain, and the Black Shirts are the members of the British Fascist Party, etc. . However, Remains of the day is not a real novel of what is called historiographic metafiction, because of the somewhat different context of presenting history. The Suez Crisis that is to follow shortly after the time novel takes place (which is mostly during the July of 1956. ) provides an excellent background that clarifies the wider meaning of Stevens’ reflections. The historical fact is that the failure of England and France to enforce their dominance during the Suez Crisis situation marks the beginning of the end of Britain as the imperial and colonial force.

    The influence over the Middle East was lost, and the psychological impact of this was immense. A few months before all of this we see Stevens, who, as a former servant of prominent British aristocrat, reflects upon his life in a similar atmosphere of a loss and decline. The two histories: personal and global (“petite and grand”), intertwine and reflect each other. The product of these very historical circumstances is the era of postmodernism- some illusions were to be broken, some false ideals discarded.

    Postmodernism in general offers a rather relativistic view over every feature of life and art. Decentring of the arts follows the change in the balance of power in the world. There is no more “a voice” that represents art; there are “voices”; many of them were oppressed during the previous era. Every totalisation is being avoided. The Western civilization seems to become more heterogeneous and open to the idea of multiplicity, although still not tolerant enough to equally treat all the possible differences.

    The end of colonial era has also marked the end of a certain positivistic way of thinking; instead, there is a proliferation of voices, opinions, questions. The much needed critical distance from the often glorified past can finally be established, and all of the previously absolute concepts of literature undergo serious questioning, starting from style of writing, issues about the production of images and information, notions of identity, sexuality, politics virtually every possible problem the previous period ignored.

    The most important novelty is that, instead of attempting to discover universal truths and present the objective reality, most postmodernists believe that there is no way of managing to reveal what that reality is; the reason being the impossibility to achieve “the unity between the signifier and the signified. ” The reality has become “a greatest fiction of all. ”

    This curious moment in history where modern shifts into postmodern, when colonial, imperialistic Europe enters the cold war era, with its delicate balance of power, is presented through an individual destiny of a Butler (an occupation as obsolete as Stevens’ principles). Remains of the day is a story about a death of one system of belief, of one way of thinking. Awareness of all these factors gives the novel a number of new implications and possible points of view, and yet it never deprives it of its essential, humane perspective.

    That is probably why Remains of the day stays, to this date, Ishiguro’s most read and studied novel. In Ishiguro’s own words: “I think it’s always dangerous to have a writer in a novel. That leads you into all kinds of areas, unless you’re specifically interested in talking about the nature of fiction. But I try to avoid that very postmodern element in my books. I always try to disguise those elements of my writing that I feel perhaps are experimental. I’m only interested in literary experiment insofar as it serves a purpose of exploring certain themes with an emotional dimension. “

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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