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One of the most important points that the novel makes in terms of the quest for dignity and greatness is that it lies in individuals making critical decisions. Individuals cannot relying on socially mandated notions of duty to decide for them. Instead, they must make these decisions for themselves in order their quest for dignity and greatness to have meaning. Lord Darlington believes in an external construction of duty and feels that following this feeds his quest for dignity and greatness. Darlington feels that the "honor" amongst "gentlemen" compels Germany to be treated better. Too much of a gentlemen himself to understand that the Nazis were far from it, Darlington evades having to make difficult choices. He relies on a social construct of duty in acting and this deters him from achieving anything related to dignity or greatness. His undignified end is an embodiment of this.
For Stevens, the strict code of conduct that he feels defines dignity and greatness is an equally failed one. In blindly following Darlington and refusing to ask questions himself, Stevens has realized the folly of his error. Unlike Darlington, there is a learning curve in Stevens that the quest for dignity and greatness exists in individuals making difficult decisions about themselves, their world and their place in it. Stevens recognizes that the quest for dignity and greatness exists in taking action, recognizing that one must act outside of social construction in order to achieve this. For example, in honoring Miss Kenton and the emotions he feels towards her, he must act accordingly. Stevens realizes too late that the quest for dignity and greatness exists within individual action, sometimes against socially constructed notions of duty and responsibility.
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