There are certain words and phrases the meaning of which are as likely to be uttered in thinly-veiled contempt as to be applied in their literal meaning, and "gentleman" certainly qualifies as one such example. I spent the first eight years of my career in the United States Congress as an aide in the House of Representatives, in the halls of which members of that august body routinely address and refer to each other as "gentleman" or, in early times, as "gentlelady." During the most heated, contentious debates on the floor of the House of Representatives, members of Congress would regularly, per the customs and traditions of the institution, address each other by these words no matter the depth of animosity between them. Such is the hypocrisy among politicians serving in institutions governed by rules of decorum intended to mask such personal feelings.
The purpose of the above discussion is to help in placing into the proper context the use of these same words and phrases in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro's novel is narrated in the first-person by the story's main protagonist, Stevens, a proper English butler accustomed to serving at the pleasure of most refined and aristocratic of Great Britain's elite. The role of such individuals within the estates where they worked cannot be overstated, such is the regard these men and women (in the case of maids) held their employers in that country's notoriously class-conscious society. Stevens is a second-generation butler, his father continuing to struggle to serve his master with dignity and competence despite his advancing age and failing health. Stevens, then, is in the unenviable position of having to protect his father's dignity while serving the interests of his employer, once England's finest but now an American dignitary posted to the British Isles. These employers were, in Ishiguro/Steven's telling, "gentlemen of indisputable moral stature." And, serving such gentlemen bestows upon the butler the accolades one would expect to be directed solely or primarily at the master of the house. As Stevens again writes in his journal:
". . .association with a truly distinguished household is prerequisite of 'greatness.' A great butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman -- and, through the latter, to serving humanity."
The problem, then, is that the requirements of serving properly must eventually founder upon the rocks of reality, and when that reality involves the inept and occasionally corrupt diplomacy that led Europe into not one but two massive conflagrations (known collectively as 'the world wars'), the contradictions inherent in this situation can no longer be ignored.
Ishiguro places his story, and his protagonist, within the context of this diplomacy. Diplomacy, it should be noted as an aside, is rarely the conduct of negotiations or international relations between distinguished and dignified statesmen. Rather, it very often involves backroom agreements and, of particular relevance to The Remains of the Day, the distasteful and always hypocritical development of relationships with individuals and governments the nature of whom and which require a serious break with morality. Such is the case with England's interwar entertainment of high-ranking German officials who would, shortly, perpetrate the most horrific episode in human history, the Holocaust, while plunging the world into the most destructive conflict imaginable.
Joachim von Ribbentrop was a prominent German politician who rose to become that nation's foreign minister under the leadership of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party. His greatest achievement was the August 1939 completion of what became known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact cementing an alliance between Hitler's Germany and Joseph Stalin's Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That alliance, short-lived though it would prove to be, allowed Hitler to focus his energies on invading and subjugating nations to Germany's west without fear of a premature conflict with Russia. So, bringing the discussion back to Ishiguro's story, the narrator, Stevens, has had the veil lifted from before his eyes by the sight of his English gentlemen cavalierly entertaining officials like von Ribbentrop, feting them like distinguished and honored guests, only to later witness these same gentlemen scurry to recover from the shock and devastation imposed upon their own country by von Ribbentrop and his fellow Nazis. This is the context in which the following passage is presented:
"It was clear from what was said that many of the most distinguished ladies and gentlemen were quite enamored of him (von Ribbentrop). It is, as I say, irksome to hear the way these same people now talk of those times in particular what some of said concerning his lordship. The great hypocrisy of these persons would be instantly obvious to you were you to see just a few of their own guest lists from those days; you would see then not only the extent to which Herr Ribbentrop dined at these same persons tables, but that he often did so as the guest of honor."
The phrase "great gentlemen" is used favorably early in The Remains of the Day. Once the ramifications of these individuals' actions are realized, however, the phrase becomes one of derision, just as when the members of the House of Representatives address each other as gentlemen despite their mutual loathing.