Throughout the novel The Remains of the Day, author Kazuo Ishiguro uses the theme of dignity to question certain aspects of British upper-class society.
In Stevens's mind, what distinguishes a great butler from just an efficient butler is dignity. The term dignity can be defined as expressing self-respect and demonstrating an essence of nobility and worthiness despite the actual status of servanthood. In recollecting his father's behavior, Stevens is able to define his own understanding of dignity. Stevens describes his father one day of having made the mistake of driving guests of his employer at the time, Mr. John Silvers, to the wrong village. The drunken responses of Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones had been to insult Stevens's father for his mistake, but his father had remained perfectly composed and courteous. Stevens further describes that his father had "continued to drive with an expression balanced perfectly between personal dignity and readiness to oblige" (p. 38). Stevens further relays that when the drunken guests next turned to insulting the employer, Mr. Silvers, out of a sense of duty to his employer, Stevens's father had stopped the car and held the door open, inviting them to leave the car until they finally apologized.
Due to this story about his father, Stevens has looked to his father as a role model all his life. Having been guided by his father's actions, Stevens sees a butler's role is to feel a sense of devotion to serve while also maintaining an air of self-worth. However, sadly, as author Ishiguro shows, Stevens takes this understanding of the need to display dignity a bit too far.
A second theme in the novel that goes hand in hand with the theme of dignity concerns the belief that a person literally becomes the job he/she performs. In Stevens case, Stevens was fully a butler every single waking moment of his life, and being a butler in his mind required an unshaken display of dignity. Hence, Stevens displayed dignity when he was told his father's illness was taking a turn for the worse; he displayed dignity even when he was told his father had passed away; and he let his opinion he needed to display dignity overrule his feelings for Miss Kenton. To display dignity, he refused to let himself express any personal emotion, including grief and love.
However, sadly, by the end of the novel, he realizes that his pursuit of dignity and his unquestioning servitude to his employer were really completely worthless, and author Ishiguro uses Stevens's self-realization to question the role of servitude in British upper-class society.