Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
Stevens is preparing to drive Mr. Farraday’s Ford from Darlington Hall (near Oxford) to the West Country to meet with Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington. Stevens believes, on the basis of a recent letter from Miss Kenton, that she wants to return to her position at the mansion.
Stevens sets out on his drive, stopping the first night in Salisbury. As he travels, he engages in an introspective analysis of the concept of dignity. Recalling that his father, William Stevens, exemplified dignity, he remembers an event from thirty years earlier—seeing his father pacing the grounds in front of the summerhouse at Darlington Hall, carefully examining the ground.
It is spring, 1922, and Miss Kenton and William Stevens begin their employment at Darlington Hall. William falls while serving guests, months before an unofficial conference is to be held at Darlington. Representatives from Great Britain, the United States, Italy, Germany, and France will be assembling to discuss the punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles. William’s son reduces his father’s official duties, at Lord Darlington’s behest. As delegates begin arriving, the young Stevens is asked by Darlington to explain the facts of life to his godson, Reginald Cardinal. Cardinal, in turn, informs Stevens that he already has a clear understanding of the issue.
The assembled delegates believe that they must convince the French representative, Monsieur Dupont, that sanctions against Germany should be eased. As Stevens attends to Dupont’s sore-covered feet, Stevens’s father suffers another attack. Stevens overhears Mr. Lewis (the U.S. delegate) tell Dupont that the other delegates seek to manipulate Dupont. Stevens visits his bedridden father, who tells his son that he is proud of him; Stevens, though, is unable to respond with any emotion.
At the final dinner of the conference, Dupont rises to offer a toast, thanking Darlington, agreeing with the aims of the conference, and exposing Lewis’s duplicity. Lewis responds, and dismisses the other delegates as gentlemen amateurs.
Miss Kenton informs Stevens that his father’s health has taken a turn for the worse, but Stevens returns to his duties. Darlington asks Stevens if he has been crying. Stevens continues with his work, changing Dupont’s bandages. Miss Kenton then tells Stevens that his father has died. Again, Stevens returns to his duties.
On his second day of traveling, Stevens recalls an event from earlier in the day. He had informed a local that he is employed at Darlington Hall, but he also denied having worked there when Lord Darlington was alive. Stevens is disturbed by his own deception, recalling that he had done the same thing a few months earlier with a visitor to Darlington Hall. He stays the night at an inn outside Taunton in Somerset. He goes to the bar and talks with some locals, but he soon realizes that he is unskilled in casual conversation.
Stevens remembers several unofficial meetings between a British lord, Halifax, and the German ambassador, Herr Ribbentrop, which occurred before World War II. Stevens supports the reportedly common view that Ribbentrop deceived many in Great Britain, and he believes, like many others, that Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathizer and an anti-Semite. However, he defends Darlington because he had employed, over the years, many Jews.
Stevens insists that allegations of anti-Semitism against Darlington rest upon one episode in the early 1930’s. Darlington had been encouraged by a female friend to order Stevens to fire two Jewish housemaids. Stevens had then told Miss Kenton of the situation, and she became so distraught that she considered resigning. Stevens also told Miss Kenton that people of their position are unqualified to understand such issues. Stevens, who recalls that Darlington had expressed remorse about his decision the following year, also tells Miss Kenton that he, too, had felt that the firings were wrong, upsetting Miss Kenton once again.
Stevens is staying the night at a private residence in Moscombe because he has run out of gasoline. He reflects upon his relationship with Miss Kenton, recalling an event twenty years earlier when Miss Kenton had brought flowers into his room. She had asked Stevens what he was reading, and he refused to reveal the title. She playfully wrestled the book from his hand, discovering that he had been reading a sentimental romance novel.
Stevens wants to reestablish a more professional relationship with Miss Kenton, and Miss Kenton begins to take all of her allotted days off to visit a male friend. Stevens puts an end to his evening meetings with Miss Kenton, a change that he considers to be a turning point.
Stevens, staying overnight in a private home, meets several neighbors who have dropped by. Mistaken for a wealthy gentleman, he tells them that he has had a role in international politics. One of the neighbors asserts that dignity is not exclusive to the wealthy. This debate reminds Stevens of an event that occurred in 1935, in which Darlington and several guests had questioned Stevens about current issues. Stevens had feigned ignorance, proving (in the minds of his inquisitors) that commoners have no role in political discourse. Darlington had apologized to Stevens the next morning, but in doing so also argued that democracy is outdated and that Germany and Italy have realized this fact. This memory unsettles Stevens, and he rejects any responsibility for Darlington’s mistakes.
The next day of travel finds Stevens sitting in the dining hall of a hotel in Little Compton, Cornwall, waiting until it is time to meet Miss Kenton (who is now Mrs. Alice Benn). Stevens thinks about the events of the morning. One of the locals in Moscombe helps Stevens with the car he has been driving and asks him if, in fact, he is a manservant. Stevens confesses that he is the butler at Darlington Hall.
Stevens has been preoccupied with a particular memory—standing outside Miss Kenton’s door as she cries inside her home. She had been crying not because of her aunt’s death (as Stevens had previously thought) but because her friend had proposed marriage. Miss Kenton later tells Stevens that she had accepted the proposal, and Stevens offers congratulations.
Lord Darlington, Herr Ribbentrop, the British prime minister, and the British foreign secretary meet. Darlington’s godson, Reginald Cardinal, who is also a journalist, arrives at Darlington Hall uninvited, having been tipped off about the secret meeting. Cardinal tells Stevens that the Nazis are manipulating Darlington, but Stevens refuses to question his employer’s judgment. At the close of the evening, Stevens feels triumphant at having maintained his dignity during the trying events of the day.
On the sixth day of his travels, Stevens is in Weymouth, thinking about his meeting with Miss Kenton. He discovers that Miss Kenton is not on the verge of divorce, as he had assumed. He tells her that Cardinal had been killed in the war and that accusations against Lord Darlington about his alleged Nazi sympathies eventually broke him down. Stevens then asks Miss Kenton if her husband has mistreated her. She assures Stevens that he has not and that she has grown to love her husband. She confesses that she has often wondered what her life would have been like with Stevens. His heart breaks as he hears this. As evening falls, he realizes that he has wasted his life. He sits alone, thinking about the time that remains. He decides that he must improve his bantering skills—making conversation with light irony—so as to better serve Mr. Farraday, the new owner of Darlington Hall.