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.
(The entire section is 2,917 words.)