The Remains of the Day summary and themes

 The Remains of the Day summary and theme

Stevens is now an old man. He spent most of his life in service to a British aristocrat named Lord Darlington, for whom he worked as a butler for more than 30 years. Following Lord Darlington’s death, he works for an American businessman, Mr. Farraday, who bought the estate. In July 1956, Stevens receives a letter from a former coworker named Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton worked at Darlington Hall alongside Stevens, who now believes that her letter hints at problems in her marriage. Stevens’s time as Lord Darlington’s butler was defined by his unwavering loyalty to his employer and his rigid adherence to the social rules and manners, as defined by the British social class system. Lord Darlington’s aristocratic personality starkly contrasts Mr. Farraday’s less formal mode of employment. He does not enjoy Mr. Farraday’s habit of telling jokes, as he tries to maintain a dignified demeanor. Nevertheless, Stevens always wants to impress and tries to play along with Farraday’s jokes.

The Day's Final Thoughts: DIGNITYStevens' idea of dignity serves as the primary inspiration for The Remains of the Day. According to Stevens, a butler's responsibility is to uphold or, at the very least, strive for a particular meaning of dignity. Stevens believes that honour is both elusive and deeply felt. Respect for discretion and stoicism, rejection of emotional diversion, high professional standards, and total dedication to one's job are all characteristics of dignity. Stevens contends that a butler ought to maintain composure under duress and be tactful, respectful, and discreet. He has a lot of issues in his life as a result of his wish to exhibit this kind of dignity. He is unable to tell his father the truth about it, he is unable to tell Miss Kenton that he loves her,

Lord Darlington’s attempts to solve the growing political crisis of the 1930s caused him to turn to less than estimable people. Stevens recalls the dinner parties and meetings at Darlington Hall, many of which were conducted in secret and without the knowledge of the British government. As Stevens looks back through his memories, the reality of Lord Darlington’s political sympathies becomes clear: he met with and sympathized with many members of the German Nazi party. Lord Darlington’s inability to see the true evil intent behind their political position and his naivety made him a willing tool in the Nazi’s attempts to stall British intervention in their foreign affairs. Even though he ostensibly helped the Nazis to kill millions, Stevens insists that Lord Darlington was not a bad person. After realizing how Lord Darlington was being used, however, Stevens is struck by a morose feeling. He worries that he wasted many years of his life working for an untrustworthy man.

While reminiscing, Stevens also thinks about his father. William Stevens also worked at Darlington Hall. He was a butler long before his son, but as he grew older, he struggled to maintain his own high standards. Stevens secures his father the role of underbutler at Darlington Hall, and he still sees his father as the man he once was. How William taught his son to perform the job has never left Stevens. During his time at Darlington Hall, however, William is frail and prone to mistakes. Stevens finds himself hiding many of these mistakes from his employer. He wants to protect his father’s dignity and reputation. His adamant protection of his father becomes a problem when William can no longer fulfill his duties. His health worsens. Despite Stevens’s admiration for his father, they struggle to talk openly to each other. Even when William lies dying, Stevens struggles to express his love and respect for his father. On the day of William’s death, Stevens carries out his duties as a butler. He believes that is what his father would have done, though others are shocked that he is not at his father’s bedside.

As well as his father, Stevens remembers the time he spent with Miss Kenton. She arrives at Darlington Hall the same year as William and watches Stevens struggle to protect his father’s dignity. They spend 14 years working together, and during this time, they develop a deep affection for one another, hinting at the possibility of a romantic relationship. This possibility is never resolved, however, as Stevens can never bring himself to put aside his butler persona and confess his love to Miss Kenton. He wrestles with his inner conflict but remains the emotionally distant, reserved man he believes himself to be. When Miss Kenton tries to encourage him to confess his feelings, he insists that she remain professional. Eventually, she can wait no longer. Miss Kenton marries and becomes Mrs. Benn, leaving Darlington Hall and Stevens. After her departure, Stevens deals with his regret that he never revealed his love for her.

Stevens drives to Mrs. Benn’s home. They speak frankly, and for the first time, she admits that she wondered what a relationship between them would have been like. Now, however, she very much loves her husband. They have an adult daughter and will soon become grandparents. She turns down the offer to return to Darlington Hall as she is pleased with her life. Her refusal shocks Stevens, forcing him to confront his failure to speak to her many years ago. He realizes how much she means to him and how much he hoped she would return. His heart breaks, but he refuses to share these emotions again. He retains his quiet, reserved demeanor while enduring the devastation privately. They say their goodbyes, and Stevens drives back to Darlington Hall. Now, he has been convinced to embrace his present. He decides to stop looking to the past and hopes that he can work for Mr. Faraday for many years. He even wants to improve his ability to share in Mr. Faraday’s jokes. Perhaps, he wonders, such warmth and laughter might be what he has always lacked in his life. 

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Stevens is the central figure in The Remains of the Day. Not only is he the protagonist of the story, but he is also the narrator. Stevens is an aging figure and a fading force. He is a relic of a world gone by, someone who is ill fitted to function in modern society. However, as he looks back over his life, Stevens begins to wonder whether he ever truly fit into the world. He is a butler, and this profession defines him. The profession informs his beliefs, particularly regarding how a person should strive to seem dignified and reserved at all times. Stevens has modeled his entire personality on his idea of how a butler should operate. As such, he is quiet, discrete, and reluctant to express any emotion at all. This formal demeanor served Stevens well in his professional career and made him an excellent butler, but he begins to suspect that his dedication to the role was costly. Due to his commitment to his job, he may have missed out on the great romantic relationship of his life. Furthermore, he may have dedicated his life to the service of a man who is now publicly disgraced. Stevens was an exemplary butler, but as the novel begins, he begins to wonder whether being a butler has cost him dearly. He struggles to operate outside of his home at Darlington Hall, he struggles with his new employer, and he is haunted by missed opportunities in his past. Stevens has worked so hard to achieve some kind of butler-based perfection that he has sacrificed everything else in his life. Now, those sacrifices concern him.

Stevens is not consistently a trustworthy storyteller. His choices about which events to include and exclude show his prejudices and worldview. He wishes to recall incidents that portray Lord Darlington favourably because he is adamant that Darlington is a good man. Stevens' refusal to acknowledge that his boss was duped or stupid further exposes his biases. Stevens cannot admit that the memories he chooses to depict do not inherently do Darlington justice. Stevens, for instance, uses the incident where Darlington insists that he fire two Jewish employees to refute accusations that Lord Darlington was anti-Semitic. The example demonstrates the complete reverse. As a result, Stevens' narrative contradicts itself and reveals his inner conflicts


Miss Kenton was once the housekeeper at Darlington Hall. She left to get married, and she now lives in southwest England. Though she now lives under her married name, Mrs. Benn, Stevens clings to her memory. His devotion to her shows his reluctance to let go of her original name. To him, she will always be Miss Kenton. She is an important figure in Stevens’s life because she is one of the few servants who can match him in terms of dedication, skill, and demeanor. She arrives at Darlington Hall at the same time as Stevens’s father, William. While William is now old and can no longer carry out the job to the same high standards, Miss Kenton immediately settles into the role. She changes Stevens’s life in many ways, though he refuses to acknowledge this. She brings flowers into his private room, a symbolic demonstration of how her presence brings color into his austere life. Stevens rarely discusses his time at Darlington Hall before the arrival of Miss Kenton because, before her arrival, his life is uninteresting. The importance of her character is demonstrated in the degree to which she dominates Stevens’s thoughts. The audience only glimpses Miss Kenton through Stevens’s memories, but how he presents these memories shows her importance in his life.

Miss Kenton is only portrayed from Stevens’s perspective, but her personality and her emotions are conveyed subtly, not always in ways that Stevens understands. Stevens is desperate for the audience and everyone he encounters to be certain that he does not hold a romantic interest in Miss Kenton. Such an attraction would be unbecoming for a man obsessed with dignity. However, he thinks about her all the time. Their affection is clearly mutual, but Miss Kenton becomes increasingly frustrated that Stevens cannot admit that he is in love with her. Her frustration builds over the years, to the point where she aggressively accuses him of pretending there is nothing between them. Stevens does not respond to her. His affection for Miss Kenton is revealed through silent gestures. She is permitted to act in such a way that other staff members would not. For example, she enters his quarters without knocking and stridently asks him about his books. Other staff members would be risking their jobs in doing this, but Stevens treasures this moment of intimacy as one of the most emotional moments of his austere life. Though Miss Kenton may not be permitted to speak directly to the audience, how Stevens portrays her in his memories and his attitude toward her shows that she was a towering figure in his life.

Miss Kenton eventually becomes so frustrated with Stevens that she accepts a marriage proposal and leaves Darlington Hall. She later confesses to him that the decision was a ruse designed to shock Stevens into action. The ruse failed; before she realized it, she lived far away with a husband and child. Miss Kenton says she did not love her husband for a long time but has learned to do so. Her frustrations with the path of her life mirror Stevens’s own period of reflection. However, by the time they meet, she has already resolved to return to her husband and help her pregnant daughter. Miss Kenton bids an emotional farewell to Stevens after their meeting. Her tears suggest that she also views their relationship as a pivotal turning point in their life, something which might have been wonderful but is now relegated to the hypothetical. Miss Kenton provides Stevens with a template for the future. Just as she teaches herself to love her husband, he decides that he will rededicate himself to his employer. Even in their last meeting, she teaches him how to deal with the realities of life.


Lord Darlington is a rich aristocrat, and for most of Stevens’s professional career, he is the owner of Darlington Hall. Darlington embodies the qualities Stevens associates with the traditional English upper classes. To Stevens, Darlington is a noble, intelligent, moral man who strives to do his best for this in his employ. As Stevens recalls, however, not everyone feels this way. While Stevens reveres Darlington, others view him as naïve and easily manipulated. The American politician Lewis accuses Darlington of misjudging the seriousness of the situation in Europe, while Darlington’s beloved godson Cardinal eventually becomes so frustrated with his godfather’s lax attitude toward fascism that they have a fierce argument. With the entire novel portrayed from Stevens’s perspective, the narration praises and defends Darlington. But criticism from characters such as Lewis, Cardinal, and Miss Kenton shows that even Stevens is beginning to have his doubts.

By the time the novel takes place, Darlington has lost a lawsuit, and his life ended in public disgrace, with everyone assuming him to be a Nazi. Stevens’s defense of Darlington becomes not just a defense of the man but a defense of Stevens’s decision to continue working for such a man. If Stevens acknowledges Lord Darlington’s flaws, he must acknowledge the hollowness of his ideas about service and commitment. Stevens defends Darlington because to do otherwise would be to admit that he has wasted his life. The flimsiness of Stevens’s defense and the strength of the other characters’ criticism create a damning portrait of Lord Darlington. For all the sincere good intentions, his sympathy for fascists translates into immoral and fascistic behavior. Even if he later apologizes to Stevens, such as when he asks Stevens to track down the two Jewish girls he asked to be fired, he never fully atones for his actions. Darlington ends his life in quiet disgrace. Not only did he waste his life, turning himself into a puppet of an evil government, but he vicariously wasted Stevens’s life.


After the death of Lord Darlington, the estate is sold to an American businessman named Mr. Farraday. In the context of the novel, Farraday exists to provide a juxtaposition with Lord Darlington. They are presented as two sides of a dichotomy: Darlington is the old world, replete with the formalities and traditions that this encompasses; Farraday is from the new world and does not adhere to the strict rituals and expectations that define the lives of the British upper classes. The dichotomy runs deeper: Darlington is old, Farraday is young; Darlington is dead, Farraday is alive; Darlington hosted grand parties with many staff members while Farraday lives a simpler life with a skeleton crew at Darlington Hall. To Stevens, Farraday is the embodiment of the modern age. His struggles to deal with Farraday’s jokes represent his struggles to adjust to this new era. The more Stevens fixates on Darlington, the more he demonstrates how he fears the future, not least because he cannot provide the high level of service that he demands of himself.


Farraday views Stevens as part of the furniture at Darlington Hall. He is a foreigner who has bought the property because he is trying to purchase a certain idea of Englishness. He wants to be the English lord, with an estate and a butler. When Stevens deviates from what is expected of a butler, therefore, Farraday is displeased. When his guests accuse him of purchasing an inauthentic, mock version of the estate and suggest (due to Steven’s lie) that Stevens did not work for Lord Darlington, Farraday is upset. Farraday’s emotional reaction shows how he views Stevens. To him, Stevens is a relic of the past. He is a commodity, a piece of furniture that decorates the kind of life he wishes to lead. This attitude from Farraday contributes to the idea that Stevens is an anomaly, showing how he is so out of touch with the modern age that he is useful only as an antique representation of a bygone era of Britain.



The Remains of the Day is driven by Stevens’s conception of dignity. Stevens believes a butler’s job is to embody a certain definition of dignity or, at the very least, to strive toward such an ideal. To Stevens, dignity is difficult to define but very palpably felt. Dignity involves complete dedication to one’s profession, rejection of emotional distractions, high professional standards, and respect for discretion and stoicism. Stevens believes a butler should be calm, tactful, respectful, and circumspect, even under a huge amount of pressure. His desire to embody this form of dignity causes him many problems in his life. It prevents him from speaking truthfully to his father, stops him from confessing his love to Miss Kenton, and hinders his understanding that Lord Darlington is being manipulated by the Nazis. The very force that gives Stevens purpose in his life is, by the time the novel takes place, the same force that now compels him to wonder whether he wasted his life. The novel is Stevens’s subtle rumination on whether his long-held conception of dignity is as vapid and worthless as he now fears.

A key element of Stevens’s interpretation of dignity is service. He dedicates his life to serving Lord Darlington because he believes serving a good and moral person is key to being dignified. This definition of dignity reveals one of the fundamental limitations in Stevens’s view of the world: he cannot imagine succeeding on his own. Stevens believes in a form of dignity that is subservient to another person. He cannot be dignified without serving someone, so he must fully invest himself in Lord Darlington as a way to achieve his ambition. When Lord Darlington is publicly disgraced, Stevens’s life suddenly seems very undignified. His new employer is a very different person, and Stevens cannot satisfy Mr. Farraday’s wishes as he did with Darlington. The definition of dignity—which once seemed immutable to Stevens—changes and evolves. As a result, Stevens is forced to reckon with a new reality. The ideas he took to be objectively true and dependable are suddenly very different in this brave new world. A quiet, dignified life now seems like a waste, and Stevens is plunged into an existential crisis.

Stevens’s crisis takes him on a journey to meet Miss Kenton. While on this journey, he is forced to reckon with different definitions of dignity. One of these competing definitions comes from a working-class man named Harry Smith, who claims that dignity comes from anyone who exercises their democratic power by voting to help their country. This definition is starkly different from Stevens’s definition. Smith views dignity as a communal effort in which the power of even the poorest man is comparable to that of the richest man. To Stevens, dignity was a deeply individual pursuit that could only be achieved by dedicating his life to a rich man. Though their accents and clothes may differ, both Smith and Stevens are working-class men. Their different definitions of dignity are examples of the changing nature of the British class system. In a post-World War II society, Smith’s working-class ambitions are more in tune with the contemporary culture, whereas Stevens’s views seem dated, restrictive, and inherently pessimistic by comparison. Stevens declines to argue with Smith, and by the novel's end, he does not change his mind. He does, however, change his perspective and comes to understand that his definition of dignity was not as indomitable as it once was.


Stevens is so dedicated to his principles that he struggles to communicate with others. His relationships with Miss Kenton and his father are defined by unspoken emotions, not because those emotions do not exist but because the characters struggle to put their emotions into words without breaking the rules they have set for themselves. Stevens believes dignity involves a quiet stoicism that demands that he suffer in silence. Thus, he cannot confess his love for Miss Kenton without breaking his rules about professionalism. He cannot doubt his employer Lord Darlington without contravening his beliefs about service. He cannot tell his father that he loves him without breaking the rigid walls of silence they have erected between them throughout their lives. Stevens’s inability to address his feelings leads to his unhappiness. He cannot properly say goodbye to his father and never tells Miss Kenton how he truly feels. He represses his emotions in a desperate bid to maintain his dignity, even though he is increasingly concerned that this behavior is a mistake. Stevens provides plenty of details as the narrator, but he changes the subject whenever his emotions are called into question. Even when talking privately to the reader, he maintains an air of professional decorum that is never broken. The reader discovers that Stevens is crying, for example, when another character offers him a handkerchief, rather than Stevens confessing that he feels sad. Stevens polices the boundaries of his emotions so forcefully that their absence makes them all the more distinct. The irony of Stevens’s communication failures is that by not communicating his emotions at all, he happens to reveal them. Stevens’s communication failure—at least in the context of his narration—becomes a demonstration of emotion as described by negative space, in which the unspoken but keenly felt sentiments are made all the more distinct by their absence.


Stevens learns this behavior from his father. William is remarkably similar to his son in this respect, but as he approaches death, he becomes direct in his emotions. Before he dies, he tells Stevens he is proud and confesses that he has feared his competency as a father. William’s deathbed conversation reveals how deeply ingrained these tendencies have become in father and son. Only death can shake William from his convictions, adding greater poignancy to the emotional outburst. Only when he thinks he has no more life left to live is William able to talk about his existence in a free, unreserved manner. William dies after a lifetime of silence between him and his son, with only a brief burst of emotional honesty at the very end redeeming his lifetime of regrettable communication failure.

Miss Kenton suffers from communications problems of her own. Like Stevens, she is invested in an idea of professionalism that prevents her from embracing her feelings. She loves Stevens, but she fears declaring her love and being rejected. She tries to prompt him to show that he feels the same way, but she lacks the communicative tools to do so. Whether she is bringing flowers to his room, asking about his book, or threatening to quit, she cannot elicit a response from Stevens. Eventually, she tells him that a man has proposed to her. When he still does not react, she tells him that she has accepted the proposal. This ruse fails in that Stevens does not react. Miss Kenton accidentally marries a man due to her failure to communicate directly with Stevens. Fortunately for her, she learns to love her husband. Ultimately, neither she nor Stevens gets what they truly want. They are punished for their failure to communicate, but they manage to find what relief they can in the lives they are forced to lead.


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