Stevens is lodging in a guest house in Salisbury after his first day of travel, having left Darlington Hall along with Mrs. Clements and the two maids—leaving it empty for the first time this century. At first, he did not feel excitement, perhaps because he was familiar with the area, despite having traveled so little. But then the surroundings became unfamiliar: he was entering new territory, and initially felt a sense of alarm, like he was entering a wilderness.
Stevens underlines once again how strange and different it is to be leaving Darlington Hall, something he’s never done for any great length of time. Stevens feels that his very identity is so associated with his place of employment that leaving it causes not just excitement but alarm, as he ventures into the unknown.
Stevens stopped to stretch his legs and he walked up a hill where he saw an old, white-haired man smoking his pipe, sitting on a large stone on the footpath. The man asked if Stevens had fit enough legs to continue up the hill, because there’s no better view of the English landscape. The man said Stevens would be sorry if he doesn’t take that walk, since in a few more years it might be too late.
Throughout Stevens’s journey, as well as in his recollections, he will encounter different figures who will suggest to him the importance of acting before it’s too late, of preempting any possible regrets—though this make take the form of an oblique hint, or humor, as is the case here.
Later, it would occur to Stevens that the man might have meant this as a bantering remark, but he felt that he couldn’t offend him, so he continued on. He was happy he did, as he was presented with a magnificent view of rolling fields with hedges, trees, and a church tower in the distance. For the first time he felt anticipation, and a renewed sense of resolve in facing his professional task with Miss Kenton.
No longer does Stevens define banter as a cultural characteristic; he recognizes that this is something that can often define interpersonal relationships, even if he struggles to find his place within those requirements. The English landscape he sees allows him to replace alarm with comfort and anticipation.
Now Stevens finds himself in a modest but clean establishment: the beds have been well made and the basin is clean. In the afternoon he ventures into Salisbury, strolling throughout the charming city and visiting the cathedral, which Mrs. Symons had highly recommended. Still, he finds what remains with him now is not the city sights but the magnificent view of the English countryside. While he admits that other countries may have spectacular scenery, he claims that English landscapes possess something special: he felt, that morning, in the presence of greatness.
Stevens can’t help himself from judging the establishment where he is lodging according to his own standards as the head of a household himself. Stevens’s insistence that the English countryside is more special than other countries’ landscapes is related to his particular pride in England and his embrace of “Englishness,” which for him is closely connected to human greatness, as well.
Stevens asks what this “greatness” might mean, and suggests (though acknowledging that wiser men might be able to define it better) that it has to do with the lack of spectacle, with a sense of restraint, rather than an obvious demonstrativeness.
This question reminds Stevens of a constant debate in his profession, on what makes a great butler—a topic often discussed around the fire at the servants’ hall. There was no question who the generation’s greatest butlers were, but how to define what made a great butler was still a difficult question.
The greatness of the English countryside is, as this passage shows, closely connected in Stevens’s mind to the greatness of aristocratic gentlemen and the butlers who serve them.
Stevens often had to host employees of various degrees of perception, and he recalls anecdotes about Mr. Jack Neighbours (who was very popular among servants for a time) being swapped frequently at the servants’ hall. Stevens notes that Neighbours may have had solid organizational chops, but he was far from a great butler; he was merely on everyone’s lips for awhile, before one trend yielded to another. Still, other servants, like Mr. Graham, never stooped to such gossip.
In reflecting on butlers he knew in the past, Stevens seems to be striving to be as objective as possible. Despite this, it’s impossible not to see, here, a bit of posturing—perhaps even a slight sense of envy toward someone who was as celebrated as Mr. Neighbours. Stevens’s judgment, however, also stems from his own particular definition of greatness.
Returning to the question of what makes a great butler, Stevens is reminded of the Hayes Society as an example of a group that had attempted a definition. The society was influential in the 20s and 30s for only admitting butlers “of the very first rank.” It had between ten and thirty members at any time, and was rather secretive, but it did once publish prerequisites for membership in the Quarterly for the Gentleman’s Gentleman, writing that a butler must be a member of a “distinguished” household, not including those of businessmen or the newly rich. This provoked some controversy, and finally the Society clarified that the applicant had to “be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position” (Stevens attempts to quote from memory). Though he has his differences with the Society, Stevens finds this to be true.
The Hayes Society serves as a kind of benchmark for Stevens, giving him one possible definition of greatness in reference to which, or even against which, he can define his own. The Hayes Society, in this description, is open about its elitism and adherence to an older sense of class, one that has to do less with income or wealth than with birth and nobility. It’s clear that, despite “attempting” to quote the Society’s definition from memory, Stevens has in fact entirely internalized that definition of greatness and its association with dignity.
Nonetheless, the question then arises of what dignity entails. Mr. Graham always viewed dignity as something like a woman’s beauty—impossible to analyze—while Stevens objected that one could strive to have dignity; it was not a fluke of nature like beauty. He and Mr. Graham never came to any agreement, but their discussions allowed Stevens to better understand his own views.
The disagreement between Stevens and Mr. Graham helps to establish the parameters for a debate that Stevens will take up again and again throughout the novel. Even though he claims to have settled on a particular definition of dignity, this definition nonetheless undergoes a number of shifts.
Stevens proposes that his own father was the embodiment of “dignity.” Though he lacked some aspects of being a great butler, like a good accent and general knowledge, Stevens considers these issues to be superficial. Besides, those requirements of eloquence and the like only came to be valued for a later generation, when employers sometimes even had butlers study encyclopedias and then show off their trivial knowledge to visitors.
Stevens insists that his understanding of dignity and greatness is more than superficial qualities masquerading for deeper ones—a difference in emphasis that Stevens links to a generational shift, with later households coming to value the superficial and performative more and more.
Stevens thinks of one anecdote in particular, which his father often repeated over the years: since he didn’t often relate anecdotes, Stevens sees this as a kind of critical reflection by his father on his profession. The story was one of a butler who had traveled with his employer to India. One day he came to inspect the dining room and saw a tiger under the table. He calmly went on to the drawing room, whispered in his employer’s ear, asking him if he might use the twelve-bore, and a few moments later three gun shots were heard from the other room. When the butler reappeared, he informed his employer that no “discernible traces of the recent occurrence” would be left by dinner. Stevens’s father always laughed at that part of the story especially. He always insisted that it was the utmost truth.
While Stevens introduces this anecdote as one of his father’s favorites, the story is also helpful in clarifying Stevens’s own conception of his profession and of the qualities required of him as a butler. The story’s setting, in colonial India, serves as a reminder that what Stevens is nostalgic for—the decades during which he was at the top of his career—were also the final decades of Britain’s status as a true global empire, one in which qualities of British greatness, including the discretion and professionalism of its butlers, were equally present all over the empire.
Stevens now sees that his father must have striven for years to become that butler, and he believes that his father succeeded. Once, for instance, a certain Mr. David Charles visited Darlington Hall and told Stevens he’d met his father years earlier at Mr. John Silvers’s home, where Stevens’s father worked. Mr. Charles had drunk too much in the company of two other guests, and after about an hour these men decided to go for an afternoon drive and enlisted Stevens senior as driver. They began to yell and sing, acting like schoolboys and ordering Stevens senior around, then proceeding to tease and insult him. While Stevens senior remained calm, the men subsequently began gossiping about their host, Mr. Silvers. After one particularly offensive remark, Stevens senior brought the car to a halt, opened the rear door, and stood there in silence. Severe and silent, he unnerved the two men, who immediately felt overcome by guilt. At last one of them muttered an apology. Stevens’s father closed the door and got back into the car, where the drive was completed in near silence.
Like the anecdote with the tiger in India, this story—which involves Stevens’s father personally—is meant to underline the values of dignity and greatness that Stevens saw in his father, and which he has tried to embody himself. The emphasis in this anecdote, however, is slightly different, hinging on the necessity of loyalty to one’s employer. In this case, Stevens senior’s acknowledgment of the importance of treating gentlemen in general with dignity and respect clashes with such loyalty; he responds with classic cool and discretion, qualities that, according to Mr. Charles’s telling, are powerful enough to chasten the men involved. Stevens sees this as a true triumph of the best values of his profession.
Stevens also remembers another anecdote that makes clear his father’s dignity. Stevens’s brother was killed in the Southern African War, not gloriously but in an “un-British” attack on civilian Boer settlements, under the direction of a certain general who barely escaped being court-martialed. Ten years later, “the General,” as Stevens calls him, was to visit Mr. Silvers’s household in his new profession as businessman. The General proved an unpleasant man with unrefined manners, and since his own valet had taken ill, Stevens senior had to swallow his loathing and perform his duties, but he did so well that the General actually complimented Silvers on his service.
In this final anecdote, Stevens also refers to another setting of the British empire, South Africa. While acknowledging some of the atrocities that the British enacted there, he resolves the contradiction between those atrocities and his belief in British greatness by simply identifying the acts as “un-British. The story underlines the value of professionalism above all else, even or especially personal feeling, that Stevens learned from his father. The story also shows Stevens’s ability to deceive himself when it’s convenient.
Stevens concludes that in these anecdotes the difference between a competent butler like Mr. Neighbours and one of dignity like his father becomes clear: it’s the butler’s ability to maintain professionalism at all times, rather than abandon his professional being at any provocation. Stevens compares the role of lesser butlers as being like a pantomime: at the slightest push, the façade will drop off, whereas great butlers wear their professionalism like a suit. Stevens tends to believe that true butlers only exist in England, as other races are incapable of such emotional restraint. Mr. Graham might counter that a great butler could thus only be identified through a severe test, but Stevens would respond that after a long time in the profession, one can judge the depth of a butler’s greatness. He thinks it’s important not to be defeatist and give up on any attempt to analyze or define dignity or greatness: only by thinking deeply about it can one strive towards dignity oneself.
In returning to his initial depiction of Mr. Jack Neighbours, Stevens argues that profound dignity, as opposed to superficial manners, is the marker of a butler’s success (though this definition is somewhat ironic, given that Stevens himself seems to perfectly embody such manners). The simile of a pantomime and a suit reflects the ambivalent status of performance in Stevens’s conception of a butler’s greatness. Perhaps a great butler is one who manages to perform his role best; but it’s also implied that a butler actually inhabits his role like a comfortable piece of clothing, which would erase any connotations of inauthenticity from the performance.