Stevens has thought about coming to this seaside town of Weymouth for many years, and he has been strolling along the pier for several hours, with a beautiful view of the sunset over the sea. It’s now two days after his meeting with Miss Kenton, and he will leave tomorrow to arrive back at Darlington Hall.
In keeping with the retrospective, backward-gazing tone of the novel, Stevens’s meeting with Miss Kenton will be related after it already happened, as another memory.
Miss Kenton had surprised Stevens by coming to the hotel. He met her in the tea lounge; she smiled and held out her hand as she saw him. They talked there for the next two hours, Stevens noticing how gracefully she had aged. For the first twenty minutes, they exchanged polite remarks, and Stevens began to notice that Miss Kenton seemed slower, weary, even sad, rather than the lively, volatile woman she used to be. Little by little, the initial awkwardness began to ease as they started to reminisce about old times.
As was so often the case in their past, while Stevens is methodical and plans ahead, Miss Kenton is more impetuous, here interrupting Stevens’s carefully laid out plans. During their meeting Stevens must learn to reconcile the woman of his memories with the person sitting in front of him, two decades later.
Stevens also learned that, while Miss Kenton had indeed left her home for several days, she’d recently returned, and Mr. Benn was pleased to have her back. Of course, none of this is any of his business, Stevens stresses, and he wouldn’t have pried at all, were it not for the professional reasons for wanting Miss Kenton back at Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton gave Stevens the address of her daughter in Dorset, saying she’d heard all about Stevens and would be thrilled to meet him on his way back.
Quite early on in their meeting. Stevens has to recognize that the main reason he thought Miss Kenton might return to Darlington Hall—having left her husband—is no longer the case. Once again he reiterates that his interest in her return is solely professional, an insistence that, by this time, has come to seem entirely disingenuous.
Stevens attempted, in turn, to describe to Miss Kenton how Darlington Hall had changed: she seemed to become visibly more cheerful when turning to old memories of the house. Only once did they touch on Lord Darlington, when Stevens mentioned his sadness at the death of Mr. Cardinal in the war. Miss Kenton brought up the unsuccessful libel suit, which she’d heard about, and, despite himself, Stevens began to tell her that his lordship had been very upset at the terrible things said about him during the war by that newspaper in particular, and thought he’d get justice through the suit. Instead, the newspaper only increased its readership, and Darlington’s good name was destroyed. The house became so quiet after that: it was tragic to see, Stevens said.
Like Stevens, Miss Kenton seems happier when she can dwell on events of the past rather than the present. The mention of Lord Darlington allows Stevens give more details about the unfortunate decline of his employer after the war. It is obvious, then, why Stevens prefers to recollect a time far in the past, when Lord Darlington was a sought-after aristocrat whose home was the center of important political affairs, rather than the recluse who had lost his reputation at the end of his life.
Otherwise, though, the two talked of happy memories, and Stevens was surprised that two hours had passed when Miss Kenton said she must return home. As Stevens drove her to the bus stop, she asked why he was smiling; he said he’d been concerned by certain parts of her letter, particularly the bit about the emptiness she felt, but saw now he had no reason to be. Miss Kenton said she didn’t feel empty at all, and asked what the future held for him. He said there’d be no emptiness for him, just work and more work.
The meeting between Stevens and Miss Kenton hasn’t gone quite like he hoped, but it seems that Stevens has still enjoyed their time together and has been able to be happy for Miss Kenton, even though her happiness means that he will be returning alone to Darlington Hall. Work has always been at the center of Stevens’s life, and seems it will continue to be.
As they waited for the bus, Stevens asked permission to ask Miss Kenton a personal question: given the letters he’s had from her, he’d like to know if she was unhappy, or being ill-treated in any way. Miss Kenton assured him that her husband treated her quite well. But Stevens tentatively said that the fact she’d left her husband several times made him wonder.
Stevens finds it difficult to reconcile the nostalgic, even desperate tone of some of Miss Kenton’s letters, with the cheerful, content-seeming woman that he’s been talking to. His insistence on asking such a personal question is quite out of character.
Miss Kenton said she felt she could respond honestly, as she and Stevens may not meet again for many years. When she left Darlington Hall, she didn’t believe she was really leaving—she thought about it as another ruse to annoy him. She was very unhappy at first, but they had Catherine, the war ended, and eventually she realized she loved her husband. Of course, at times she thought she’d made a terrible mistake with her life, she said. She wonders what kind of a life, for instance, she may have led with Stevens. That’s when she gets angry over something trivial and leaves; but each time, she recognizes that there’s no turning back the clock: her place is with her husband.
Miss Kenton admits explicitly for the first time that her various arguments, ploys, and even her courtship were all attempts to get attention from Stevens, to provoke him either to communicate his true feelings, or if he couldn’t manage to do that, at least to respond to her in some way. While Stevens has tried to claim that regret is useless, Miss Kenton is more honest about having lived with many regrets about how things could have gone otherwise.
Stevens admits that at that moment, his heart was breaking. After a silent moment, though, he turned to Miss Kenton with a smile and said he agreed that it’s too late to turn back the clock. She could expect many more happy years with Mr. Benn in the future, he added. She thanked him, and said it was very nice to see him again; he agreed.
Stevens watches the pier lights being switched on, and thinks back to a curious discussion he had this afternoon with a man on the dock. The man had begun chatting with Stevens, who didn’t listen too closely until the man mentioned that until his retirement, he was the butler of a nearby house. He was impressed to hear that Stevens worked at Darlington Hall, and given his enthusiasm, Stevens shared some of his tricks of the trade. After telling the man the new employer was an American, the man said that Stevens must have stayed on as part of the package; laughing, Stevens agreed. After a silence, Stevens said that he gave his very best to Lord Darlington, and finds that he doesn’t have much left to give. He’s beginning to make more and more trivial errors.
The last anecdote that Stevens relates is also, fittingly, a recollection from the past, although this is only the past of a few hours ago. Although Stevens has met with a number of kind, generous people throughout his trip, it is with this stranger that Stevens is more honest and frank than he’s been with anyone else. Throughout the book Stevens has expressed a commitment to looking forward and continuing to work on his profession, but now he describes uncertainty and doubt regarding his future.
The man asked if Stevens wanted a hankie, and gave him one; Stevens apologized, saying the traveling must have tired him. He said that Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man; he chose a path, and though it proved misguided, at least he chose it. Stevens cannot say the same for himself, since he simply trusted in his lordship. He can’t even say he made his own mistakes; he asked what dignity there is in that.
Stevens doesn’t say explicitly that he is crying, though the man’s response makes that obvious. Stevens now gives up on insisting that it’s silly to have regrets: instead he admits frankly that his involve living entirely in the service of another, such that even his regrets are not his own.
The man responded that his attitude is all wrong: one must keep looking forward and enjoy it, especially for both of them, now that their day’s work is done. Stevens agreed with him, and then the man departed. Stevens thinks there might be something to the idea of ceasing to look back so much. Surely there is little choice, for people like himself, other than to leave fate in the hands of great gentlemen.
After the man’s departure, it seems like Stevens’s viewpoint may have shifted, that he may have understood something vital about agency and the course of his own life. But his conclusion is almost indistinguishable from the other pronouncements he’s made over the course of the novel.
Stevens gazes at the families on the pier, and a group of six or seven people behind him. At first he thought they were friends, but now it seems they are strangers who paused to watch the lights come out and are now bantering together. Perhaps his bench companion simply expected the same from him, in which case he proved disappointing. He should, he thinks, look at bantering more positively, particularly if it leads to human warmth. He resolves to approach the task with renewed commitment, practicing for the next week, before Mr. Farraday returns.
Stevens’s journey through the English countryside might be thought of as a kind of quest, leading him potentially to an epiphany or change of heart regarding his central beliefs. But the book ends not far from where it begins, with Stevens looking forward to what remains of his life and his work, obsessed as he’s always been with service, professionalism, and dignity.