Stevens wishes to return to the question of anti-Semitism, which has become so sensitive today, especially regarding Lord Darlington’s purported ban of Jewish staff—something that Stevens can refute entirely. There were many Jewish people on staff during his years there, and he can’t imagine how such a rumor started—unless, “ludicrously,” he thinks, from the brief weeks in the ‘30s when Mrs. Carolyn Barnet held some influence over Darlington.
As with other affairs that Stevens has skated over, he now makes a concerted effort to be more honest, to face the past and justify to his imagined reader (whom he sometimes addresses as “you”) why Lord Darlington’s later reputation is unwarranted. Already, though, his goals of honesty and justification seem at odds.
Mrs. Barnet had a reputation for formidable intelligence; in the summer of 1932 she and Lord Darlington often spent hours in political conversation, and she would lead him through guided tours of the poorest areas of London’s East End. But she was also a member of the “blackshirts” organization: it was during this summer that Sir Oswald Mosey was also invited to Darlington Hall.
Although Stevens has dismissed Darlington’s association with the blackshirts by arguing that many people were friendly toward this fascist organization at first, here he uses a different argument about Mrs. Barnet’s undue influence over Darlington.
It was then that, Stevens recalls, he once overheard Lord Darlington refer to a certain newspaper as a “Jewish propaganda sheet,” and instruct Stevens to stop giving donations to a charity that came to the door, since the management was all Jewish. Stevens recalls being surprised at these requests, given that he’d never heard anything like it from Lord Darlington. Then, one day he was called into the study to hear Lord Darlington say that they cannot have Jewish staff in the household: he’s looked into it, and it’s for the best. Stevens would have to let the two housemaids go, Lord Darlington instructed.
In recounting what he remembers of this time, Stevens reports what comes across clearly as damning evidence of Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitism, even as Stevens strives to defend Darlington by portraying these remarks as an aberration. He finally admits that Darlington did seek to bar Jewish staff, an accusation to which he’s objected, all the while trying to contextualize it so as to pardon Darlington.
Stevens knew he’d have to talk to Miss Kenton about the dismissal, and he resolved to do so during their evening meeting in the parlor for cocoa—a meeting that was always professional, though at times they would discuss informal topics. Their work kept them so busy that this was the best remedy against jeopardizing the smooth running of the household, Stevens notes. He did not look forward to sharing this information with Miss Kenton; the housemaids were perfectly satisfactory, and he loathed the idea of dismissing them. But he knew it was his duty to do so.
Although Stevens has described his initial relationship with Miss Kenton as unpleasant, from their evening parlor meetings it seems like they have grown fonder of each other (even if Stevens prefers to explain their meetings in professional terms). For Stevens, there is no question of following his personal ideas rather than his duty to his employer, and the basis of his objection to firing the maids is also unclear—is it because the firing is racially motivated, or because the maids keep the house running smoothly?
Stevens resolved to announce the matter concisely, and he informed Miss Kenton at the end of their meeting. Since she remained silent, he said he would go to bed. But then she said she couldn’t believe what he was saying: Ruth and Sarah had worked for them for six years, and she trusted them absolutely. She was outraged at Stevens’s calm: to dismiss them would be wrong, she said. Stevens responded that she needed to conduct herself like a woman of her position should and obey his lordship entirely.
Unlike Stevens, who immediately resolves to follow his employer’s command, Miss Kenton is far more distraught and uncertain at learning that she’ll be expected to dismiss Ruth and Sarah simply because they’re Jewish. She and Stevens use different kinds of language here; Miss Kenton relies on moral questions of right and wrong while Stevens refers to loyalty and duty. At this point, the question of Stevens’s cooperation with anti-Semitism is unavoidable.
Miss Kenton, though, said that if the girls were dismissed then she’d leave too because it would be a sin to dismiss them. Stevens responded that it was not their place to make such judgments: the world is a complicated place, he said, and he and she could not understand it like Lord Darlington could. The next morning, he met with Ruth and Sarah briefly before they left; they sobbed throughout the meeting.
Stevens not only objects to Miss Kenton’s arguments as out of place given her position and duties, but he also refrains from confessing that he too is troubled by the orders. Stevens seems entirely convinced that Lord Darlington does know best.
Miss Kenton remained cold toward Stevens for several weeks. Stevens eventually grew impatient, finally telling her, with a slight laugh, that he’d been expecting her resignation. Miss Kenton wasn’t amused: she looked at him and said she’d been busy, but would do so shortly. He was worried, but as time went by, he doubted that she would follow through, and he came to tease her about it now and then.
The unpleasant dismissals over with, Stevens prefers to move on to other responsibilities, while Miss Kenton continues to linger over the events, and to begrudge Stevens for what she believes is his utter indifference to the plight of Ruth and Sarah.
About a year later, Stevens was serving tea one afternoon, long after Mrs. Barnet ceased to visit the house and Darlington cut ties with the “blackshirts,” when Lord Darlington asked Stevens whatever happened to the Jewish maids. He asked Stevens to try to track them down, saying it was wrong what occurred. Immediately, Stevens went to see Miss Kenton, who was outside in the summerhouse: it was pleasant outside and he started to help her work, enjoying the view around the lawn.
It does seem that Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitism began to give way once it became clear what fascism really meant and once prejudices against Jews yielded to more active discrimination. For Stevens, Lord Darlington’s change of heart is perfectly in keeping with his identity as a gentleman.
Stevens began by saying, while laughing, that he’d been thinking of Miss Kenton’s earlier insistence that she would resign. But Miss Kenton, after a silence, told him she had been very close to doing so, but had no family other than an aunt, and she realized she had nowhere to go. She was too frightened: she was ashamed, but she couldn’t leave. She paused, so Stevens decided to tell her what Lord Darlington had said, concluding that it was a comfort to hear how distressed the man was.
Stevens seems taken aback by Miss Kenton’s quiet admission of vulnerability: she clearly remains disappointed in herself for not following her moral compass, and yet recognizes that she has few other people she can rely on. Stevens can only find a way to respond by giving her the message he’s been eager to transmit already. His initial laughter casts doubt on how seriously he takes the anti-Semitism at the root of the firings, though his expression of comfort at Darlington’s distress indicates the opposite.
In a different voice, Miss Kenton expressed shock, recalling that Stevens had seemed pleased and cheerful about the girls’ dismissal. He told her that was quite wrong, but he could not think how to explain why he didn’t tell her so. She cried that she had been so upset and that it would have been a comfort to know his feelings, and she asked him why he always had to pretend. Laughing at the ridiculousness of it, Stevens objected, saying, as he prepared to leave, that of course he disapproved of the dismissals. He glanced back as he left, but could only see the profile of Miss Kenton in the darkness staring out at the view.
At this moment, Stevens does seem aware that, at the time of the maids’ dismissal, he had not even thought to confide uncertainty to Miss Kenton, something that would have comforted her at the time. Now, though realizing what had happened, he cannot figure out a way to apologize or express himself more honesty than before, as the tragedy of their miscommunication continues.
Stevens is now reminded of what happened next—the hiring of Lisa as a replacement. Lisa had dubious references, having never stayed anywhere for more than a few weeks, but Miss Kenton insisted that she saw potential in her, and would take her under her own supervision. Finally Stevens agreed, saying it would be Miss Kenton’s responsibility. To his surprise, Lisa did seem to improve rapidly, from her attitude to her commitment to her daily tasks.
From Stevens’s description, it seems that Miss Kenton has sought to recover from the pain of the dismissal, and the subsequent pain of Stevens’s inability to connect emotionally with her, by throwing herself into a new task—setting a challenge for herself and striving to meet it.
Miss Kenton took a certain triumph in Lisa’s success, and she teased Stevens about it during their parlor evenings. She suggested that Stevens may have been pessimistic about Lisa because he had an aversion to keeping pretty girls on staff. Stevens protested, but Miss Kenton remarked on his guilty smile—a smile he said was merely one of amusement.
Miss Kenton’s mood has improved as a result of her success with Lisa, a success that also helps her reestablish the parameters of her relationship with Stevens, one that once again involves her teasing and his awkwardness.
After eight months, Lisa disappeared with the second footman—something that, Stevens acknowledges, is bound to happen in any large household. Though irritating, this was a relatively more civilized case, since they had stolen nothing and had left letters saying they were going to be married. Lisa’s letter, full of misspellings, said that they had no money but only needed love; it contained no word of gratitude to Miss Kenton, who was deeply upset. After reading the letter, she said that Stevens was right after all. He told her that she worked wonders with the girl; she should feel no responsibility. Still dejected, Miss Kenton sighed and said that the girl might have had a real career—she threw away her ability, and for what? Seeming far away, Miss Kenton repeated that Lisa was foolish and was bound to be let down.
Stevens had lingered at an earlier point over how irresponsible and damaging such marriages can be; the fact that he takes a softer tone now reflects, perhaps, his unwillingness to blame Miss Kenton for what happened. Rather than gloat or take pride in the fact that he was right about Lisa, he comforts Miss Kenton and reassures her that she did her best—an attempt that seems to suggest a certain development in Stevens’s relationship to Miss Kenton. Of course, part of her failure is in her inability to mold Lisa into someone like herself, who remains unmarried, as she seems to recognize.
Stevens returns to the present, where he finds himself in a small cottage belonging to a couple, the Taylors, where he is lodging. He is in a private residence because of an infuriating mistake: he let the Ford run out of gas. He admits that he is a novice in long-distance driving, but he is distressed all the same, given the professional importance of organization and foresight. He’d arrived late to the town of Tavistock, and since all the rooms were occupied as a result of a local fair, he was directed by one landlady to an inn out in the country. But he began to get lost; the car came to a stop and he realized he was out of petrol.
After Stevens’s first mishap with the car, this second one is, he recognizes, potentially a sign of his absent-mindedness—something that he could never afford as the manager of a large household like that of Lord Darlington. Now, of course, he is out of his element, but Stevens also seems to acknowledge, if only implicitly, that he is growing old and more prone to such mistakes.
Stevens climbed to a hill and saw a village in the distance. Discouraged, he began to walk toward it; at first there was a path, but soon he was walking through muddy fields and he had to squeeze through fences. Finally, on a new path, he met Mr. Taylor, who asked how he could help. He told Stevens that the village inn was closed, but he’d be happy to offer Stevens a room for the night. It was thus a taxing evening, Stevens reflects; but what unfolded next with the Taylors’ neighbors was even more trying.
Stevens’s adventure is, he recognizes, hardly suited to what he often refers to as the dignity of his position. But Mr. Taylor proves to be another of the strangers whom Stevens meets along the way who is kind and generous toward him. All these figures seem to recognize Stevens as a character from an earlier time and place.
Stevens thus finds it a relief to be in his room alone now, indulging in recollections. He has been wondering how and when his relationship with Miss Kenton underwent such a change; by the end they even abandoned their evening cocoa routine. He’s never been able to decide why, but he reflects now that it may have had to do with the evening Miss Kenton entered his pantry uninvited: he found it crucial that people not be wandering in and out of the butler’s pantry, interrupting his order and privacy.
Stevens has been moving from one anecdote to the next in his recollections: he skipped over, for instance, how his relationship with Miss Kenton deepened and changed from skepticism to respect and fondness. Now, though, his thoughts turn to a subsequent shift in their relationship, one that caused another distance to spring up.
That evening, Stevens was enjoying a rare hour off duty, reading, when Miss Kenton entered with a vase of flowers. He was reticent as she tried to chat, so she asked him what he was reading, and he refused to answer. She continued to ask and she approached him, as he backed away, insisting that he objected to her interruption as a matter of principle. She asked if it was a respectable volume, or something shocking. As they stood there, the atmosphere suddenly changed, becoming still: with a certain seriousness, Miss Kenton asked for the book, and took it from Stevens’s hand. Finally, she exclaimed that it was just a sentimental love story. Stevens relates now that it was a tendency of his to develop his command of the English language by reading; this volume was chosen simply because it happened to be well-written, and more useful than a more scholarly tome.
To Stevens’s credit, he relates this anecdote as honestly as he can, although he can’t help himself from adding a gloss to it, justifying his reading material in terms of his profession rather than anything personal. But that justification only underlines how embarrassed Stevens evidently is at being caught by Miss Kenton reading a “sentimental love story.” His embarrassment implies, too, that he is developing feelings for Miss Kenton, even though he is so desperate to avoid acknowledging to her that this is the case. The silence seems to suggest their mutual recognition of his feelings, and also Stevens’s inability to make anything of it.
Now, Stevens doesn’t feel he should be ashamed of confessing that at times he did enjoy such stories. But he insists that his reaction at the time was entirely warranted, since it was the principle of Miss Kenton interrupting his privacy that was at issue. A butler must never be “off duty” in the presence of others; he must fully inhabit his role, rather than donning and shedding it like a pantomime costume. Only when entirely alone can he unburden himself from his role.
Stevens sees his present-day confession that he enjoyed these stories as a powerfully frank admission, but it’s clear that even an admission this trivial was far beyond his capacity at the time of the events he’s retelling. Stevens’s characterization of a butler’s role as a performance so thoroughly inhabited that it almost stops being a performance is definitive for his own identity.
This event is really only noteworthy, Stevens thinks, in that it allowed him to realize how inappropriate Miss Kenton’s behavior to him had become. He’d need to reestablish a sense of professionalism.
While this event could have gone another way, tugging Stevens toward greater honesty, he draws another conclusion entirely.
Something else, though, that may have contributed to the change was a shift in Miss Kenton’s days off. She was accustomed to taking two days off every six weeks to visit her aunt in Southampton. After the pantry incident, though, she began to take advantage of the time off in her contract, sometimes leaving in the morning and not returning home until late. Stevens became a little worried, especially after Mr. Graham mentioned that he’d been wondering how long it would be before Miss Kenton found a husband. Stevens knew this would be a professional loss for Darlington Hall.
While Stevens understands the event in the pantry as a turning point that prompts him to reestablish a sense of greater “professionalism” with Miss Kenton, she seems to have concluded that it’s hopeless to expect greater intimacy with Stevens, so she must give up on him herself. It’s clearer now than ever that Stevens is not being entirely honest when he characterizes his concern about Miss Kenton getting married as purely professional.
Stevens started to notice that Miss Kenton was now receiving regular letters from the same address. Her moods began to shift too, swinging from cheerful to sullen. Finally, he ventured to ask one day if she’d be going off again on her day off that week. She seemed almost relieved to respond that she’d been going to visit an acquaintance, a former butler who was now employed by a nearby business. She added that he had had great ambitions as a butler, but that Stevens would have been appalled by some of his methods.
Although Miss Kenton has stopped trying to become more intimate with Stevens, it appears that she also would like him to ask about where she’s been going—as if his curiosity might reflect his continued investment in her, despite how he may act. She presents her description of her suitor as a way to flatter Stevens.
Miss Kenton added that Stevens certainly must be content; he had reached the top of his profession, and she couldn’t imagine what more he’d want in life. He couldn’t think of a response to this, and finally he said that his vocation would never be fulfilled until he could see Lord Darlington through all the tasks Darlington set for him. Miss Kenton’s mood seemed to change, and the tone of the conversation returned to the professional.
Miss Kenton gives Stevens an opportunity, here, to reflect on what he might want in life outside of his professional commitments—a family, for instance—but, unsurprisingly, Stevens doesn’t take the bait; he seems either to misinterpret the question entirely, or to be incapable of sharing his honest feelings with Miss Kenton.
Not long afterward, the evening parlor meetings did come to an end. Stevens recalls the very night: he’d been discussing a forthcoming event with Miss Kenton, and she’d been nearly silent. Finally, he said he saw little point in continuing if she had nothing to say. To his surprise, she exclaimed that she’d had a very busy week, and he didn’t appreciate how tired she was. After a moment, he calmly said that if she felt that way, there was no need for them to continue their evening meetings. She said this was only the case that evening, but he said the meetings were clearly inconvenient for her, and, ignoring her protests, suggested they begin to simply communicate during the working day.
Although Stevens had initially characterized his memory of the end to his parlor meetings with Miss Kenton as fuzzy, now he identifies precisely how the meetings ended—another example of the way in which he performs frankness and honesty, but never absolutely. Miss Kenton’s moods contrast, as usual, with Stevens’s constant calm, even-tempered demeanor, but this time his stubbornness in insisting that they stop meeting suggests that he may have been more hurt than he admits.
Stevens admits now that he’d wondered if things might have turned out differently if he hadn’t made such a decision; he recognizes that he may not have realized the full implications of what he was doing at the time. But he also notes that with the benefit of hindsight, one is apt to see turning points everywhere. That evening in the pantry might be thought of as one, as well as his encounter with Miss Kenton the afternoon she learned of her aunt’s death. Stevens had handed her the letter; she remained still after reading it, then asked if she might have the following day off for the funeral. He said of course, but upon leaving he realized that he hadn’t offered his condolences. He paused in the hall, but realized that Miss Kenton may actually be crying at that moment. He felt a strange feeling, but after a moment he judged it best to leave.
For the first time, Stevens, rather than justifying or explaining his past actions (along with those of others) as if they could have happened no other way, wonders if things could in fact have been otherwise, although he refrains from saying exactly what that alternate set of circumstances might have looked like. Nonetheless, Stevens’s thoughts on turning points are reflected in the larger structure of the novel, which has Stevens return to moments that only retrospectively add up to a certain narrative.
That afternoon Stevens, having spent a few hours wondering how he might lighten her burden, found Miss Kenton in the dining room. He asked how she was doing, and if she was experiencing any problems with the new recruits. Laughing slightly, he said that some professional discussion might be useful. She said she would be fine, and he began to leave, then turned and added something else about the new girls. Since she remained quiet, Stevens added that a few things had fallen in standard recently, and that Miss Kenton might be remiss in a few aspects. She looked confused and turned to him; he listed a few tasks that hadn’t been ideally fulfilled, and said it wasn’t like her to overlook such things. Looking more tired than upset, Miss Kenton asked him to excuse her, and left.
In this recollection, Stevens once again wants to communicate with Miss Kenton, to help her in some way, and yet he cannot determine how he might do so—especially given the boundaries he’s set for himself regarding the professional and the personal. Instead, Stevens chooses what seems to be the worst thing to say to Miss Kenton at a moment of grief and vulnerability. Of course, the very inappropriateness of Stevens’s words only underlines how much he struggles to communicate with her.
Stevens reminds himself that it’s useless to speculate on what might have been. At the time nothing ever seemed like a turning point; he felt, rather, that he had available a never-ending number of days and years in which to mend any misunderstanding. He chides himself on his introspection, thinking it’s most likely the result of his trying evening, as well as the fact that he’ll arrive and see Miss Kenton tomorrow.
Stevens acknowledges that even the ability to speculate on what might have been relies on the benefit of hindsight, on knowing how things did in fact turn out. For a person so immersed in introspection, Stevens is also aware of the potential dangers of living in the past.
Stevens returns to the events of earlier this evening, after Mrs. Taylor served him a simple supper. Stevens was looking forward to retiring, but then a farmer knocked on the door, announcing himself as George Andrews. He saluted Stevens and expressed his condolences for the mishap, leading Stevens to wonder how he knew of it. Andrews said that they were all very pleased a man like Stevens had come by, implying that the whole village knew of it. Soon another man arrived, introducing himself as Trevor Morgan and saying it was a pleasure to have a gentleman like Stevens in Moscombe. Then a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Smith, came as well.
Although Stevens is not a gentleman himself—he takes care to distinguish people of his position from the aristocrats they serve—he seems that way to others, especially in the present time of the novel, when butlers like Stevens are considered to be relics of an earlier time. He’s so intriguing to the people of Moscombe that villagers begin to file in merely to see him.
Mrs. Taylor and Mrs. Smith told Stevens that Dr. Carlisle should be arriving after seeing his patients, and would love to make Stevens’s acquaintance. Meanwhile, the others were talking about a certain Mr. Lindsay, who may have had a fine house but was no gentleman. Mr. Taylor said that, indeed, the cut of one’s clothes had nothing to do with being a gentleman; the rest of the group agreed.
The discussion on Mr. Lindsay provides the opportunity for the group to inquire about Stevens’s own understanding of what a gentleman is—something they believe he can speak with authority on, given that he seems so gentlemanlike to them.
Mr. Morgan turned to Stevens and asked if he might be able to say what a gentleman was. After a silence, Stevens ventured that the quality they sought might be “dignity.” Mr. Andrews and Mrs. Taylor agreed, but Mr. Smith proposed that dignity isn’t just something for gentlemen; it’s something every person in the country can strive for. While Stevens saw that he and Smith wouldn’t exactly see eye to eye on this, he judged it best to concur, dispelling some tension in the room.
Stevens takes advantage of the fact that he’s been pondering precisely this question for a long time, perhaps especially over the past few days. But while his notion of dignity is closely connected to social class and great political affairs, Mr. Smith proposes a definition that has more to do with democratic participation.
Encouraged, Smith continued that if Hitler had won, they’d all be slaves: in the war they won the right to be free citizens, express their opinion freely, and vote—the true definition of dignity. Mr. Taylor laughed and said Harry was warming up to one of his political speeches, but Smith just smiled and continued. Mrs. Smith added that this little village may seem out of the way, but that they gave more than their share during the war. Mr. Taylor told Stevens that Smith was a strong organizer. Mr. Andrews asked if Stevens was involved in politics before the war: he’d heard of a Stevens who was in parliament.
The war has strongly affected this village, as it has affected Stevens’s own life and employment. Indeed, even though the book never goes into details about the war, the war provides perhaps the central turning point, dividing Stevens’s life (as well as many others) into a “before” and an “after.” Mr. Smith seems to have learned a particular set of lessons from the war, while Stevens refuses to even remember it.
Stevens still isn’t sure what made him say such a thing, but he found himself telling the group that he was involved more in foreign policy than domestic affairs. Struck by their sense of awe, he added that his influence was only ever unofficial. Eventually Mrs. Taylor asked if he ever met Mr. Churchill, and Stevens responded that the man did come to the house, though Mr. Eden and Lord Halifax were more usual visitors, and actually had more influence at the time. It’s been his good fortune, he added, to have had the ear of many great leaders over the years.
When Stevens refers to foreign policy, he’s thinking, of course, of the unofficial conferences and meetings among important European and American officials that he has been privy to as a butler. He doesn’t exactly lie to the group—he has met the men he mentions—but he obviously misleads them, even if much of the pride he takes in his position has to do with the closeness he has felt to important affairs.
Smith said that he himself had never met anyone as grand as Stevens had, but he still believed he was doing his part. That’s why he has spent so much time making sure the voices of those in small villages like his own get heard, he said.
For Mr. Smith, living in a democracy means that politics is not a question of meetings between important men, but the participation of everyone—something that Stevens struggles to understand.
Stevens responded that he applauded Smith’s sentiment, the idea that one should strive to make the world a better place: he was motivated similarly. Smith responded that his point was slightly different: people like Stevens could easily exert their influence, but people like him had to constantly work to remind their peers of their responsibilities at citizens.
Although Stevens attempts to understand what Smith is saying and fit it into his own worldview, one that he’s developed through his professional position over the decades, he struggles to grasp just how different their views are.
Stevens tried to excuse himself to retire, although the group kept asking him questions, then entreated him to wait up for the doctor. Just then Dr. Carlisle arrived, and Mrs. Taylor introduced him to Stevens. Mrs. Smith told Dr. Carlisle that Stevens knew Mr. Churchill, Mr. Eden, and Lord Halifax. The doctor began looking at him closely, and continued examining him as Mr. Andrews mentioned Stevens’s close relationship with foreign affairs. Finally Stevens managed to excuse himself: to his embarrassment everyone in the room stood up as he left. The doctor offered to give Stevens a lift to his car the next day.
Dr. Carlisle, as the person most approximating a gentleman in the village and in this gathering, seems to consider Stevens with greater skepticism than the other people present. Although Stevens hasn’t, in telling the story, yet commented on what provoked him to mislead the group, he is evidently a bit embarrassed by the reaction that he’s spawned, and the awe in which the villagers now hold him.
Stevens now feels quite uncomfortable regarding the misunderstanding, but he fails to see how he could have prevented the situation from developing: it would have caused too much embarrassment to clarify things after he realized what had happened. Still, he will probably never see them again.
Again, as he often does, Stevens ostensibly claims not to have regrets and to be unable to imagine how things could have been different. It’s difficult to take him at his word.
Stevens finds himself lingering over Mr. Smith’s thoughts on dignity. He’s certain that the man’s statements were far too idealistic. Of course people in England have a duty to think about great affairs, but Stevens can’t imagine how they should be expected to have strong opinions on all kinds of things, as Mr. Smith claims the villagers do; in any case, it’s absurd to define dignity in such a way.
Stevens had immediately disagreed with Mr. Smith’s thoughts on dignity, but now he finds himself needing to justify why he diverges from Mr. Smith’s opinion. The difference turns on the relationship between dignity and democracy, and where common people fit in.
Stevens thinks of an incident that illustrates that point, from an evening in 1935 when Lord Darlington was entertaining three gentlemen. He entered the drawing room and Darlington said that Mr. Spencer would like a word with him. Mr. Spencer asked Stevens what his thoughts were on the debt situation in America and the low levels of trade; a little surprised, Stevens nonetheless soon grasped that he was expected to be baffled by the situation, and apologized, saying he couldn’t assist in this matter. He repeated the same response to several more questions of the like. Mr. Spencer turned to the others, who were laughing, and asks how the nation’s most important decisions could be expected to rest on millions like Stevens.
Stevens is ostensibly trying to prove a point about the inappropriateness of defining dignity as the rights of the common man. However, there are other ways to interpret this situation other than the one Stevens presents. Stevens immediately understands, for instance, how he’s expected to perform, and he acts accordingly—thus bespeaking a far greater level of intelligence that what Mr. Spencer wants to prove.
Stevens acknowledges that this was a slightly uncomfortable situation, but far from the most difficult any butler might be expected to encounter. He’d nearly forgotten it by the next morning when Darlington went to apologize to him. He noticed how tired and bedraggled the lordship looked, as he told Stevens that he did in fact assist in Mr. Spencer making an important point, as their companion had been talking nonsense about the will of the people. Democracy is an outmoded system, Darlington went on: the world is far too complicated for things like universal suffrage. Germany and Italy had responded properly to people’s suffering, while they in Britain continued to endlessly debate. Stevens responded quite well last night in saying that these questions were not in his realm, Darlington concluded.
Stevens’s own savvy and intelligence belie his willingness to acquiesce to the beliefs and opinions of those whom he assumes are more intelligent and wise than he is. Here, Stevens’s report on Lord Darlington’s words helps to make clear the attraction that fascism and various forms of authoritarianism held for the old aristocratic English class, which found itself less and less central in the decisions being made by a democratic country. Much of the irony of this novel lies in the way Stevens exposes such qualities even while continuing to insist on his employer’s moral stature.
Stevens recognizes that today, such statements might seem odd, even unappealing, but he thinks there is an important element of truth to what Lord Darlington said. A butler’s duty is to provide good service, not to meddle in the great affairs of the country, which will always be beyond his understanding, he says. Mr. Smith’s remarks remind him of a certain dangerous strand of opinion in his profession in the ‘20s and ‘30s which held that every butler should be constantly reappraising his employer. Such thinking is misguided, Stevens believes. It’s not possible to have a critical attitude toward an employer and provide good service at the same time—such a butler would lack the essential quality of loyalty. Loyalty is vital for someone who isn’t in a position to understand the world’s great affairs: there is nothing “undignified” in that. One cannot be held to blame because the passing of time has shown Lord Darlington’s efforts to be misguided or foolish. Stevens carried out his duties as best he could, and it is hardly his fault, nor cause for regret or shame, if Darlington’s life and work now seem like a waste.
Even while acknowledging how assumptions and values have shifted from one generation to the next, Stevens himself never undergoes any kind of revelation that makes him reevaluate his views and those of his former employer. Instead, there is a constant but subtle tension between the values that Stevens truly does espouse—values that are inextricably bound to his position as a traditional English butler—and the political implications of such values, especially as they’ve been revealed over time. Here Stevens continues to cling to the value of loyalty, in particular, as something that has defined his own actions over the years—a quality that has made him unwilling, and even perhaps unable, to think for himself and hold a different opinion from his employer.