Stevens has been thinking about the Hayes Society requirement for membership, that a butler be attached to a “distinguished household.” While he still thinks of this as snobbery, it occurs to him that it’s true if one adopts a deeper understanding of “distinguished.” The difference turns on what distinguished his generation from the previous: his, he thinks, was more idealistic, more concerned with an employer’s moral status. Butlers of his age had ambitions to serve gentlemen who wanted to further human progress.
Although Stevens makes an effort to distinguish his own opinions from those of a society that he thinks of as overly superficial, he does cling to terms like “distinguished” and “dignity” for what he calls their moral status. Importantly, his goal as a butler is to “further human progress” less by acting than by serving others who might act.
Stevens adopts a metaphor to make his point: butlers of his father’s generation tended to see the world like a ladder—with the houses of royalty and oldest families at the top and “new money” lower down—that they should climb as high as possible. These are also the Hayes Society’s values, and if they were making such statements as late as 1929, Stevens thinks, it shows that their way of life was doomed. His generation viewed the world instead as a wheel.
Stevens’s metaphor helps to reveal how he wants to see his own ambition: he claims that his goal is not to become ever more important with ever greater responsibilities, but rather to approach closer and closer to the men who have great ambitions and responsibilities themselves.
Stevens had noticed that the country’s great debates and decisions are made not in public but in the privacy and calm of great houses. He thinks, then, of the world as revolving around the hub of these houses, their decisions emanating out to all. To serve great gentlemen would, for butlers, mean furthering this progress. Stevens himself moved quickly between employers at first, before being rewarded by being able to serve Lord Darlington.
Again, rather than attempting to climb a professional ladder, Stevens seems to have worked to identify the aristocratic gentlemen who seemed most politically influential and to have approached them obliquely. He takes great pride in his ability to finally associate with Lord Darlington, which he thinks of as a “reward.”
Stevens is increasingly convinced, now that he thinks about it, that to be “great” one must associate only with a truly distinguished household. He imagines it is the nature of absenting himself on such a trip that is allowing him to develop this new perspective. But it’s also perhaps what occurred an hour earlier, which Stevens now describes.
Stevens returns to the Hayes Society’s definition of greatness that he seemed to have dismissed just before. This passage shuttles between events from thirty years ago, events from an hour earlier, and the present, as Stevens rapidly relives many parts of his past.
While driving into Dorset, Stevens noticed an odd smell from the car, and after pulling over he resolved to look for a gentleman’s house where there might be a chauffeur. After a while he glimpsed a tall Victorian house and drove up to it. The chauffeur was outside, and after opening the Ford the chauffeur said, amused, that Stevens simply needed water in the radiator. As Stevens gazed at the mansion, the man said it was a shame, but the Colonel was trying to sell it: there was only himself and a cook who came in each evening. He and the colonel had been in the war together. Then the chauffeur exclaimed that Stevens must be from one of the “big posh houses”—he was talking almost like a gentleman, and had a beautiful car. When Stevens said he worked at Darlington Hall, the man became curious, asking what Lord Darlington was like. But Stevens brushed him off, saying only that he was employed by Mr. John Farraday.
This Victorian house seems at first like it could be one of the great country houses to which Stevens had referred earlier, houses that are at the center of the great debates of the country. But it soon becomes clear that, like at Darlington Hall and many other old houses throughout the countryside, there is no longer a place for a huge household staff and “unofficial” conferences and parties like the ones Lord Darlington used to hold. The identification of the house as “Victorian,” thus built in the nineteenth century, is a subtle means of distinguishing it from truly old “posh” houses like Darlington Hall, which are even older.
The chauffeur suggested that Stevens visit a nearby pond on his way: thus Stevens now finds himself at the charming Mortimer’s Pond, sitting and contemplating the fishermen. In his tranquility, he has the opportunity to reflect on why he gave the impression that he’d never been employed by Lord Darlington. The incident, he admits, has some affinity with one from a few years earlier, when an American couple now settled in England, the Wakefields, came to visit. Like Mr. Farraday, they were impressed by the magnificence, and Mr. Farraday was eager to explain all the details of English aristocratic history that he’d picked up.
Although in other parts of his narration, Stevens has reported on events without stopping to linger over their meaning, he now seems more willing to face the question of why he responded as if embarrassed about the connection the man drew between Stevens and Lord Darlington. But, as is typical, Stevens sidesteps this question by turning to yet another recollection, in a process of memory and deferral that is continuous through the book.
At one point, Mrs. Wakefield was examining a stone arch and she asked Stevens if it only looked 17th century, but if it was actually from Lord Darlington’s time. He wasn’t sure. She then asked him what Lord Darlington was like. Stevens said he didn’t work for Darlington. Following the couple’s departure, Mr. Farraday mentioned to Stevens that Mrs. Wakefield wasn’t as impressed as she could have been—she seemed to think everything was “mock,” even Stevens. She told Farraday with great confidence that Stevens had never worked at Darlington Hall before Farraday’s time. Farraday asked Stevens to confirm that he was a “genuine old-fashioned English butler,” and Stevens did so, but said he may have slightly misled Mrs. Wakefield. It was English custom not to discuss past employers, Stevens said—it was customary for butlers to even give the impression that they’d never worked for anyone else.
Like Mr. Farraday, the Wakefields are wealthy Americans who have taken advantage of the newly-available aristocratic English country houses to move to England; like Mr. Farraday, they are curious about what seem to them to be relics of an earlier time. Indeed, it seems important to Mr. Farraday that what he’s purchased is “authentic,” such that he is annoyed that Stevens has allowed Mrs. Wakefield to pronounce that Darlington Hall isn’t the “real” old country house he thought it was. Stevens slips out of the misunderstanding by reaffirming his specifically English butler habits.
Though he’d put the episode behind him, Stevens now recalls it and admits that this episode and the one from this afternoon are related. He insists that he is far from ashamed of his association with his lordship; indeed, his reticence can better be explained from a reluctance not to hear any more “nonsense” about Lord Darlington, a man of great moral stature to whom Stevens could not be more grateful.
Little by little, it is becoming clear that, despite Stevens’s reassurances and claims of loyalty, there does seem to be something he’s unsure about regarding Lord Darlington’s character, leading him to feel that he needs to protest and defend his association with Darlington.