Stevens awakens to a morning filled with mist and no one visible from his window. He goes over passages from Miss Kenton’s letter, admitting that she has properly been Mrs. Benn for twenty years, but he hasn’t seen her since she married. Her letter suggests, too, that her marriage is at an end: she’s moved out of Mr. Benn’s house. Stevens wonders if the thought of Darlington Hall might be a comfort to her at this tragic time. For Stevens, too, her return would solve a problem—that is, a series of minor, only trivial errors on his part.
This is one of the clearest examples yet of how Stevens in many ways continues to live in the past. Twenty years is a long time to be married, and yet because Stevens continues to think about his former colleague during the time before she left, he can only refer to her as Miss Kenton. Indeed, he even seems to hope that she’ll revert to that status.
In one part of the letter Miss Kenton writes, “The rest of my life stretches out as an emptiness before me.” But most of the letter is more generally nostalgic, recalling the landscape from the second floor of Darlington Hall, for instance. She asks if Stevens remembers standing with her to watch his father walk back and forth outside the house. He too remembers, and he wishes to explain why it has stuck in his mind.
Like Stevens, Miss Kenton seems to enjoy reminiscing about the times they used to spend together at Darlington Hall. The views from the house onto the beautiful English landscape, are, for Stevens, part of the greatness of the place and of its inhabitants.
In the spring of 1922 Stevens had lost his housekeeper and under-butler at the same time when they decided to marry—hardly unexpected, but always a threat to household order, he found. Miss Kenton arrived around the time Stevens’s father was left without a position, after Mr. Silvers’s death. Stevens thought he would ask him to join the staff at Darlington Hall.
Shortly thereafter, Stevens was sitting in his pantry when Miss Kenton arrived with a vase of flowers, smiling and saying they might brighten his parlor. Taken aback, Stevens said he’d prefer distractions kept to a minimum. While she was there, he added, he asked if she might refrain from calling his father “William,” instead addressing him as “Mr. Stevens senior.” After a moment, she said that she had always called under-servants by their Christian names and saw no reason to change.
The obvious fondness that Stevens seems to have for Miss Kenton makes this initial memory of her seem out of place, as their relationship apparently began somewhat inauspiciously. Miss Kenton is introduced as cheerful, pleasant, and stubborn, while Stevens comes across as slightly awkward and very formal.
Stevens said this was an understandable mistake, but if she considered it she’d realize it would be inappropriate to talk “down” to someone like his father. Miss Kenton continued to assert that her position was in fact above his, even while Stevens insisted she simply must not have been observing his father—otherwise she’d recognize all she could learn from him. Finally he said that she still had much to learn herself, such as what goes where. Put out, Miss Kenton said this was only normal for her first few days. A little sulkily, she agreed to address Stevens’s father by his full title: she refrained, too, from putting more flowers in the pantry.
For all his insistence on decorum and proper duty, Stevens also seems willing to disregard such rules in what seems to him an obvious instance of their insufficiency. Miss Kenton is actually more insistent on adhering to proper behavior, claiming a pride of position that Stevens may have otherwise recognized in himself. Still, the importance she places on doing a good job makes her acquiesce to Stevens’s criticisms.
Several weeks later, Miss Kenton came to Stevens in the library and said that he’d left a dust-pan in the hall. After dismissing her, he went into the hall, where it lay conspicuously; Stevens realized that his father had been brushing the hall earlier. His irritation soon turned to Miss Kenton for creating a fuss, rather than to his father for leaving the dust-pan. But a week later, Miss Kenton told him that, although she felt quite uncomfortable drawing attention to staff errors, she’d noticed that several pieces of silver had been laid out in the dining room with polish still on them. Polishing silver was a task in which Stevens senior took great pride.
Although she’d attempted to begin their relationship on good terms, Miss Kenton now stubbornly wishes to make clear to Stevens that she, more than Stevens senior, should be given the respect proper to her position. Stevens doesn’t want to face the facts to which Miss Kenton is drawing his attention, facts that would seem to suggest his father’s dwindling abilities, but she makes it hard for him not to.
Not long afterward, Miss Kenton alerted Stevens to a misplaced “Chinaman” (porcelain object). Stevens said he was busy and would attend to the question shortly, but Miss Kenton continued to request his attention, finally saying she’d wait outside the billiard room. After busying himself with every task he could think of, Stevens thought about leaving through the French windows, but given the stormy weather he decided to stride out of the room rapidly. He flew past Miss Kenton, who quickly recovered and caught up with him, asking him if the Chinaman was not in the incorrect place. Stevens told her she was being ridiculous, so concerned with trivial errors. The errors add up to larger significance, she said: his father was no longer in possession of his former powers. He shouldn’t be allowed to carry large trays—she’s noticed his hands trembling as he does so.
While Miss Kenton grows increasingly strident in pointing out to Stevens all the mistakes that his father has evidently been making, Stevens grows more and more irritated and stubborn himself, increasingly unwilling to engage with Miss Kenton or to admit that there might be some truth to her statements. As he relates this anecdote from several decades earlier, he attempts to portray Miss Kenton as needling and unpleasant, as unfair to his father in her eagerness to point out the failings due to his old age—a portrayal that is presented as objective and unquestionable.
As he thinks back on it, though, Stevens now wonders if Miss Kenton really spoke so boldly that day. Now that he thinks of it, it may have been Lord Darlington who made the point about the larger significance of trivial errors, several months later.
Sometimes back then Lord Darlington would pretend to be engrossed in a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica in his study before asking Stevens something—a tactic he usually used when embarrassed, allowing him to look down at the book during the conversation. In later years, the man would be accused of egotism or arrogance concerning his role in great political affairs, but Stevens wishes, on the contrary, to signal his shyness and modesty, as well as his essential moral stature—Stevens is proud to have given his best years of service to Lord Darlington.
This initial portrait of Lord Darlington and the way he tended to interact with Stevens is meant to contrast sharply with the easy, informal attitude that Mr. Farraday espouses. Stevens hopes that this portrait shows, too, just how unfounded later accusations against Darlington’s politics are. This is one of the first hints that history has not just caused Stevens’s memory to blur, but it has also made many people view the past quite differently.
In this instance, Lord Darlington barely glanced up from his book to ask if Stevens’s father had made a full recovery from his fall. If it happened on the lawn, it could take place anywhere, at any time: now that Darlington was hosting ever more significant guests, the risk was only increased. It wasn’t a question of dismissing the under-butler, he said, just of reconsidering his duties: the errors might be trivial in themselves, but could have larger significance.
Stevens fills in the surrounding context to the quotation that he’d mistakenly attributed to Miss Kenton instead of Lord Darlington. His correction reveals that Lord Darlington sees his staff as reflections of his own power and influence—as a result, the staff is important to his role in national affairs. This sheds light on the importance Stevens places on his job.
A week earlier, Lord Darlington had been entertaining two guests in the summerhouse and had seen Stevens’s father approach across the lawn carrying a tray of refreshments, when he fell and scattered everything he was carrying across the grass. By the time Stevens hurried outside, his father was unconscious, laid out by the guests and Darlington on his side. He revived not long before Dr. Meredith arrived, but was deeply embarrassed.
Lord Darlington is evidently embarrassed about asking Stevens to reconsider his father’s duties, and this embarrassment is, in part, due to the way Stevens senior’s collapse makes him look. Stevens’s father, though, is perfectly aware of the need for discretion in his profession and is just as embarrassed.
Over the years, Stevens and his father had come to have fewer and fewer conversations—he was never sure why—so the task of relaying Darlington’s request was a tricky one. Finally he judged the best option to be speaking privately to his father in his room.
While Stevens has claimed great admiration for his father, the same traits of discretion and tact he’s learned from him have also impacted their personal relationship.
Stevens found his father shaving, and he asked politely if his father wasn’t being troubled by his arthritis; his father coldly said that he’d been up for hours already. Stevens said he had something to tell his father, who asked him to be brief. So he told his father that the duties of an under-butler were now beyond his capacities; he’d compromised the household’s smooth running, and thus the approaching international gathering. His lordship asked that he not wait at table, with or without guests. His father responded calmly that he’d waited at table every day for the last 54 years, but Stevens simply continued, showing his father a list of tasks he’d now be expected to perform instead.
The relationship between Stevens and his father that is depicted here seems to be one of two professionals far more than a father and son. Like his son—who seems to have learned this demeanor from his father—Stevens senior is careful to show little emotion. But his response reveals a pride in his work and an inability to imagine his own identity outside the tasks he’s always completed for his employers.
Stevens’s father betrayed no sense of emotion, but said he’d only fallen once because of the crooked steps: Seamus (another servant) should be told to put them right, he said. Stevens responded, “Indeed,” and left shortly after. The summer evening mentioned by Miss Kenton in her letter was not long thereafter: now Stevens recalls her figure silhouetted against the window. She was no doubt feeling a sense of guilt, he thinks.
While continuing to remain calm and unfussed, Stevens senior is still obviously unhappy with what his son has ordered. Although Stevens has now admitted that it was Darlington, not Miss Kenton, who made the earlier statement, he wants to blame her rather than his employer.
Stevens knows he’ll regret it if he wastes his entire trip wrapped up in such memories, so he wishes to record something of his journey to Salisbury. He’d avoided the major roads, and had been pleased with the landscape views. As he approached the city, he had to halt in the middle of the road, as a hen meandered across. It stopped in front of the car, and, exasperated, Stevens began to get out when he heard a woman’s voice. A woman in an apron ran down from a farm cottage and thanked him for not running “poor Nellie” over. A few years earlier a tortoise of theirs had been killed on this very spot; Stevens said somberly that that was very tragic.
Again, the idea of regret reemerges, though not in any grand way but rather in the minor context of a trip to the country—a context that nonetheless will come to have great metaphorical significance over the course of the novel. Here Stevens encounters another stranger, not the great English gentlemen whom he is proud of having served at Darlington Hall, but a pleasant inhabitant of the English countryside.
On his way again, Stevens was cheered by the simple kindness of being thanked. Now, though, he wants to correct a possible impression from his earlier story about his father: that he treated his father’s declining abilities too bluntly. He had little choice but to approach the matter that way, especially given the important international conference to take place, the first of many to happen at Darlington Hall from March 1923 through the next 15 years. That date, he now thinks, is when he truly came of age as a butler, when he may have attained that quality of dignity.
Now that Stevens feels he’s been treated kindly and generously, he’s in a more generous frame of mind himself—one that makes him think he needs to better explain why he acted the way he did regarding his own father. At the same time, Stevens is careful to keep justifying his own past behavior rather than express regret or blame himself for anything that happened.
The conference was the result of several years of Lord Darlington’s friendship with Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann, a former German officer, who returned many times to Darlington Hall, though looking increasingly impoverished and haunted each time. Darlington had been to Berlin several times beginning in 1920, and returned somber, telling Stevens it was a disgrace to treat a defeated enemy in such a way.
Lord Darlington had, like many Britons, fought against the Germans in World War I, but for him the “gentlemanly” attitude was to treat one’s enemy kindly after defeat. Darlington’s disapproval refers to the Versailles Treaty, which required harsh reparations from Germany and other difficult concessions in the wake of its defeat.
On one winter’s night, Darlington was dining with only one guest—for some reason, they dined in the vast banquet hall, rather than the intimate dining room. Stevens notes that it is difficult to be attentive while providing an illusion of absence when there are just two diners. This time he opted to stay in the shadows. He heard Darlington talk about Herr Bremann, saying he was his enemy but always acted like a gentleman. Darlington had promised they wouldn’t be enemies after the war, but this treaty, he said, was making that impossible. Now Stevens feels pleased to recall such heartfelt words, especially given the later foolish talk about his former employer.
Stevens is acutely attuned to the requirements of his position, the careful balance he always needs to strike between remaining available for anything his employer might need, and allowing natural conversation to occur without it seeming like someone is eavesdropping on him. Stevens again alludes to the later fall in Lord Darlington’s reputation, using this opportunity to insist on the respectable moral stature of the man.
Not long afterward, it was learned that Herr Bremann had shot and killed himself. In the following weeks, Lord Darlington, distraught, began to devote a great deal of time to the crisis in Germany, inviting great gentlemen to the house, including Maynard Keynes and H.G. Wells, as well as many who came “off the record” and thus whom Stevens cannot mention. He takes pride in the fact that he was privy to many private conversations, and Darlington always told his guests they could say anything in front of Stevens.
Lord Darlington clearly sees a link between Bremann’s suicide and the harsh reparations and other conditions of the Versailles Treaty, conditions he considers ungentlemanly. Keynes and Wells are both historical figures, one an economist and another a writer, and Stevens clearly takes pride in the illustrious guest list.
Over the years, Darlington and his friend Sir David Cardinal gathered a group of people convinced that the situation in Germany shouldn’t go on, people from Britain and Germany, but also from Belgium, France, Italy, and so on—from diplomats to clergymen and retired officers and thinkers. By 1922, Darlington was committed to gathering the most influential of these men together for an “unofficial” international conference to discuss how to repeal the harshest terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a conference that might have a decisive effect on the “official” ones.
Lord Darlington, motivated for personal reasons to lobby against harsh treatment of Germany, also possesses a good deal of power, despite not being involved in British politics in any kind of official way. He accepts such influence as natural, given his status as a gentleman from an old family, and he seems to take it for granted that a group of similar gentlemen could have great influence on world affairs.
Darlington once confided in Stevens that it was the Frenchmen who proved most intransigent, but that he needed at least one influential French gentleman to be present at Darlington Hall. Finally they secured the attendance of one, whom Stevens dubs “M. Dupont.”
Stevens again seems to take great pride in having been a confidant to Lord Darlington, privy to important affairs and able to be trusted with significant information.
Stevens also found pressure on his own responsibilities mounting, aware that it was of vital importance for the guests, 18 gentlemen and two ladies (with all their own staff), to be comfortable. The staff would have to be both diligent and flexible. Stevens set out preparations like a general preparing for battle, with special schedules, contingency plans, and even a military-style pep talk to the staff. Thus, he hopes it will be understood that his father’s fall allowed little room for “beating around the bush.” And his father did find a way to accomplish as much as he could, pushing around a trolley laden with everything he needed.
In comparing himself and his own preparations to that of a general before battle, Stevens positions himself as a vital cog in the diplomatic machine. He also seeks to justify what may, he now acknowledges, seem like undue coolness toward his father. Indeed, Stevens implies that he’s learned such a sense of professionalism from his father, who can’t bear to stop working, and instead finds any way he can to continue.
The tension was also noticeable with Miss Kenton. Once, during the preparations, Stevens came upon her in the dark backroom corridor, and reminded her of the bed linen that needed preparation. She told him it was perfectly under control. He was about to continue, when she added angrily that she has barely a moment to spare, and if she had as much spare time as he evidently did, she’d wander around reminding him of tasks he was already on top of. Stevens protested, but she asked him not to follow and pester her: in fact, she added, stomping away, she’d prefer he not speak directly to her at all, communicating via written note or through a staff member.
The way Stevens tells this story, he remains calm and unperturbed, while she is senselessly angry and moody. These are, indeed, elements to Miss Kenton’s character, though she seems particularly irritable here. Nonetheless, an anecdote like this one makes clear the limitations of the first-person narration, as Stevens fails to identify why Miss Kenton reacts the way she does, leaving her motivations a mystery to the reader as well.
Stevens was irritated but had little time to devote to thinking about it. As the first guests began to arrive, he gained a sense of the mood: he overheard someone saying that the fate of Europe could hang on the ability to bring M. Dupont around on a certain point.
Stevens is easily distracted from Miss Kenton’s mood by his sense that he is in the midst of important events upstairs, events that require his service.
During these preliminaries, Stevens recalls, Darlington entrusted him with a particularly unusual task. Calling him over, engrossed in a Who’s Who volume, he apologized for interrupting Stevens, but mentioned that he was godfather to Sir David’s son, Reginald, who was engaged to be married. Sir David had asked Darlington to communicate the “facts of life” to his son. He was far too busy to do so, Darlington said, staring at his book. Stevens asked if his employer wished him to convey these facts; this being the case, he said he’d do his best.
In the midst of the anticipation around the “fate of Europe,” there is also a lighter side to Stevens’s duties during this conference. The formality between Lord Darlington and Stevens is such that Lord Darlington can barely bring himself to articulate what he’d like to ask. The request underlines just how far service was expected to extend in these aristocratic households.
Though taken aback, Stevens resolved to settle the matter as early as possible. An hour later he noticed young Mr. Cardinal alone in the library, so he approached him and announced he had a message. He began by saying that ladies and gentlemen differ in a few key respects. Mr. Cardinal sighed and said he was only too aware of that; he’d been doing reading and background on that very topic for a month. He wished Stevens would reassure his father of this. Unless, he added, his father had come up with an entirely new factor—something on the Dupont fellow, for instance. Suddenly Stevens realized that he’d made no progress, but before he could re-broach the topic, Mr. Cardinal announced he needed some air, and left.
Mr. Cardinal seems entirely oblivious to the reason that Stevens has approached him—understandably so, as Stevens approaches the matter from the most oblique side possible. At first, Stevens interprets Mr. Cardinal’s response as suggesting that Mr. Cardinal has approached his upcoming marriage with the same kind of dutiful responsibility with which Stevens has approached banter, but it soon becomes clear that they are speaking at cross-purposes.
Stevens was delayed in his task by the arrival of an American senator, Mr. Lewis. As he arrived Stevens happened to encounter Miss Kenton in the back corridor; asking her who had just arrived, she hurried past, telling him to send a message if it was urgent. Though annoyed, Stevens had to hurry upstairs. He remembers Mr. Lewis as congenial and informal. His announcement at dinner that the US would always stand on the side of justice, and wouldn’t mind admitting mistakes were made at Versailles, seemed to cheer the group.
Once again, Stevens encounters Miss Kenton only to find her irritated and angry at him, and he finds it easier to turn back to his “upstairs” requirements. Stevens recalls Mr. Lewis in terms of cultural difference, characterizing him as more informal than the Europeans he’s used to serving.
At one point, though, Mr. Lewis told the group that Dupont hates Germans with a depth they’d find it hard to understand. While Darlington said that the English also fought the Germans long and hard, Lewis added that the French see the Germans as having destroyed civilization in Europe, and he wondered why the English didn’t see it that way. Stevens thinks now that he began then to see something perhaps duplicitous in the Mr. Lewis’s smile. But Darlington didn’t see it, only responding that the English found the French attitude increasingly despicable; Lewis seemed satisfied by this answer.
Lewis seems to consider himself, as an outsider, as having a privileged viewpoint on the internal conflicts of European states. Looking back onto the events that he’s now narrating, with the benefit of hindsight, Stevens suggests that he did in fact see something coming, even if Darlington—who believes strongly in good manners and gentlemanly sportsmanship—cannot.
More people began to arrive, including an Italian gentleman with two bodyguards. As the house filled, a tense atmosphere began to pervade it. At one relatively calm moment Stevens spotted the young Mr. Cardinal strolling outside and resolved to try again with his task: if he concealed himself behind a large bush beside the path, he’d seem to come across Mr. Cardinal naturally. Unfortunately, he failed to properly judge his timing, and sprang out too quickly, frightening the young man. Still, Stevens barged ahead, asking Mr. Cardinal to notice the geese nearby, as well as the flowers and shrubs, which undergo a special change in springtime.
Throughout his recollections of the high-stakes conference, Stevens also intersperses details from this subplot, which injects a bit of humor into the drama (even if Stevens doesn’t seem to mean this part of the story to be funny). Stevens’s difficulty in getting across the proper message to Mr. Cardinal reflects a disconnect between the reserved, fastidious nature of his professional attitude and the intimate topic he’s expected to broach.
Mr. Cardinal responded that he hadn’t had much time to appreciate the surroundings, and now M. Dupont had arrived in a horrible mood. Surprised, Stevens said he must hurry off, though he had more to say on the “glories of nature” to Mr. Cardinal later.
Once again Steven has failed to fulfill the “duty” that Lord Darlington has assigned him, giving it up with apparent relief at the sign of a more important responsibility.
M. Dupont was tall and elegant, with a monocle, wearing the kind of costume reserved for gentlemen on holiday; indeed, he’d maintain the appearance of having come to Darlington Hall for pleasure. He was in a foul mood, but cheered up upon seeing Mr. Lewis. Their constant close proximity proved inconvenient to Lord Darlington, who was unable to speak to the Frenchman privately.
Immediately upon M. Dupont’s arrival, it comes to be more understandable why Mr. Lewis had presumed to speak so confidently of the French attitude to Germans, given his friendship with M. Dupont—a friendship that proves inconvenient amid the studious casualness of the conference.
The conference began in the drawing room, suitable to the “off the record” nature, such that everyone could feign that the visit was a mere social event. Stevens had to enter and exit frequently, but he recalls Lord Darlington’s opening speech emphasizing the great suffering undergone by Germany, and calling for a freezing of reparation payments and withdrawal of French troops from the Ruhr region.
Hosting an unofficial conference has both benefits—a greater intimacy, not to mention comfort of an aristocratic country house—and drawbacks, given the mismatch between the serious diplomatic affairs being discussed and the private social setting.
M. Dupont remained sullen and silent. At one point he stood and followed Stevens, asking him to change the bandages on his feet, which had developed sores from walking around London. Stevens left Dupont in the billiard room awaiting a nurse when a footman hurried over to inform Stevens that his father had taken ill upstairs. Stevens hurried upstairs to find his father on one knee, attempting with all his strength to push the trolley, which remained immobile. Stevens went to his father, whose eyes were closed and face ashen, and eased him to the carpet.
With his father falling ill, the true challenge of this evening will begin, as Stevens will have to juggle his personal and professional responsibilities, and maintain his cool all the while. His father’s struggle to keep pushing the trolley—to keep working—despite his great pain only highlights how inextricable his identity is from his profession, a connection that Stevens has adopted too.
After Stevens’s father was transported to his room, Stevens wasn’t sure what to do: there wasn’t a moment to spare. Miss Kenton appeared, then, and said she could attend to his father and show Dr. Meredith up. Stevens thanked her and left, busying himself with serving the guests. As he left the drawing room with an empty teapot, Miss Kenton told him that Dr. Meredith was just leaving: Stevens found the doctor, who said he should be called immediately if Stevens senior deteriorated.
Although Stevens recognizes his duty as a son, he is torn between that duty and his responsibility to his employer. Although Miss Kenton was, earlier, eager to point out Stevens senior’s shortcomings in his tasks, she now shows obvious compassion in stepping in to watch over Stevens senior.
That evening, Stevens overheard a conversation between Mr. Lewis and M. Dupont; he’d gone to the latter’s room and waited a second at the door before knocking—an action in which, he insists, no subterfuge is implied, since it merely avoids knocking at an inopportune moment. Stevens could barely hear what was said, but recognized a covert tone to Lewis’s voice. He heard Lewis tell Dupont that the latter was being manipulated by his lordship, that he’d been deliberately invited late to enable the others to discuss important topics in his absence. Lewis also reported that at the first dinner, the Britons had actually called Frenchmen “despicable,” remarking that this was undue behavior for an ally.
Stevens is eager to make clear that he overheard this conversation not because he was spying at the keyhole, but because a central part of his profession involves discretion, which requires always staying one step ahead of the people Stevens is serving. In this case, though, what Stevens overhears allows him to feel even more of a close connection to the great events going on around him at Darlington Hall, even if that includes backstabbing and duplicity.
The next day, the discussions seemed to become increasingly heated, though M. Dupont continued to say little. Meanwhile, Stevens’s father had grown no better or worse. On the second evening, Stevens senior was asleep when his son visited, but the chambermaid left by Miss Kenton began to shake him awake. Stevens told her to stop, but she said she’d had to promise she’d do so. Awake, Stevens’s father asked how everything was going downstairs. Volatile, Stevens answered, but everything was in hand. Stevens repeated several times that he was happy his father was feeling much better, then said he’d have to get back. His father said he hoped he’d been a good father, to which Stevens laughed and repeated what he’d said before. Stevens senior said he was proud of his son, but Stevens said he was very busy and they could talk again in the morning.
Stevens’s thoughts, based on the narrative as he’s recounting it, are divided here between the important diplomatic affairs and the status of his father. When he does have a conversation with his father, however, it is as stilted and awkward as all their interactions have been. Stevens has evidently been concerned about his father, but he cannot find any way of expressing it other than in stock expressions. This is the first time that his father seems to be yearning toward more honest, forthright discussion, but Stevens senior cannot break through the veneer of formality.
Downstairs, the kitchen was in chaos, but Stevens managed to restore calm by the time dinner was set. He notes that the banquet hall always looked magnificent when set for a full dinner, especially with the glass chandeliers, which were far subtler than the electric ones they’ve been replaced with.
At the end of dinner Darlington rose to speak, expressing his gratitude for the spirit of friendship and unity he’d seen. Having drunk a good deal of wine, he began to reminisce about his good friend Herr Bremann, and began to go off track: Stevens noticed a certain restlessness among the audience, even ill-mannered, by the time Darlington finished his toast.
Unlike the speeches at official, publicized political conferences, this set of speeches shifts from official to social and informal in tone. Stevens may be awkward at times, but he also has a sharp social sense and the ability to read an audience deftly.
As conversation was resuming, M. Dupont rose to his feet, and gave a toast to their host, Darlington. He went on to say that there had been much criticism of his country’s foreign policy. He was impressed, though, by certain of the arguments that had been raised, and was convinced by their justice: he assured the audience that he would bring some of his influence to bear on changes to French policy.
M. Dupont’s initial statements seem not to acknowledge the conversation that Stevens overheard between him and Mr. Lewis behind closed doors. Here it seems that Lord Darlington’s hopes, that polite conversation and gentlemanly attitudes might enact real political change, haven’t been in vain.
Then, M. Dupont said he believes in frankness, and that one must openly condemn anyone who has come to abuse the host’s hospitality. He accused Mr. Lewis of doing so, and condemned Mr. Lewis’s duplicity, even while reassuring the audience that the American administration is generally far more reasonable and that Lewis no longer has much clout.
M. Dupont had appeared to be under the sway of the American senator, but it turns out that he, too, thinks of himself as a gentleman of the old order, one for whom schemes and duplicity have no place in decent conduct.
After this toast, Mr. Lewis stood and, his voice thick with alcohol, said he won’t waste time on Dupont’s words. He said that he, too, wants to be frank and he called the gentlemen here “naïve dreamers” who would be charming if they didn’t insist on meddling in world affairs. Lord Darlington is only an amateur, he said, and politics today is no place for amateurs. They’re well-meaning, but useless; now Europe needs professionals to run their affairs, not amateurs.
Mr. Lewis, like Stevens, puts a great deal of emphasis on the notion of professionalism, but for the American senator that definition relates not to the moral and behavioral requirements of a position, but to expertise and specialist knowledge rather than gentlemanly discussion, which he dismisses as a relic of an earlier time.
After a stunned silence, Lord Darlington responded by saying that what the American calls amateurism, he thinks of as honor. He doesn’t care for “professionalism” if it means cheating, manipulating, and greed. There was warm applause, although Mr. Lewis smiled and shook his head. At that moment the first footman whispered to Stevens that Miss Kenton needed a word with him. He slipped out to find her looking upset, saying his father had become very ill. Stevens objected that he was too busy, but she told him he must come now or may regret it later.
Lord Darlington doesn’t respond precisely to Mr. Lewis’s challenge; while Mr. Lewis had argued that today, there’s no longer a place for amateurs, Darlington says he’ll refuse to play by those rules, no matter what the contemporary situation requires. Next comes a more urgent instance of another character warning Stevens of something he might regret.
Stevens came to his father’s room to see Mrs. Mortimer, the cook, standing over the bed: Stevens senior’s face was a dull reddish color. Mrs. Mortimer said he probably had a stroke; she began to cry. Stevens turned away and told Miss Kenton that while this was very distressing, he had to return downstairs: he did so, and the footmen looked relieved to see him. The atmosphere was now celebratory; Mr. Lewis had retired. Mr. Cardinal began to engage Stevens in conversation, though he had to ask Stevens several times if he was alright. Darlington, then, said it seemed like Stevens had been crying. Stevens laughed and wiped his face with a handkerchief, saying it was just the strain of a hard day.
Although Stevens doesn’t describe or reflect on his own feelings at all—one might assume from his own description of his reaction that he is completely normal after seeing his father this way—his emotional state can be glimpsed by how he recollects the responses of other people in the drawing room who notice a lack of composure.
Stevens saw Miss Kenton signaling him and he began toward the door when M. Dupont asked him to find fresh bandages. Dupont followed Stevens out the door, and Stevens said he’d come find him soon. Miss Kenton walked toward the staircase, where she told Stevens that his father passed away a few minutes before. Her head bowed, she almost started to sob, but then resumed her composure. She asked if he’d come up and see his father; Stevens said he was very busy, but he gave her permission to do so. Then, he told her his father would have wished him to carry on; to do otherwise would have been to let him down. Miss Kenton responded, “Of course.” Stevens returned to the drawing room and told Dupont that a doctor was on his way. One of the German women complimented Stevens, saying she could have sworn he was at least three people all evening.
M. Dupont’s continual pestering comes to seem silly, even grotesque, when compared to what is happening upstairs. Stevens hasn’t been able to be present for his father’s death, and even now, when Miss Kenton tells him he’s died, he can’t bring himself to see his father—although he masks what now seems obvious (that he is, in fact, shaken) by his habitual formality and composure in giving orders to Miss Kenton. He has so embraced the requirements of his position that he is able to take pride in actually being more productive and inconspicuous than usual.
Mr. Cardinal started up a drunken conversation with Stevens, before a footman told Stevens that Miss Kenton wanted to talk to him. She told him Dr. Meredith had arrived, and Dupont, who’d followed Stevens out, exclaimed in relief. Stevens led Dupont to the billiard room, then met Dr. Meredith in his father’s room, which smelled of roasting from Mrs. Mortimer. After thanking the doctor, Stevens asked if he might see a distinguished gentleman downstairs.
The small aside about the smell of roasting coming from Mrs. Mortimer’s apron is one of the only ways Stevens’s account betrays the strange, surreal nature of what this night must have been like—especially since he doesn’t reflect on the disjuncture between his father’s death and the conference in any personal, intimate way.
Stevens claims it is not for him to suggest that he is among the “great” butlers of his generation. Even so, he proposes that his actions on that March night may have constituted dignity worthy of a great butler: he recollects the night today, despite its sadness, with a sense of triumph.
It’s difficult to tell, here as elsewhere, to what extent Stevens is putting on a brave face, or whether he truly has internalized his profession so much that he sees his father’s death as the ultimate test of it.