The narrator, Stevens, resolves to take an “expedition” by himself. He will borrow his employer Mr. Farraday’s car and travel from Darlington Hall, where he works, through the English countryside. In fact, he acknowledges, it was Mr. Farraday’s idea that he take a break while Mr. Farraday returned to his homeland, the United States.
It’s clear from the start that the idea of taking a trip for pleasure is a strange one for Stevens. Since the trip is his new American employer’s suggestion, the opening already implies changed expectations from the past.
Stevens had been taken aback by this suggestion, and also by Mr. Farraday’s remark that butlers like Stevens are always cooped up in these houses. Stevens said he’d seen the best of England within the walls of the house, but his employer didn’t seem to understand him.
While Stevens hasn’t traveled, he takes pride in having hosted many great gentlemen at Darlington Hall, men whom he associates closely with the nation overall.
It was the arrival of a letter from Miss Kenton, who used to work at Darlington Hall, that made Stevens begin to reconsider. He acknowledges that he’s begun to make a few errors in his duties over the past few months, something that he knows is his fault, even though he’s running short on staff.
Throughout the book, Stevens will seem to disclose weaknesses in full honesty, although there is always a push-and-pull between honesty and posturing to which the reader must remain alert.
His errors included one particular incident shortly after Mr. Farraday bought Darlington Hall from the Darlington family, who had owned it for two hundred years. Mr. Farraday was eager to keep on the staff of his predecessor, although there was only a skeleton staff of six that remained through the sale; all but Mrs. Clements left shortly thereafter. Mr. Farraday enlisted Stevens to hire a full new staff, but Stevens had trouble finding more than two young women.
Stevens references a trend that is based in historical reality: after World War II many old aristocratic families had to sell their estates to people who could afford them, often wealthy foreigners. Stevens’s troubles in finding a staff reflect the fact that the service industry itself is now dwindling, too.
Mr. Farraday told Stevens to draw up a staff plan, a kind of rota, which he found daunting. He’d once led a team of seventeen at this house, but Stevens admits that there’s no use clinging to tradition for its own sake, given that with electricity and modern heating, there’s no need for such a large staff. Mr. Farraday also planned to hold few large parties and events of the kind that Lord Darlington had often hosted. Stevens worked long and diligently on the staff plan, finally coming up with a schedule that would allow the most important parts of the house to remain operable.
Ostensibly, Stevens positions himself as someone who can happily look toward the future rather than remain caught up in the past. Yet he can’t help but compare his troubles now (having to manage a skeleton staff for a country house that used to over a dozen employees) to the standards from before the war. Stevens is eager, though, to embrace this new challenge as part of his duties.
Stevens claims that while he’d still consider the final product a decent plan, it perhaps did not have the greatest margin of error. He was mindful not to let the three other employees take on too much, with the result that he failed to acknowledge his own limitations, leading to several mistakes (which remain, for now, unnamed). When Miss Kenton wrote a letter, seeming quite nostalgic for Darlington Hall, it occurred to him that it would be obvious for Miss Kenton, with her professionalism and conduct almost impossible to find today, to return to the estate. He could take advantage of Mr. Farraday’s offer to call on Miss Kenton during the trip.
Given his use of the reserved, formal style typical of English butlers, Stevens’s attempts at frankness often read as humorously out of joint. Stevens, though, takes his responsibilities quite seriously; it seems that he spends most of his time and thought wondering how best to serve his new employer. Even the opportunity for a pleasure trip becomes a way for him to imagine how he might improve the service at Darlington Hall.
Stevens nonetheless continued to muse over the logistics for several days, pondering what the cost might be of accommodation and meals, and what he might wear, as he had no suitable traveling clothes. Finally he calculated that his savings would allow him to afford the trip, and even buy a new suit for the journey: he hopes his reader doesn’t think he’s vain, but he wishes to be worthy of his position.
This passage helps to sketch in several more aspects of Stevens’s character: he is thoughtful and brooding to the point of fastidiousness. He plans and organizes everything down to the last detail, approaching all aspects of his life as he approached the staff plan for his employment.
In order to get a sense of Miss Kenton’s new home in her married life, Stevens perused Mrs. Jane Symon’s volumes on The Wonder of England. Though the books were from the 1930s, Stevens considered them to be far from out of date.
Mrs. Jane Symons’s books are an emblem of Stevens’s past: they may be out of date, but he feels far more at home in work from that decade.
Stevens was a bit concerned about bringing up the matter of the trip again with Mr. Farraday, even though his employer didn’t seem inconsistent. Finally he decided it would be most prudent to approach Mr. Farraday during afternoon tea when he tended not to be engrossed in reading. But Stevens didn’t account for the fact that Mr. Farraday appreciates jocular, lighthearted conversation at that time of day. Stevens began to mention the subject of a former housekeeper whom he might like to visit, but then halted, realizing it would be inappropriate to go further: he hadn’t even mentioned the topic of adding another person to the staff. Mr. Farraday laughed and teased Stevens about his “lady-friend,” deeply embarrassing Stevens.
Stevens is still growing accustomed to the habits and character of his new employer: he is eager to adapt his own attitude to Mr. Farraday’s, and to predict in advance how Mr. Farraday might respond or react to any novelty. At the same time, while Stevens doesn’t give any credence to Mr. Farraday’s teasing, his awkwardness and halting manner are the first intimations that there may be more to his relationship with Miss Kenton than he has expressed.
Stevens acknowledges that such banter is perhaps more common between employer and employee in the U.S., and it has certainly characterized Mr. Farraday’s attitude toward him, but he’s found himself at a loss for how to respond to it, never knowing exactly what is expected of him. His failure to respond properly, he worries, may well mean a shirking of his duties. Once, though, he tried to make a witty remark in response to one of Mr. Farraday’s joking questions, and his employer had little idea what he was talking about: only belatedly did Stevens realize he missed the mark.
Stevens chalks up Mr. Farraday’s bantering attitude to cultural differences, although it’s also implied that banter is something that reflects a new, more modern way of associating between people, one with which Stevens, with his formality, reserve, and politeness, is unfamiliar. His insistence on treating banter as a professional task is also meant to be humorous.
Today, such concerns are a greater issue for Stevens, because he cannot hope to confer with fellow professionals as he used to, especially when visitors would come to stay with Lord Darlington with their staff in tow. On those occasions, the “finest professionals in England” could be found talking late into the night by a fire. Rather than gossip, they discussed the great political affairs also being discussed upstairs, as well as aspects of their vocation. Stevens lists a number of particularly well-known (at least according to him) valet-butlers and their employers, adding that there was a true camaraderie between them.
For Stevens, being a butler is not just a job like any other; it places him into an illustrious profession, one to which he feels a deep sense of belonging. Indeed, service work to him is a “vocation,” and the conversations he recalls among other butlers were, he found, just as professional and profound as those sustained by their employers upstairs.
Recently Stevens learned that Sir James Chambers would be visiting Darlington Hall, and he looked forward to seeing Chambers’s butler, Mr. Graham, whose company he always enjoyed. But Chambers arrived alone, and Stevens learned, disappointed, that he no longer employed any staff at all.
Another reminder that the world of gentlemen aristocrats and their household staff is ebbing away, and the times when Stevens enjoyed the company and conversation of those like Mr. Graham is past.
Returning from his digression, Stevens continues recounting his request for travel to Mr. Farraday, a request to which the latter promptly agreed. Stevens recognizes that there will be many affairs to attend to before he leaves, but he cannot see any reason why he shouldn’t take the trip.
For a relatively short trip to the country, Stevens has spent a great deal of time and energy pondering his plans—lending the narration some humor, to be sure, but also underlining the fastidiousness of his character.