Stevens, a butler at an old English country house called Darlington Hall, is preparing to take a short trip through the English countryside. His new employer, an American named Mr. Farraday, is returning to the United States for a visit, and Farraday has suggested that Stevens take some time off. Mr. Farraday’s casual, informal manner is unfamiliar to Stevens, who had served for many years under a traditional English aristocrat, Lord Darlington. As a result, Stevens is still learning to banter and joke, which he thinks of as a professional skill he should develop. Although he’s initially unsure, he finally decides he will take the trip: it will give him the chance to pay a visit to Miss Kenton, who used to be Darlington Hall’s housekeeper, but who married and left several decades ago. Stevens has been making a few errors in running the household— mistakes he dismisses as minor—but he thinks Miss Kenton’s return might help him resolve them.
On his first day of travel, Stevens reflects on the greatness of English scenery—scenery which he believes to be all the greater precisely because it is subtle and not as “magnificent” as the landscape of other countries. Stevens also reflects on what it means to be a “great” butler, recalling a number of conversations he’s had with other butlers over the years. Stevens turns to his own father (who was a butler himself) as one example of someone who was a great butler—that is, who embodied the dignity of the profession. He recalls a number of anecdotes that he thinks prove his father’s dignity.
The next day Stevens wonders whether or not Miss Kenton—who now, he reminds himself, uses her married name, Mrs. Benn—will actually agree to return; he’s received some letters from her in which she seems unhappy, even desperate. He thinks back to when he first met Miss Kenton, in 1922. She was hired around the same time as his father, whose long-time employer had just died. Miss Kenton immediately proved herself to be stubborn and headstrong; when Stevens asked her to address his father formally, even though she was technically in a position above him, she began pointing out a number of mistakes and examples of absent-mindedness on the part of his father. At first, Stevens recalls that Miss Kenton told Stevens that his father’s trivial mistakes added up to something more significant, but then Stevens realizes that he has misremembered—that in fact it was Lord Darlington who said so, in asking Stevens to remove his father from some responsibilities.
Stevens recalls this request coming in the context of an approaching event of great importance: Lord Darlington had, together with his friend Sir David Cardinal, invited a number of important people to Darlington Hall to try to promote the easing of sanctions against Germany following World War I. Darlington and Cardinal were particularly eager to convince the French guest, M. Dupont, of their position, thinking that he might hold the key to changing France’s course. But immediately upon his arrival, Dupont spent most of his time with an American senator, Mr. Lewis. At one point, Stevens overheard Mr. Lewis attempting to turn Dupont against the Englishmen present.
During the conference, Stevens senior took ill, but Stevens’s help was so needed downstairs that he barely spent time with his ailing father, leaving Miss Kenton to care for him instead. For the next few days, Stevens moved between his father’s room and the drawing and dining rooms downstairs, never betraying any emotion about his father’s state. During the final dinner, M. Dupont made a toast and accused Mr. Lewis of duplicity and betrayal; Lewis, in turn, called Lord Darlington an amateur who was out of his league in trying to arrange international politics in a gentlemanly way. Not long after that, Stevens’s father died. Stevens was shaken and came close to crying, though he rapidly returned downstairs to serve the guests with his composure intact. Now he remembers that night with a certain feeling of triumph for having retained such dignity.
Stevens’s thoughts turn to the importance he’s always placed in serving an employer of great moral stature. While sitting at Mortimer’s Pond in Dorset, he thinks back to earlier that day when he was faced with car trouble and had to stop to ask help from a chauffeur outside a Victorian house. While saying he came from Darlington Hall, Stevens had implied that he hadn’t, in fact, worked for Lord Darlington. He admits that this slightly misleading comment is related to another recent event, when friends of Mr. Farraday, the Wakefields, came to visit Darlington Hall, and he also gave the impression to Mrs. Wakefield that he had never worked for Lord Darlington. He reiterates that he is proud to have worked for Lord Darlington, and that his reticence stems only from not wanting to hear any more “nonsense” about his former employer.
The next day, sitting at a tearoom in Taunton, Stevens thinks about accusations that began to be leveled at Lord Darlington after the war—accusations of anti-Semitism (including not allowing Jewish staff members to work at Darlington Hall), and association with fascists. Stevens roundly dismisses such notions: he takes pride in having served someone as morally upright as Lord Darlington. He admits that such unfounded rumors may have gotten started as a result of the short-lived influence of one of Darlington’s friends in the early 1930s. After spending time with that friend (who was part of a fascist group), Lord Darlington began to make disparaging comments about Jews. At one point, he called Stevens into his office to tell him that they mustn’t have Jewish people on staff; Stevens would have to dismiss the two Jewish housemaids, Ruth and Sarah. Though Stevens claims to have hated the idea of dismissing the girls, he didn’t hesitate to fulfill his employer’s order. Miss Kenton, though, was appalled; while she objected strongly, saying she’d quit before agreeing to do so, Stevens said it wasn’t their place to say what was and wasn’t right. Miss Kenton never did quit, and Stevens began to tease her about it; months later, though, she admitted that she was quite close to quitting and felt cowardly, but realized she’d have nowhere to go if she left. A year later, Lord Darlington had severed all connections to his friend and he asked Stevens if he could figure out what happened to Ruth and Sarah, as it had been wrong to dismiss them. Stevens eagerly told Miss Kenton what he’d said, as part of the evening meetings with cocoa that they regularly held in her parlor. But she was distraught that Stevens had never thought to share that he too didn’t agree with the dismissals; he couldn’t figure out how to explain to her why he hadn’t.
Now, Stevens finds himself in the private family home of the Taylors; earlier that day his car ran out of gas, and the Taylors were kind enough to invite him to stay the night. He thinks back, now, to the daily parlor meetings with Miss Kenton, wondering how they came to end. He wonders if it has to do with the time Miss Kenton interrupted him in his parlor reading a sentimental love story and teased him about it; he immediately grew cold and distant, deciding he’d have to reassert their relationship on more professional grounds. He recalls, too, that Miss Kenton began to receive letters and visit a suitor in a nearby town. Once she asked him, now that he was at the top of his profession, if he’d ever want anything else in life; he couldn’t imagine what she meant, and he said he’d never be fulfilled until seeing Lord Darlington through all his goals. Not long after, Miss Kenton seemed cool and distant at one of their parlor talks, and Stevens suggested they stop meeting. She protested but he insisted, and the evenings came to an end. Now he wonders if things might have turned out otherwise had he not insisted; but he notes that only with the benefit of hindsight can one see turning points everywhere. He relates a few more failures of communication between himself and Miss Kenton, including once shortly after her aunt’s death when he heard her crying on the other side of her parlor door, but didn’t enter; but he reiterates that it’s useless to speculate too much on the past.
Stevens thinks about the events of earlier this evening, when a number of villagers came to visit him, impressed by his gentlemanly manners. Stevens began to refer to his past involvement in foreign policy, giving the impression that he’d personally known people like Lord Halifax and Mr. Churchill (both of whom had visited Darlington Hall). He’s now embarrassed, not sure how or why he gave such an impression. He also thinks about one particular strain of the conversation, when one villager, Mr. Harry Smith, pronounced that dignity is something that every English citizen can have as part of their democratic participation in politics. Stevens doesn’t agree: he thinks ordinary people can’t expect to have such strong opinions, and that politics should be the realm of aristocratic gentlemen. He reiterates his loyalty to Lord Darlington, loyalty being a quality he continues to believe in. Even if Darlington was misguided and made mistakes—even if his life now looks like a waste—there’s nothing undignified in Stevens’s loyalty to him, no reason for him to feel regret or shame.
The next day finds Stevens sitting in the Rose Garden hotel, waiting for Miss Kenton. He recalls a memory that he’s already related, about Miss Kenton crying on the other side of the door; but now he thinks this event may have taken place months later. It was during a visit from Mr. Cardinal, Sir Cardinal’s son, who was Lord Darlington’s godson. He came to visit unexpectedly, when Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop were also expected, so Lord Darlington asked Mr. Cardinal to wait alone. Frustrated, Mr. Cardinal had too much to drink and told Stevens that the Nazis were playing Darlington: they were manipulating his gentlemanly spirit and sense of decency to string England along, buying themselves time. Darlington, he said, was a pawn of the Nazis, and he asked if Stevens hadn’t seen it—Stevens said he hadn’t.
Meanwhile, Miss Kenton announced to Stevens that she was going to accept her suitor’s proposal of marriage. He barely responded, and she grew upset, asking if he had nothing more to say to her after so many years. He simply congratulated her and hurried back to the main rooms, telling her that she was keeping him from important events. Upset and angry, Miss Kenton told him that she and Mr. Benn often amused themselves telling anecdotes about Stevens’s habits; he didn’t respond. A little later she apologized, but he said he could barely recall what she was talking about, given the significant events going on upstairs. That evening, he now realizes, was when he heard Miss Kenton crying inside her parlor. Nonetheless, he feels a certain triumph when he thinks about that night, too, given how well he balanced all his responsibilities. Again, he emerged with dignity from trying circumstances.
Two days later, Stevens is sitting on the pier of the seaside town of Weymouth, reflecting on his meeting with Miss Kenton. At first, they exchanged pleasantries, but then became comfortable with each other and began reminiscing about their days together at Darlington Hall. They discussed Lord Darlington’s ruined postwar reputation, and Stevens tells Miss Kenton that Darlington’s final days were solitary and silent, and it was tragic. As he drove her to the bus station, he ventured to ask her if she was being well-treated, given the unhappiness he sensed in some of her letters. Saying that she felt she could be honest with him, Miss Kenton told him that she initially thought of her engagement and marriage as another ruse to annoy him, not something she’d actually go through with. At first she was very unhappy, but over the years she came to love her husband. At times she still grows frustrated, imagining another life she could have had—a life with Stevens, for instance—but then she remembers that her place is with her husband, and that she can’t live entirely in the past. Stevens relates that his heart was breaking then, but he remained calm and cheerful with Miss Kenton as he said goodbye.
Now, Stevens thinks back to a discussion just a few hours ago that he had with another man on the bench beside him. It turned out the man was a butler himself before his retirement, so Stevens began to tell him about Darlington Hall, before confessing that he’s begun to make more and more trivial errors, and he worries he doesn’t have much left to give. He told the man that Lord Darlington was not a bad man; at least he made his own mistakes, which isn’t something Stevens can say for himself. He began to cry, and the man tried to comfort him by telling him to keep looking forward. Now Stevens reflects that the man is right, and that all he can do is to put his fate in the hands of great gentlemen like those he serves. He thinks of Mr. Farraday’s bantering, and resolves to work harder to fulfill that professional requirement as best he can.