The world of English mansions, lords and ladies, butlers and maids, still exists at the time at which the novel takes place, but it’s a dying world. Indeed, Darlington Hall is emblematic of one shift that has taken place, as Englishmen still with titles but with their money gone have been forced to sell their estates to rich Americans like Stevens’s new employer. The acute awareness of social class and class difference that Stevens evinces in his narrative, and in the way he and the other servants act in the flashback scenes, thus coexists with a sense that those differences are now eroding.
For Stevens, it is a given that, as his father was a butler, he will be one as well, just as the generations of Darlingtons have maintained their social and class status. Stevens doesn’t question that his employer has so much more money, power, and comfort than he does; Stevens considers it a fact of life. Within the strict social hierarchy, from aristocracy down to the servant class, there can also be subtler differentiation, such as between a footman and a butler, or between an under-butler and a housekeeper; it’s the latter that causes the first major disagreement between Stevens and Miss Kenton, who takes issue at being asked to address Stevens’s father formally despite the higher status of her position. This world is clear, ordered, and (to Stevens’s mind) sensible, even while it is also rigid and leaves little room for social mobility. After the war, however, it is clear that such hierarchies are shifting. Stevens is often treated as a relic of a former time by other people he encounters. He’s even considered a “gentleman” by some people, a term that would normally be reserved for someone of Lord Darlington’s social status.
Part of the novel’s pathos lies in showing how social mobility and change, which is usually thought of as positive and progressive, can also be disruptive and frightening. This is the case even for someone like Stevens who would presumably benefit from being able to adopt a new way of life, but who is afraid to be overwhelmed by the new social realities that are approaching just as his own career is winding down.
Class Difference and Social Change ThemeTracker
Class Difference and Social Change Quotes in The Remains of the Day
It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern.
And now let me posit this: “dignity” has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the façade will drop to reveal the actor underneath. The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost. […] They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.
“He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentleman amateurs. The sooner you here in Europe realize that the better. All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over. Except of course, you here in Europe don’t yet seem to know it.”
To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them. It was the aspiration of all those of us with professional ambition to work out way as close to this hub as we were each of us capable. For we were, as I say, an idealistic generation for whom the question was not simply one of how well one practiced one’s skills, but to what end one did so; each of us harboured the desire to make our own small contribution to the creation of a better world, and saw that, as professionals, the surest means of doing so would be to serve the great gentlemen of our times in whose hands civilization had been entrusted.
I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was. I was particularly disappointed, I suppose, because I have been devoting some time and effort over recent months to improving my skill in this very area. That is to say, I have been endeavouring to add this skill to my professional armoury so as to fulfil with confidence all Mr. Farraday’s expectations with respect to bantering.
And then again, you will hear these same persons talking as though Lord Darlington did something unusual in receiving hospitality from the Nazis on the several trips he made to Germany during those years. […] The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentleman were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders, and I can vouch at first hand that the great majority of these persons were returning with nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts. Anyone who implies that Lord Darlington was liaising covertly with a known enemy is just conveniently forgetting the true climate of those times.
There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them contribute “strong opinions” to the great debates of the day cannot, surely, be wise. It is, I any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a person’s “dignity” in these terms.
I remember this American chap, even drunker than I am now, he got up at the dinner table in front of the whole company. And he pointed at his lordship and called him an amateur. Called him a bungling amateur and said he was out of his depth. Well, I have to say, Stevens, that American chap was quite right. It’s a fact of life. Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.
After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.