As he travels the quiet roads of 1950s England, Stevens reminiscences about the inter-war glory years, when Lord Darlington was heavily involved in European affairs, and the house filled with people of power and influence, ponders on what makes a 'great' butler and the meaning of dignity, and just occasionally lets his imperturbable butler's mask slip enough to let us glimpse the man behind - the emotions he's bottled away, the life and love he could have had if not for his belief that duty overrides all.
I first read The Remains of the Day sometime in the early 90s shortly after it won the Booker prize; I loved it then, and it was a pleasure to revisit it, though I think my feeling about Stevens have changed. Then I felt his life had been totally wasted, and that it was his own fault - his loyalty given to a man who never deserved it, the love of his life lost through his stubborn pride and 'dignity'. Now I'm inclined to judge Stevens less harshly; even feel sorry for him. Born and bred into the profession of butler, he follows his father's footsteps, and I feel there's little else he could have done. He copies the example set for him - believing that a butler should be ever-present, constantly at his employers beck and call, putting their needs above his own, never breathing a word of his own personal troubles. His aim is to be a perfect cog in a machine - in another life I could imagine him as the perfect Soviet factory worker putting tractor production and state quotas above personal feelings.
And like that factory worker, Stevens has put total faith in his employer. His sole aim in life was to be the best butler possible. He didn't consider himself informed enough to have an opinion on anything outside this, particularly on the wider poltical issues of the day, but unquestioningly left that to his 'betters', such as Lord Darlington. Such loyalty has turned out to be misplaced (in the light of later events Lord Darlington is labelled as a Nazi sympathiser), and Stevens now finds himself adrift, unsure of how he should have behaved, and uncertain of what life now holds for him.
The Remains of the Day is a quietly moving story of a life spent in serving others, often at the loss of personal happiness, but ultimately I feel it's one of hopefulness as we leave Stevens with his professional brave face on, looking forward to to the future.