Note: This is a reread. I probably had different thoughts after I read it the first time.
Here's the plot summary. There's this butler named Mr. Stevens. He used to work for Lord Darlington at Darlington hall. Lord Darlington has since passed away, and he now works for Mr. Farraday, who bought Darlington hall. Mr. Farraday is an American, which kinda matters because his interactions with Mr. Stevens highlight Mr. Steven's somewhat anachronistic character, but it doesn't really matter. Anyways, Mr. Farraday is going away from the hall for a while. He encourages Mr. Stevens to take his Ford on a little adventure, an offer which Mr. Stevens flatly refuses. However, after some thinking, he accepts the offer.
A bit about that thinking. Before this disgusting talk of "vacation", Mr. Stevens received a letter from Miss Kenton, who worked with him for about 20(?) years under Lord Darlington. This letter hints that she is unhappy with her married life. Coincidentally, the hall is slightly undermanned. Mr. Stevens puts two and two together, and decides to seek out Miss Kenton and see if she desires to return.
Thus begins a very boring journey through the English countryside. The story is structured around the journey, but little is actually told about the journey itself. Rather, the story consists mainly of Mr. Stevens' reminiscings. It happens like this. Mr. Stevens will see a great view of the English countryside. Upon arriving at the inn, he'll think about how great that view is. Then he'll think about what exactly the word "great" is supposed to mean. And then he'll be like "this is just like the conversation I used to have about great butlers." And then commences the memory. Another example. Mr. Stevens will look out of a window, and see a shoe polishing store. This will remind him of how his generation was the first to truly understand how important the polishing of silverware is. And so on. Or, he'll just be like "on this sunny day, I could not help but recall the letter of Miss Kenton once more", and then into the memories we go.
The memories are either about butlers, or Miss Kenton, or both. As the story progresses, it becomes rather obvious that Miss Kenton likes Mr. Stevens. It also becomes obvious that Mr. Stevens can express his feelings about as well as a robot, maybe worse. He prides himself on completely inhabiting the role of butler. In other words, he is always working, and has no time for stuff like having fun or talking to a woman in a non-supervisory manner.
Mr. Steven's nonstop professionalism, and his enthusiasm for butlership (apprently this is a word), leads to some funny moments, and some sad moments, and some funny/sad moments, or tragicomic moments if we want to be fancy. Here are a few:
It was Mr Marshall, it is generally agreed, who was the first to recognize the full significance of silver - namely, that no other objects in the house were likely to come under such intimate scrutiny from outsiders as was silver during a meal, and as such, it served as a public index of a house's standards. And Mr Marshall it was who first caused stupefaction amongst ladies and gentlemen visting Charleville House with displays of silver polished to previously unimagined standards. (134)
It had occured at breakfast one morning, and for his part, Mr Farraday - either through kindness, or because being an American he failed to recognize the extent of the shortcoming - did not utter one word of complaint to me throughout the whole episode. He had, upon seating himself, simply picked up the fork, examined it for a brief second, touching the prongs with a fingertip, then turned his attention to the morning headlines. The whole gesture had been carried out in an absent-minded sort of way, but of course, I had spotted the occurence and had advanced swiftly to remove the offending item. I may in fact have done so a little too swiftly on account of my disturbance, for Mr Farraday gave a small start, muttering: 'Ah, Stevens.'
I had continued to proceed swiftly out of the room, returning without undue delay bearing a satisfactory fork. As I advanced again upon the table - and a Mr Farraday now apparently absorbed in his newspaper - it occured to me I might slip the fork on to the tablecloth quietly without disturbing my employer's reading. However, the possibility had already occurred to me that Mr Farraday was simply feigning indifference in order to minimize my embarrassment, and such a surreptitious delivery could be interpreted as complacency on my part towards my error - or worse, an attempt to cover it up. This was why, then, I decided it appropriate to put the fork down on the table with a certain emphasis, causing my employer to start a second time, look up and mutter again: 'Ah, Stevens.' (139-140)
'Do you realize, Mr Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?'
I gave another laught at the ridiculous turn the conversation had suddenly taken. 'Really, Miss Kenton,' I said, 'I'm not sure I know what you mean. Pretend? Why, really...'
'I suffered so much over Ruth and Sarah leaving us. And I suffered all the more because I believed I was alone.'
'Really, Miss Kenton...' I picked up the tray on which I had gathered together the used crockery. 'Naturally, one disapproved of the dismissals. One would have thought that quite self-evident.' (153-154)
'Mr Stevens, I have something to tell you.' 'Yes, Miss Kenton?' 'It concerns my acquaintance. Who I am going to meet tonight.' 'Yes, Miss Kenton.' 'He has asked me to marry him. I thought you had a right to know that.' 'Indeed, Miss Kenton. That is very interesting.' 'I am still giving the matter thought.' 'Indeed.' (215)
There's somewhat of a slow buildup to the meeting with Miss Kenton. More and more is revealed about their relationship, and at the very end, one might harbor some hope that the two will meet, rekindle their great bond, and run away together Ted and Victoria style. That analogy is slighty off, because Ted and Victoria ended up breaking up. Whatever. Anyways, this definitely does not happen. Miss Kenton (who is actually Mrs. Benn cause she's married) says that, while occasionaly she feels a bit sad (thus the letter), she is, for the most part, happy. She has a grandkid and all that jazz. However, right before leaving, she say that sometimes she wonders what would've happened if she had shared her life with Mr. Stevens. In other words, she hits him with the goosebumps walkaway. Mr. Stevens responds appropriately with a complete lack of emotion. After this there's some stuff about sitting by the seaside but that part doesn't really matter. The goosebumps walkaway scene is excellent, and sad, excellently sad. Here it is:
But that doesn't mean to say, of course, there aren't occasions now and then - extremely desolate occasions - when you think to yourself: "What a terrible mistake I've made with my life." And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that's when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long - my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there's no turning back the clock now. One can't be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.'
I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed - why should I not admit it? - at that moment, my heart was breaking. (239)