Like Ishiguro's previous two novels, the story is told from the first person point of view with the narrator recalling his life through a diary while progressing through the present. Events in the narrator's contemporary life remind him of events from his past.
The novel was Ishiguro's first not based in Japan or told from the point of view of a Japanese person, although his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, was told from the point of view of an elderly Japanese woman living in Britain and recalling her past in Japan.
The novel The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an English butler who dedicates his life to the loyal service of Lord Darlington (mentioned in increasing detail in flashbacks). The novel begins with Stevens receiving a letter from an ex co-worker called Miss Kenton, describing her married life, which he believes hints at her unhappy marriage. The receipt of the letter allows Stevens the opportunity to revisit this once-cherished relationship, if only under the guise of possible re-employment. Stevens' new employer, a wealthy American, Mr. Farraday, encourages Stevens to borrow a car to take a well-earned break, a "motoring trip." As he sets out, Stevens has the opportunity to reflect on his unmoving loyalty to Lord Darlington, the meaning of the term "dignity", and even his relationship with his father. Ultimately Stevens is forced to ponder the true nature of his relationship with Miss Kenton. As the book progresses, increasing evidence of Miss Kenton's one-time love for Stevens, and his for her, is revealed.
Working together during the years leading up to WWII, Stevens and Miss Kenton fail to admit their true feelings. All of their recollected conversations show a professional friendship, which came close, but never dared, to cross the line to romance.
Miss Kenton, it later emerges, has been married for over 20 years and therefore is no longer Miss Kenton but has become Mrs. Benn. She admits to occasionally wondering what her life with Stevens might have been like, has come to love her husband, and is looking forward to the birth of their first grandchild. Stevens muses over lost opportunities, both with Miss Kenton and with his long-time employer, Lord Darlington. At the end of the novel, Stevens instead focuses on the "remains of [his] day", referring to his future service with Mr. Farraday.
These philosophies of dignity, however, greatly affect his life, largely in regards to social constraints, loyalty and politics, and love and relationships. By preserving dignity at the expense of such emotions, Stevens, in a way, loses his sense of humanity in regards to his own personal self. Stevens primary struggle within the novel is how his dignity relates to his own experiences, as well as the role his dignity plays in the past, present, and future.
The novel does not present the situation of Stevens as simply a personal one. It seems clear that Stevens' position as butler, and servant, has gradually made it impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. His father dies, and Stevens is too occupied with worrying about whether his butlering is being carried out correctly. Stevens too cannot bring himself to express feelings about personal matters, as expressing such emotions would compromise his dignity.
The social rules at the time were certainly a major constraint. As we see in the book, servants who wish to get married and have children immediately find themselves without a job, since married life is seen as incompatible with total devotion to one's master. A truly "great butler" does not abandon his profession, and, as such, Stevens feels that such choices are foolish in regards to the life of a butler.
Stevens is shown as totally loyal to Lord Darlington, who, we slowly realise, is involved with right-wing extremist organization 'blackshirts' of Sir Oswald Mosley through his friendship to Mrs Charles Barnet in summer 1932 (see chapter "day three - evening"), during which he discharged both jewish staff members (what he regreted later as a mistake). He also had contacts to English and German diplomats. In "day four - afternoon" a meeting is described where the Prime Minister and German Ambassador Herr Rippentrop in the rooms of his estate. Stevens is certainly quite incapable of believing his master to be wrong in this, as Lord Darlington's upbringing and heritage emit a certain type of dignity that is 'ascended' above and beyond Stevens' own.
Stevens is dimly aware of Miss Kenton's feelings, but fails to reciprocate. It is not only the constraints of his social situation, but also his own emotional maturity that holds him back. During their time spent at Darlington Hall, Stevens chose to maintain a sense of dignity, as opposed to searching and discovering the feelings that existed between him and Miss Kenton.
Nonetheless, the lovers enjoy each other's company (the cup of cocoa every evening) and find drama, if not intimacy, in the little games they play.
The pro-Hitler stance of Lord Darlington has parallels in the warm relations with Germany favoured by some British aristocrats in the early 1930s, such as Lord Londonderry.