Dignity and Greatness
The compound qualities of "dignity" and "greatness" pervade Stevens's thoughts throughout The Remains of the Day. Early in the novel, Stevens discusses the qualities that make a butler "great," claiming that "dignity" is the essential ingredient of greatness. He illustrates the concept with a number of examples, finally concluding that dignity "has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits." Stevens develops this exclusively professional mindset only too well. Because he always dons the mask of an imperturbable butler, he necessarily denies—and therefore leaves unexpressed—his own personal feelings and beliefs. Stevens's pursuit of dignity in his professional life completely takes over his personal life as well. By suppressing his individuality in this manner, he never achieves true intimacy with another person. The fact that his view of dignity is so misguided is sad; we can tell that Stevens has wanted great things, but that he has gone about attaining them the wrong way.
Although Stevens never overtly discusses what he thinks "regret" may mean, it becomes clear, when he breaks down and cries at the end of the novel, that he wishes he had acted differently with regard to Miss Kenton and Lord Darlington. The tone of the novel is often wistful or nostalgic for the past; as the story goes on, the tone deepens into one of regret as Stevens reevaluates his past actions and decisions, and finds them unwise. Miss Kenton also openly says at the end of the novel that she often regrets the choices she has made in her own life. The overwhelming sadness of the ending is only slightly lifted by Stevens's resolve to perfect the art of bantering—it seems a meager consolation considering the irreparable losses he has experienced in life.
Literal and figurative loss abounds for almost every character in The Remains of the Day. Stevens loses his father, Miss Kenton, and eventually his hope of convincing Miss Kenton to return to Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton loses her aunt, her only relative; and loses Stevens when she leaves to marry a man she does not love. Lord Darlington loses two friends, Herr Bremann and Sir David Cardinal, and his godson, Reginald Cardinal, when they die. Furthermore, Darlington loses his reputation and some degree of his own sanity by the end of his life. Reginald Cardinal loses his father to death and his godfather, Lord Darlington, to Nazi brainwashing. There are both literal and figurative deaths: deaths of loved ones, and figurative deaths of dreams and ideals.