Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall, is the protagonist and narrator of The Remains of the Day. A mercilessly precise man, his relentless pursuit of "dignity" leads him to constantly deny his own feelings throughout the novel. For Stevens, "dignity" involves donning a mask of professional poise at all times. Although there is merit in the ideas of decorum and loyalty, Stevens takes these concepts to an extreme. He never tells anyone what he is truly feeling, and he gives his absolute trust to Lord Darlington—a man who himself makes some very poor choices in his life. Although throughout much of the story it seems that Stevens is quite content to have served Lord Darlington—believing that Darlington was doing noble things at the time—Stevens expresses deep regret at the end of the story for failing to cultivate both intimate relationships and his own personal viewpoints and experiences.
Stevens is strongly influenced by his father. He constantly speaks of his father as though the older man perfectly exemplifies the quality of dignity, telling stories of his father's brilliantly self-effacing execution of his duties as butler. It is clear that Stevens wishes to be like his father, and, indeed, he succeeds only too well. Though Stevens is clearly a very competent butler who is always gracious and precise, his inheritance of his father's impossibly formal interactions with other people ends up limiting his personal growth and relationships. The interactions between Stevens and his father are, for the most part, completely devoid of any sign of familial warmth. If Stevens's relationship with even a family member is so distant, we can easily imagine how difficult it is for him to break away from codes of repressed formality.
With Stevens, Ishiguro uses two levels of narrative voice in one character: Stevens is alternately a narrator who is superior to the story he tells, and a narrator who is a part of, or within, the story he tells. Stevens at once displays himself as both a paragon of virtue and a victim of historical or cultural circumstances beyond his own control. In this second role, he manages to cultivate our sympathy. His extra-narrative role crumbles at the end of the story when he realizes that the façade he has cultivated is a false one. Ishiguro subtly increases the amount of doubt that Stevens expresses about his past actions, so that by the end of the story, a fuller picture of Stevens's regret and sadness has emerged.
Miss Kenton is the former head housekeeper of Darlington Hall; she and Stevens's father were hired at the same time. Miss Kenton is Stevens's equal in efficiency and intelligence, but she has a warmth and personality that Stevens never displays. When Miss Kenton first starts working at Darlington Hall, for example, she brings flowers into Stevens's austere room to try to brighten it up. Stevens summarily rejects Miss Kenton's attempts to introduce flowers. Indeed, the two disagree over household affairs with great frequency. Initially, these battles of wits only seem to highlight the affection the two feel for one another, but as the years progress, Miss Kenton grows increasingly tired of Stevens's nagging and his unwillingness to admit any more personal feelings, even though this is the only way he knows how to communicate with her. She finally leaves Darlington Hall to marry someone else when it becomes clear that Stevens will never be able to let himself express his feelings for her. Miss Kenton, unlike Stevens, does not substitute Lord Darlington's values for her own; she makes decisions based on her own thoughts and beliefs. In this sense, she displays more dignity and personal integrity than Stevens ever does.
Lord Darlington is the former owner of Darlington Hall. He dies three years before the present day of Stevens's narrative. Darlington is an old- fashioned English gentleman who feels regret and guilt about the harshness of England's treatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. This guilt is compounded by the fact that a close friend of Darlington's, Herr Bremann, commits suicide after World War I. This event, in conjunction with the dire economic situation Lord Darlington witnesses on his visits to Germany, inspires him to take action. In the early 1920s, he organizes conferences at Darlington Hall to allow prominent Europeans to meet and discuss ways to revise the Treaty of Versailles; later, he invites British and German heads of state to Darlington Hall in an attempt to peacefully prevent the Second World War. All the while, however, Darlington never understands the true agenda of the Nazis, who use him to further Nazi aims in Britain. After World War II, Darlington is labeled a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor, which ruins his reputation and leaves him a broken and disillusioned old man at his death. Stevens always speaks highly of Darlington throughout the novel; he says it is a shame that people came to have such a terribly mistaken view of such a noble man.