Stevens, the head butler at Darlington Hall in England, discusses the journey upon which he is about to embark—a journey that his employer, Mr. Farraday, has suggested Stevens take. Mr. Farraday is going back to the United States for five weeks, and he tells Stevens that he should take the opportunity to get out and see a bit of the country.
Stevens does not initially take Mr. Farraday's suggestion seriously. However, upon receiving a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, Stevens decides to go. Stevens feels that Miss Kenton's letter contains "distinct hints" of her desire to return to Darlington Hall as an employee. In the past few months, Stevens has been a little slipshod in his work. He attributes his errors to the fact that the house is understaffed, so he plans to ask Miss Kenton if she would like to return to work at Darlington Hall again. Currently, only four people staff the entire manor house: Stevens, Mrs. Clements, and two hired girls, Rosemary and Agnes. Mr. Farraday does not wish to keep on a larger staff, because he does not entertain guests nearly as frequently as the house's previous owner, Lord Darlington, did.
Stevens begins choosing the proper attire for the journey. He consults a road atlas and several volumes of a series of travel books titled The Wonder of England. The last time Stevens looked over these volumes was twenty years ago, when he wished to obtain an idea of the region where Mrs. Kenton was moving when she left Darlington Hall to get married.
Once Stevens has decided to take the trip, he broaches the idea again with Mr. Farraday when he brings his employer his afternoon tea. Stevens tells Farraday that the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall resides in the West Country, but he then pauses, realizing he has not discussed with Mr. Farraday the idea of bringing on another staff member. Mr. Farraday teases Stevens for having a "lady-friend," which makes the extremely proper butler feel very awkward. Mr. Farraday of course gives his consent for Stevens to go on the trip, and reiterates his offer to "foot the bill for the gas."
Stevens then muses about the joking around that is so characteristic of Mr. Farraday's conversational style. Stevens thinks that the American form of "bantering" is somewhat vulgar, but that he must endeavor to participate in it, or his employer will see it as a form of negligence on Stevens's part. Stevens goes on to say that the matter of bantering is more difficult because he cannot discuss it with his cohorts anymore—in past times, other butlers would accompany their employers to Darlington Hall, and Stevens would have the opportunity to discuss various work dilemmas with them. Now, however, there are fewer great butlers, and Stevens rarely sees those that remain, as Farraday does not frequently entertain guests from other houses.
Until the last few pages of The Remains of the Day, the entire narrative is written in retrospect. In this section, Stevens goes back in time and tells us all of the events leading up to his impending departure. In almost every section of the novel, the narrative begins in the present: Stevens briefly reminisces over the events of the present day, and then returns to a more lengthy discussion of events from the past. Fluctuations within the narrative between past and present allow Stevens to present us with fragmentary information to which he returns later in the narrative to explain more fully.
The narrative is complex because it incorporates both Stevens's knowledge of and his blindness to the events he recounts; we is strictly limited to knowing only what Stevens wishes to disclose. The narrative style is extremely discursive and unhurried, and incredibly deliberate and detailed.
From the narrative style we immediately see that Stevens is a very proper, meticulous person. His attention to detail is extraordinary; he even lists all the various different sorts of traveling clothes that he might need for the journey. Though Stevens repeatedly says that his trip is professional in nature, we see through his words that, on a personal level, he very much looks forward to seeing Miss Kenton again. Indeed, it is the arrival of her letter that incites his desire to take the trip. The fact that Stevens used to look at books to get a clue as to Miss Kenton's new home once she left Darlington Hall also demonstrates that she is constantly in his thoughts, even when she is no longer working with him.
In the novel, Ishiguro presents two ways of being English that are largely at odds with each other. Stevens embodies older codes of decorum—gracious, practical, and undemonstrative. The present culture is less concerned with what is proper, and more concerned with what is efficient. While the older England scorned American culture and politics to some degree, the more current England embraces these concepts, causing a division within the country between two very different viewpoints. Stevens's discussion of "bantering" demonstrates his entrenchment in old-fashioned values and judgments. In order to banter in the manner of Mr. Farraday, Stevens would have to stop taking himself so seriously—and it is difficult to imagine a more serious character than Stevens. Stevens is far too afraid of offending Mr. Farraday to ever be relaxed enough to joke with him; he literally thinks that he is inferior to Mr. Farraday because he is a servant and Mr. Farraday is his master. Although the strict hierarchy that used to characterize the ordering of English manor houses has faded away in favor of more democratic views, Stevens has not adapted to a climate in which he might joke with his employer as an equal.