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.
Bantering provides an element of lightness and humor in the narrative, yet it is still one that ultimately demonstrates the degree to which Stevens has become an anachronism. Stevens repeatedly tells of various failed attempts at bantering, and muses over why Americans like his new employer, Mr. Farraday, like to speak in such a casual and seemingly meaningless manner. By the end of the novel, Stevens cedes that perhaps bantering can be a way to exhibit warmth, and he resolves to try again with renewed zeal. The fact that Stevens uses the word "bantering" instead of "joking around" or "sense of humor" in itself shows how old-fashioned and formal he is.
A recurrent structural motif in the novel is the rhetorical method Stevens uses to make his points. His primary manner of discussing a new topic is to pose a question and then answer it himself, incorporating into his answers a number of responses to anticipated counter-arguments. As rhetoric is a form of art and debate closely associated with England, this mode of discourse lends the novel greater authority as one firmly grounded in English culture and tradition. The rhetorical mode of discourse is intended to convince its audience; indeed, particularly in the early parts of the narrative, Stevens often succeeds in conveying the illusion that he fully understands all sides of the issues he discusses. As the novel progresses, however, we realize there are whole realms he has failed to consider, rendering many of his assumptions and arguments much weaker than they initially appear.
The most notable symbols in The Remains of the Day are associated with people and events, not with objects and colors. The English landscape that Stevens admires near the beginning of his road trip is one such significant symbol, as we see that Stevens applies the same standards of greatness to the landscape as he does to himself. He feels that English landscape is beautiful due to its restraint, calm, and lack of spectacle—the same qualities Stevens successfully cultivates in his own life as a butler aspiring to "greatness." By the end of the novel, however, Stevens is no longer certain that he has been wise to adhere to these values so rigidly, to the exclusion open- mindedness, individuality, and love.
Stevens and Miss Kenton watch Stevens's father, after his fall on the steps, practicing going up and down the steps. The elder Stevens searches the ground surrounding the steps "as though," Miss Kenton writes in her letter, "he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there." The action of searching for something that is irretrievably lost is an apt symbol for Stevens's road trip, and indeed his life as a whole. Just as his father keeps his eyes trained on the ground, Stevens keeps thinking over memories in his head as though they will give him some clue as to how his values led him astray in life.
The silver polish company in Mursden that is closing down is a symbol for the obsolescence of Stevens's profession. Indeed, the butler is also almost entirely obsolete by 1956. It is significant that Stevens knows all about the quality of the silver polish, the houses in which it was used, and so on—though he knows an incredible amount of detail about all things related to the maintenance of a great household, his knowledge is no longer nearly as important as it once was. There is no longer the demand that there once was in England for either silver polish or butlers; they are a part of a bygone era.