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Stevens spends the first night of his trip in a guesthouse in Salisbury. He looks back over the day. He describes the excitement he felt during the moment that morning, after the first twenty minutes of driving, when the landscape was no longer familiar to him. At that moment, Stevens stops the car to stretch his legs. A man relaxing at the bottom of a hill suggests that Stevens walk up a trail to the top of the hill to see the view, which the stranger claims is unparalleled in all of England. The view at the top is indeed beautiful, and Stevens feels "a heady flush of anticipation" for the adventures he is sure await him.
In the afternoon, Stevens arrives at the guesthouse in Salisbury. At around four o'clock, he takes a walk in the streets of the town for a few hours. He visits a beautiful cathedral and, though he is generally impressed with the city, the view that remains with him is the view of the English countryside that he saw that morning. Stevens thinks that the sort of subtle beauty typified by the English countryside is best captured by the term "greatness." The landscape is great precisely because it lacks any "drama" or "spectacle"; the beauty is "calm" and has "a sense of restraint." These thoughts lead Stevens to discuss the qualities that constitute a "great" butler.
The Hayes Society, an elite society of butlers in the 1920s and 1930s, claimed that any butler applying for membership to the Society must possess "a dignity in keeping with his position." Through a set of examples, Stevens goes on to define what he believes this notion "dignity" encompasses.
Stevens's first illustration of dignity involves a story Stevens's father used to tell about a butler who was working for his employer in India. One day, while the employer was entertaining guests in his drawing room, the butler went into the dining room and found that there was a tiger under the table. After conferring with his employer, the butler shot the animal, removed its carcass, cleaned up the dining room, and returned to calmly inform his employer, "Dinner will be served at the usual time and I am pleased to say there will be no discernible traces left of the recent occurrence by that time."
Stevens's next two examples of dignity are about his father, who was also a butler. The first story tells how two drunken houseguests of his employer instructed Stevens's father to drive them around in the car late one afternoon. Though the men were loutish, Stevens's father behaved with immaculate courtesy until the men began to make disparaging comments about his employer, Mr. John Silver. At that point, Stevens's father pulled the car over and got out. He opened the back door and stared silently at the two men until they realized they had been really rude. They apologized, and he took them back home in perfect silence.
The third example is about an episode between Stevens's father and an Army general. Stevens's father hated the general because, during the British campaign in South Africa, the general's poor leadership and bad judgment in a particular military maneuver resulted in the needless death of Stevens's older bother. The very same general came as a guest to Mr. Silver's house, and Stevens's father himself waited on the general for four days. Despite the personal pain it caused him, Stevens's father did his duty so well that the general never had a clue as to his true feelings, and left a generous tip. Stevens's father unhesitatingly donated the tip money to charity.
Stevens sums up the ideas of "greatness" and "dignity" by saying that while some people may certainly be more naturally inclined to be dignified, dignity is also a quality that one can, and must, strive to attain.
The fact that Stevens thinks that a "restrained" landscape is beautiful is not at all surprising, given that he himself is the embodiment of self-restraint. In this regard, the landscape is a symbol of all that Stevens stands for. The qualities that make the landscape "great" are the same qualities that Stevens thinks make a butler "great."
Stevens has to stop and stretch his legs because he needs to take a moment to adjust to seeing unfamiliar landscape. The fact that this unfamiliar landscape is only a few minutes' drive from Darlington Hall demonstrates how enclosed Stevens's entire existence has been; due to his incredible professional commitment to Darlington Hall, he has hardly ever ventured into the outside world. However, the fact that his travels are limited never bothers him; it would never even occur to him to allow himself to feel discontentment at his confinement, as he believes a butler's greatest fulfillment is the graceful execution of his duties for his employer.
Stevens's story about the tiger describes a butler acting with perfect poise under great duress. For Stevens and his father to feel dignified, they must, like that butler in India, succeed in acting unruffled even in the hardest of circumstances. The stories concerning the general and the reprimanding of the drunken guests are similar: all three examples involve the butler's negation of his own feelings in order to promote the harmony of his employer's household. This ideology is an extension of the customs in English culture at that time: servants were commonly thought of as inferior not just as workers, but as people. As inferior beings, they were expected to exist solely to serve the household in which they worked.
Though Stevens provides these examples as an illustration of the triumph of the butlers involved, we may just as readily view the stories as pathetic. According to Stevens, a dignified butler is never able to freely express himself: the butler in the tiger story cannot acknowledge the urgency and bizarreness of the situation, just as Stevens's father must put up with annoying houseguests without ever expressing his dislike for them. Butlers cannot choose whether or not to react to any given situation; they are always expected to repress their own feelings. Furthermore, the third example demonstrates Steven's father's loyalty to his employer, Mr. John Silver, at the total exclusion of his own personal pain and feelings. Stevens himself feels the same unquestioned loyalty for Lord Darlington.
Stevens's lengthy discussion of dignity may appear a bit extraneous to the plot, as he presents it in this section as a sort of mental digression. However, Stevens's concept of dignity is vital to understanding his motivation for his actions, both past and present. The narrative has not, as of yet, raised any doubts as to the wisdom of Stevens's beliefs. However, the lengthy explanation of these beliefs suggests that they later become essential to decisions Stevens makes that shape the plot of the story as a whole.
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