The compound qualities of “dignity” and “greatness” pervade Stevens’s thoughts throughout the novel “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. “Professional principles are the driving force in James Stevens’s life. Over decades of service, he has immersed himself in his profession, dedicating his existence to the principles of dignity, duty, and loyalty. His ultimate goal is to be recognized as a “great” butler.
Dignity is foremost among the principles which Stevens links to greatness in a butler. It requires placing service to his master above all else and binding his own destiny to his master’s. Dignity requires restraint; to not “run about screaming” at the slightest hint of trouble. It demands he wear his professionalism “as a decent gentleman will wear his suit,” taking it off only when he wishes to do so and in privacy, when he is entirely alone. However, once Stevens achieves this level of dignity, it leaves no room for intimacy and separates him from his humanity. All ability to bestow or receive human warmth is blocked. In the presence of others, he must always deny and displace his real feelings.
Again, devotion to the principle of duty becomes the outward expression of Stevens’s struggle for dignity and greatness. He works hard to please his employer and takes pride in his subservience. When he stoically carries out his duties during the great conference of 1923 while his father is upstairs dying, Stevens experiences “a large sense of triumph” at the end of it all. In the face of everything, he had displayed dignity worthy of a great butler. Similarly, he feels a sense of triumph on the evening he loses Miss Kenton forever because he has submissively served his lordship well, “in a manner even my father might have been proud of.”
Loyalty is linked to duty and according to Stevens it is another aspect of greatness. Loyalty as an unquestioned principle does not permit Stevens to examine the actions of Lord Darlington as his lordship becomes deeply mired in international affairs. He stubbornly represses any feelings of curiosity or doubt, trusting in his lordship’s good judgment. In his desire for greatness, Stevens dedicates his loyalty to a gentleman whom he perceives to have fine and noble intentions. This blind loyalty, which Stevens believes he has “intelligently bestowed,” proves ruinous and casts doubt on the life path he has taken.
The art of bantering is something Stevens lacks, but it is a skill he wants to improve. Bantering is a theme which holds the novel together, as well as making the novel more comical, and throughout the story Stevens practices bantering. A good example of it is when he meets the locals at the pub the Coach and Horses in Taunton, Somerset (p. 138) This is where the lack of Stevens bantering-skills becomes obvious. The conversation(p. 138) ends up with Stevens expressing his feelings of disappointment as the reaction to his apparent witticism he recieved from the locals was not what he had hoped for .
The art of bantering can also be connected to the theme of butlers and dignity. This is because that if Stevens learns the art of bantering he may please his master Mr. Farraday, and it will make Stevens more professional, according to Stevens himself and his image of ‘the perfect butler’. During the journey Stevens undergoes personal change, and bantering has a great deal of importance for the processes. He considers the modification necessary for his employment as well as a significant pre-requisite for his profession.
Another detail of importance is the fact that the theme bantering opens up as well as ends the novel. In the beginnig of the nove Stevens and Mr Farraday are having a light conversation. As they speak of Miss Kenton, Mr Farraday involves witticism and Stevens reaction is total embarrassment. Stevens is not used to those kind of words from his employer, though he says: ‘The most embarrassing situation, one in which Lord Darlington would never have placed an employee’. At the end of the novel though, Stevens sees the bantering as a start of his future life. Stevens makes the conclusion of bantering as the solution of pleasing his master and becoming the ‘perfect’ butler.
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.