The Remains of the Day, the third novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, was published in 1989 to great acclaim, winning the Man Booker Prize for Literature. The book tells the story of Stevens, an English butler working at Darlington Hall. At the start of the novel, he is encouraged to take a vacation by his employer, Mr. Farraday, an American gentleman who believes Stevens needs a break from his duties. Stevens believes the suggestion dovetails nicely with his desire to visit a former colleague at Darlington Hall - Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, residing in West England. Twenty years ago, Miss Kenton and he worked at Darlington Hall together, he as butler, she as maid, but she left upon her marriage, and now twenty years later, she is divorced, and Stevens looks forward to bringing her back to Darlington Hall to help with his increasing staff problems. Specifically, Stevens has had trouble since the end of the second World War finding a large enough staff to handle the work at the estate. An act of Parliament in England severely limited the power of the aristocracy and ultimately began to break up these huge estates - Darlington Hall is one of the last few.
The book spans his one week trip to visit Miss Kenton and involves a mainly stream-of-consciousness 'moral inventory' of Stevens' life. It's as if he's creating a mental diary of his life over this trip, aiming to come to terms with his life choices and his ultimate direction. He first reflects upon what makes a butler a 'great' one, something he clearly has aspirations to achieve. In his eyes, a great butler is what the Hayes Society describes as a man of a distinguished household and a man of dignity. It is this definition of dignity that most concerns Stevens - and he believes it reflects a man who maintains his professionalism no matter what the circumstances. Much of the book, then, is dedicated to providing accounts of Stevens' exhibiting this professionalism at the expense of his human feelings.
For instance, during a great convention at Lord Darlington's house in 1923, Stevens had to handle his dying father in an upstairs room all the while managing the guests of the convention. Ultimately he forgoes his father to focus on the guests, and ultimately misses his father's passing. Stevens looks back on this moment with pride. At the same time, he looks back on the fact that he resisted his attraction to Miss Kenton and stayed faithful to Darlington Hall, even after she left. In his eyes, there is triumph in sacrifice for the sake of one's own employer. Even small anecdotes reveal this - like when Stevens fires two Jewish maids at the behest of Lord Darlington even though he doesn't agree with his employer's politics.
But the majority of the novel is dedicated to Stevens and his relationship with Miss Kenton over the course of their 20 years at Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton arrived at a time when Stevens and his father both worked at the estate. It is Miss Kenton who informs Stevens that his father no longer can do the work required and must be stripped of his major duties. And indeed, though Stevens is offended, it is Miss Kenton who ultimately stays with Stevens' father as he lies dying. Upon Stevens' father's death, Miss Kenton becomes almost a substitute for him in Stevens' life - the only person who seems like family, the only person who can provide him love. When the novel begins, then, she's been gone nearly twenty years, but Stevens seizes upon the fact that her marriage might be crumbling as a reason to visit her. Twenty years before, however, Miss Kenton had given Stevens an opportunity to stop her marriage and take her for himself - an opportunity he let go.
Stevens finds his car runs aground in Moscombe and spends the night with the Taylors. They have a dinner there, where Stevens speaks of his past meetings with dignitaries, never once revealing that he is, in fact, a butler. When Dr. Carlisle drives him back to his car the next day, the doctor pokes a hole in the facade and Stevens finally admits that he is, in fact, the butler at Darlington Hall. With this revelation, Stevens finally makes the last part of his journey to meet Miss Kenton.
But when Stevens finally does meet her, with full plans to bring her back to Darlington Hall and perhaps confess his love, he finds that the spirit has gone out of her. She reveals that she is going back to her husband. Even though she may not love him, he has always been there for her. Stevens realizes he's too late and sends her off with well-wishes and returns to Darlington Hall to fulfill the 'remains of his day.'