The most important aspect of Stevens's life is his dignity as an English butler. Such aspects of refined dignity, especially when applied under stressful situations, are, to Stevens, what define a "great butler". As such, Stevens constantly maintains an inward and outward sense of dignity to preserve his own identity. He dedicated his whole life to Lord Darlington.
These philosophies of dignity, however, greatly affect his life—largely with respect to social constraints, loyalty and politics, and love and relationships. By preserving dignity at the expense of such emotions, Stevens in a way loses his sense of humanity with respect to his own personal self. Stevens's primary struggle within the novel is how his dignity relates to his own experiences, as well as the role his dignity plays in the past, present, and future.
Banter is a central and underlying theme in the novel. Stevens introduces it in the prologue as a problem which he considers his duty to solve to please Mr Farraday. Stevens takes this new duty very seriously. He ponders over it, practises in his room, and studies a radio programme called "Twice a Week or More" for its witticisms. He practises banter on the people he meets, such as the locals in the Coach and Horses inn near Taunton, but is unsuccessful. He agonises over it yet fails to realise that it is his delivery that is lacking. The true significance of banter becomes apparent at the end of the novel when Stevens has met the retired butler who strikes up a conversation with him and tells him to enjoy his old age. Stevens then listens to the chatter of the people around him, in a positive frame of mind, and realises that banter is "the key to human warmth".
The novel does not present the situation of Stevens as simply a personal one. It seems clear that Stevens's position as butler, and servant, has gradually made it impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. His father dies, and Stevens is too occupied with worrying about whether his butlering is being carried out correctly to mourn (something that he later reflects on with great pride). Stevens too cannot bring himself to express feelings about personal matters, as expressing such emotions would compromise his dignity.
The social rules at the time were certainly a major constraint. As we see in the book, servants who wish to get married and have children immediately find themselves without a job, since married life is seen as incompatible with total devotion to one's master. A truly "great butler" does not abandon his profession, and, as such, Stevens feels that such choices are foolish in regard to the life of a butler.
Loyalty and politics
Stevens is shown as totally loyal to Lord Darlington, whose friendly approach towards Germany, through his friendship to Mrs Charles Barnet, also results in close contacts to right-wing extremist organisations, such as the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley. Due to this, he also discharges the two Jewish staff members (which he regrets later as a mistake). He also had contact with British and German diplomats. In "day four – afternoon" a meeting is described between the Prime Minister and German Ambassador Ribbentrop in the rooms of his estate. Stevens is quite incapable of believing his master to be wrong in this, as Lord Darlington's upbringing and heritage carry a certain type of dignity that is above and beyond Stevens' own.
Love and relationships
Stevens is arguably aware on some level of Miss Kenton's feelings, but he fails to reciprocate. Miss Kenton's actions often leave Stevens bemused and puzzled, but his recollections reveal to the reader the lost possibilities of their relationship, as past interactions are recreated. However, Stevens is never able to acknowledge the complexity of feeling he possesses for Miss Kenton, insisting only that they shared an 'excellent professional relationship'. It is not only the constraints of his social situation, but also his own emotional maturity (or immaturity) that holds him back. During their time spent at Darlington Hall, Stevens chose to maintain a sense of distance born from his personal understanding of dignity, as opposed to searching and discovering the feelings that existed between himself and Miss Kenton. It is only within their final encounter that Stevens tragically becomes aware of the lost potential of his life with Miss Kenton.
Memory and perspective
In common with his other novels, Ishiguro uses the structural devices of memory and perspective within this novel. Past events are presented from the view point of the main protagonist, the ageing Stevens; elements of the past are presented as fragments, apparently subconsciously censored by Stevens to present (explicitly) a description of past occurrences as he would have the reader understand them and (implicitly) to relay the fact that the information supplied is subjective. On occasion the narrator acknowledges the potential inaccuracy of his recollections and this serves the reader by inviting him to question the pedigree of the information relayed by Stevens; the more the reader learns about Stevens's character, the more we are able to interpret the sub-textual intention of the fragments of memory presented by him. This device serves to engage the reader, who is invited to look beneath the facts of the incidents in question and provides a clever literary device for looking beyond the public face presented by a character whose very essence is characterised by the presentation of a dignified façade.