Stevens sits in the dining hall of the Rose Garden Hotel in Little Compton after finishing lunch. He will meet Miss Kenton in forty minutes at her current residence. He notes now that he never received a reply from Miss Kenton confirming that she wanted to meet, but he says knowing her, a lack of letter means she is more than happy to meet. Stevens returns to his night with the Taylors in his memory and says that when Dr. Carlisle drove him to his car, he asked Stevens simply if he was a 'manservant.' Stevens was relieved and said that he was in fact the butler at Darlington Hall. Carlisle said he suspected as much and here in a small town, people would likely view Stevens as some form of royalty.
Stevens returns to one memory in particular - an evening a few months after the death of Miss Kenton's aunt, when the young Mr. Cardinal turns up at Darlington Hall. Sir Reginald Cardinal's father, David Cardinal, had been killed in a riding accident a few years earlier. The young Mr. Cardinal had been building a name for himself in international affairs. The young Mr. Cardinal says he is in a jam at the moment and wonders if Mr. Darlington could put him up for the night. Stevens goes to tell Miss Kenton of Mr. Cardinal's arrival and is a bit spooked, because earlier he had stood outside her door, contemplating whether to go in and comfort her over the loss of her aunt. Miss Kenton had been extremely close to her relative and Stevens knew he should assuage her over her loss - but yet didn't know how to do it. Stevens goes in to find Miss Kenton quiet and contemplative. He tells her that Mr. Cardinal has arrived - and she reminds him it is her day off. She then tells Stevens that her aquaintance has asked her to marry him. Stevens can only say that it is 'interesting,' and Miss Kenton says she is thinking it over. Tension hangs in the air, as if she expects him to do something.
Miss Kenton returns from her day off and tells Stevens she has accepted her acquaintance's marriage proposal. Stevens can't seem to formulate his thoughts, and Miss Kenton is a bit surprised by his lack of response. She wonders why he doesn't have more to say, but Stevens says there are events of 'global significance' unfolding upstairs. Miss Kenton seems frustrated and says that she and her fiancee pass their time with her recounting amusing anecdotes about Stevens' fastidity. Stevens leaves, obviously hurt. Stevens attends to the guests upstairs and they ask for a bottle of port. He runs downstairs to get it and finds Miss Kenton in the doorway.
Miss Kenton apologizes for her comments about Stevens earlier. He pretends to not recall what she said and says he's too busy for them to talk right now. When he comes back up after fetching the port, however, he hears Miss Kenton crying in her room. He stands outside her room for some time, debating what to do. But then he continues on his way up to the drawing room to serve the port. He remembers that subsequent hour so vividly -- torn between his duties, his 'dignity', and his deeper desires. He was so proud of his ability to serve the highest ranking gentlemen and not let his feelings get in the way. And indeed, even though Miss Kenton is crying in her room at that precise moment, Stevens feels a sense triumph at having maintained his professionalism.
Stevens next writes from Weymouth, where he recalls his meeting with Miss Kenton two days earlier in the tea lounge of the Rose Garden Hotel. He says Miss Kenton arrived looking quite similar to the person he remembered from twenty years earlier, only with a few more wrinkles. For the first twenty minutes or so, they exchange pleasantries, small talk, about Stevens' journey thus far. Once the awkwardness dissipates, they reminisce about people from the past, and slowly Stevens begins to glean some facts about her present circumstances. For one thing, Miss Kenton's marriage is not so far gone as she made it seem -- she returned home to find Mr. Benn pleased to have her back. She says it's best to be sensible about these things, as if she's resigned to reconciliation.
Miss Kenton goes on to talk more generally about her husband, who will retire soon, and asks Stevens to visit their daughter in Dorset on his way back. Stevens says it's unlikely he'll pass by Dorset, but Miss Kenton insists, saying that Catherine's heard all about you. Stevens tries to tell Miss Kenton of the current state of Darlington Hall, and explains how Lord Darlington became an invalid and eventually lost his reputation. Stevens wonders aloud why Miss Kenton seemed so dire in her letter, even mentioning that her life seemed empty. Miss Kenton seems surprised that she wrote such a thing, and backs off from it - saying that her life does not seem empty now, and they are even looking forward to grandchildren now.
Stevens finally asks her directly - in her letters, she made it seem like she was unhappy, and he just wanted to make sure she wasn't. Miss Kenton says that she is absolutely fine - her husband is not cruel or ill-tempered. She says that she never loved her husband at first - and was surprised she was marrying him at all. but she grew to love him. There are times, where she wonders what she did with her life - whether she could have had a better one with Stevens. But she doesn't look back any more, and thinks her life has been good enough, if not ideal. Stevens tells Miss Kenton that it's time she enjoy her life now - and make her years happy for herself and her husband. He says they may never meet again. The bus arrives, and Miss Kenton leaves. Stevens sees that she is crying as she leaves.
Stevens sits on a pier bench, and is joined by a stranger who Stevens confesses virtually his whole life to - even the fact that he's been making too many mistakes as the butler of Darlington Hall. The stranger offers Stevens a handkerchief when he sees he's been crying. Stevens realizes that perhaps he has wasted his life because he never made his own mistakes - and lived simply as the vehicle of another. He confesses that perhaps there is no dignity in not being able to say he made his own mistakes. But he resolves not to look back and to continue to move forward with the remains of his day. He vows first to return to Darlington Hall and surprise Mr. Farraday with his new bantering skills.
The last section of Remains of the Day is at once the anticipated climax because of Stevens' meeting with Miss Kenton and a bit of a false tease, since we do not see it unfold in real time. Instead, the narrative jumps, and we hear about Stevens' recollection of it two days later. One of the interesting things that's easy to forget in Ishiguro's novel is that Stevens is recounting events that happened twenty years ago. That gap in time is difficult to convey through the text since so little of it unfolds in real time. Instead, we must make conjectures as to how Miss Kenton might react to Stevens' suggestion that she return to Darlington Hall, even after setting up her new life for more than two decades. We realize the answer to this when we discover that she had many moments when she may have returned, but now it is too late - she already had a number of doubting moments, when she wondered about the cosmic path of her life, but Stevens has come when she has already become complacent, and already let go of her need for a better life.
Stevens, for himself, seems to reach his breaking point here. He is so deeply in love with Miss Kenton and has built up such fierce expectations and a desperation for her love - but when the moment comes, he cannot confess it. In a moment of perhaps supreme self-sacrifice - or perhaps cowardice - he caves, and says simply that he wishes she remains happy with her husband and that she enjoy the rest of her life. Just as Miss Kenton acknowledges thatt the time for regrets is gone, Stevens does too, and they part way with no possibility of reconciling for it is simply too late. Inertia has taken them too far.
Stevens does finally break, however, to a stranger, to whom he confesses that he never did have his own life. He was so concerned with dignity, with being a great butler to someone else, that he never followed his own dreams. As a servant, Stevens was so terrified of making mistakes, so terrified of having his own identity. In his eyes, it was his duty to renounce his own soul in order to be the best employee possible. It's taken his whole life for him to realize what a mistake it is. In other chapters, Stevens recounted stoies with similar themes but in the end, always confessed that he felt triumph upon remembering that he preserved his professionalism at all costs. But for the first time, he says here that it has afforded him nothing. but it is too late. He will go on with the remains of his day - the remains of his life - trying to hold on to his dignity.
Ishiguro's novel, first and foremost, is a portrait of a man broken by his own life choices. Over and over, he looks back and sees the opportunities in his life he should have taken but cannot admit defeat. If he can get Miss Kenton to come back to Darlington Hall, if he can get her to wipe the slate clean, then he'll have another chance. What Stevens wants then is a do-over - a chance to relive his own life. He does this through his memory, but he comes to the realization that to find fulfillment, he will have to actually take action in real life. But at the crucial moment, he can't do it -- because it's too late. Miss Kenton has already steered onto the course of least resistance. And now Stevens will have to also.
Ishiguro's novel achieves such masterclass status because of its intense subtext. So rarely do novels manage to create such a fluid sense of consciousness and then use memory to achieve an apotheosis or epiphany. For all its lack of a narrative, The Remains of the Day has the power of a thriller precisely because we want Stevens to find happiness. We want him to find peace once and for all. But in perhaps the cruelest twist of all, when it comes time for him to take action and strike out in search of fulfillment... it's too late.