The most important aspect of Stevens' life is his dignity as an English butler. To Stevens, what defines a "great butler" is a constant attitude of refined dignity, especially under stressful situations. As such, Stevens constantly maintains an inward and outward sense of dignity to preserve his identity, and dedicated himself wholly to the service of Lord Darlington. This philosophy of dignity, however, greatly affects Stevens' life—largely with respect to social constraints, loyalty and politics, and love and relationships. In preserving his dignity at the expense of emotion, Stevens in a way loses his sense of humanity with respect to his personal self. Stevens' 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 an underlying theme in the novel. In the prologue, Stevens notes that his new American employer, Mr. Farraday, takes a more casual attitude with his servants than Lord Darlington did, and seems to expect to banter with Stevens. Determined to please his employer, Stevens takes this new duty very seriously. He sets out to practice and study the art of banter, including listening to a radio programme called Twice a Week or More for its witticisms. He attempts to banter with people he meets during his vacation, but his remarks fall flat. He agonises over this, 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 Stevens' situation as simply a personal one. It seems clear that Stevens' position as butler, and servant, has gradually made it impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. When his father dies, Stevens is too occupied with worrying about whether his services are being carried out correctly to mourn (something that he later reflects on with great pride). Nor can Stevens bring himself to express feelings about personal matters, as to do so would compromise his dignity. Social rules at the time were a major constraint. As the book reveals, servants who wished to marry and have children would have immediately found themselves without a job, as married life is seen as incompatible with service, which requires total devotion. 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 results in close contacts with the Nazi Party and right-wing British extremist organisations, such as the Blackshirts of Sir Oswald Mosley. Due to this, Lord Darlington asks Stevens to fire two Jewish staff members, though Darlington later regrets this. Stevens is quite incapable of believing his master to be wrong in his political attitudes, 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 for him, but he is unable to reciprocate. Miss Kenton's actions often leave Stevens bemused and puzzled, but his recollections of past interactions between the two reveal to the reader certain lost possibilities of their relationship. However, Stevens is never able to acknowledge the complex feelings 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 stunted emotional life, that hold him back. During their time 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 his life's lost potential when thinking about Miss Kenton in a romantic light.
Memory and perspective
As with his other works, Ishiguro uses the structural devices of memory and perspective within this novel. Past events are presented from the viewpoint 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. Sometimes the narrator acknowledges the inaccuracy of his recollections and this raises the question of his reliability as a narrator.