The story is told from the point of view of an English butler named Stevens. He works for Mr. Farraday, the rich American who bought an old mansion of the now deceased English aristocrat Lord Darlington. So, Stevens, who worked in the Darlington Hall for more than thirty years, now has to prepare the mansion for the new owner.
Stevens considers Mr. Farraday a decent gentleman, but still they have a common culture clash: the butler is more reserved and serious man, with excellent English manners, while his new employer is easy-going and constantly joking informally. The butler isn’t comfortable with him, so he - in a very serious manner - tries to improve his ability to “banter” (as he calls such behaviour) to fit his new owner’s lifestyle. He even emphasizes this desire several times.
Once, Mr. Farraday asks him to have a vacation and conduct a six-day road trip through England's West Country, because he thinks that Stevens works too hard and he himself is going to America for six days. The butler agrees (mostly to please his employer), but uses the vacation to find the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, the woman named Miss Kenton. She was an excellent worker but twenty years ago she got married and quitted the job. The reason for the trip is the letter Stevens got from Miss Kenton. It doesn’t state outright that her marriage is ruined and she searches for a job, but there are enough hints for Stevenson to go and investigate if she is ready to return. For those twenty years there were no one who could do housekeeping best than Miss Kenton, moreover, in 1956 it is hard to find lots of qualified people to serve in the mansions. The Act of the Parliament severely limited the influence of the aristocracy, so such a big estate is now more of an anachronism and most of the personnel Stevens could hire, are unavailable now, they requalified for other jobs.
During his trip Stevens remembers Darlington Hall as it was before. He thinks about life that filled the house, lots of guests and exquisite parties and dinners his previous owner loved so much. Stevens remembers the guests who attended that parties and the celebrities of that time amongst them. Mostly he thinks of that times with admiration, but we, as readers, see the conversations between Stevens and Lord Darlington and understand that Lord Darlington sympathized the Nazis during the World War II. He thought of Nazism as of noble idea of the supremacy of the perfect people. While Lord Darlington was quite a nice person, he indeed was too arrogant and considered himself one of the “perfect people”. We also see from the memories that both Stevens and Miss Kenton knew about his anti-Semitic attitude. Stevens considers his former employer a perfect gentleman and an example for any English aristocrat, but mildly disapproves these traits of him that soiled his reputation so much.
Another line of memories is about Stevens’ family - especially his father, even more serious and no-nonsense man. Stevens was a late child, so his father was already experienced man, who lived a carefully planning life, never losing control. This trait he instilled in mind of his little son, maybe, even a bit too aggressively. Stevens now considers repressing his emotions and cultivating them as a working tool (like with “bantering”: he doesn’t feel he is into joking and being fun, he just considers it a part of his new professional duties. He has to match the personality of his employer). In his eyes this trait makes him a really remarkable butler, the absolutely reliable man who can work professionally no matter what.
As an ultimate example of it Stevens remembers the death of his father - he looked after him in his last hours, but then the guests came to the mansion and Stevens went downstairs to do his job as a butler. When he finished and went back he saw that his father has already passed away. Instead of sorrow, Stevens remembers it with pride, as proof of his professionalism, and thinks that his father was proud of him that time. Another example was Stevens, cruelly and immediately firing two maids after it was revealed that they were Jewish. He himself sympathized them deeply and knew that the girls would most likely get in troubles losing their work that way - but he also knew that Lord Darlington is anti-Semitic, so he again stepped over his own opinion to please his employer.
While he gets closer to his final destination, the butler starts to think about Miss Kenton. Stevens remembers is that Miss Kenton decided to leave right in the middle of the important event held for English and German ambassadors. Lord Darlington arranged the event to help both sides to understand each other, naively hoping that the difference between England and Nazi Germany isn’t as big as everyone thinks. Stevens wonders if Lord Darlington’s affection to Nazism influenced Miss Kenton’s immediate decision and what exactly was her trigger. Stevens thinks about Miss Kenton a lot, along with the other butlers with whom he had quite close working relationship - as close to friendship as Stevens could allow himself. But his thoughts about the housekeeper hint that Stevens had (and still has) the repressed and hidden romantic feelings towards her. They argued a lot about their work, but the arguments were full of tenderness and mutual genuine care. Several times Miss Kenton made a try to come closer to him, but Stevens was always too immersed in work, not allowing himself to feel.
Unlike him, Miss Kenton was compassionate and kind. She was the first who noticed that Stevens’ father was ill and Stevens himself had to take some of his responsibilities. She also helped his father further, even staying with him while he was on his deathbed - while Stevens himself was too busy working. After his death, Miss Kenton didn’t berate Stevens but tried to comfort him, provide him some emotional warmth that, unfortunately, was left unanswered. The last thing he remembers about her was that before leaving twenty years ago, she openly gave him the opportunity to stop her and marry her instead of another man. But still Stevens just let her go.
When Stevens passes Moscombe, his car is broken and he has to make a stop. He finds a neighboring house of the Taylors, who are glad to welcome him and help him later. When they have a dinner, Stevens tells them about their previous life, deliberately vaguely, so that it isn’t clear who he is. He tells about the celebrities, ambassadors, dinner party and luxury life in a big mansion in a way that he can be considered the owner of Darlington Hall as well. The Taylors are impressed. Next morning they ask Dr. Carlisle to drive Stevens back to his car. Dr. Carlisle is much more attentive and he quickly deduces that Stevens is only a hired worker, not an owner of a mansion. Stevens has to admit it before he gets back in the car and continues his way to Miss Kenton.
Arriving to Cornwall, where Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) lives, Stevens almost finds courage to admit that he still loves her and try to hire her again and start the relationships anew. She is glad to see him and invites him to have a tea - but Stevens soon understands that he made a mistake. Though she still wonders if she made a mistake not outright proposing to Stevens, she admits that she learned to love the man she is with. They lived a decent life and now are waiting for their first grandchild. She thought everything over and will return to him soon to live together the rest of their life. Stevens tries to repress his feelings again, pretending to be perfectly calm, but Miss Kenton sees it immediately and tries to soothe him as before, saying that Stevens shouldn’t worry too much about the past. He made his choice and his flawless service to Lord Darlington is something that is worth admiration.
Still embittered, Stevens says that she is right and leaves Mrs. Benn wishing her the best and heads back to Darlington Hall, thinking about his “remains of the day” (meaning both his actual plans for the day and the rest of his life). Stevens again reminds himself that he shall practice in “bantering” to achieve perfection and please his new employer.