It's the summer of 1956, and butler James Stevens is in the middle of preparing Darlington Hall for its new American owner, Mr. Farraday. Chill Mr. Farraday proposes that Stevens take a road trip through England's West Country while he is in America—he needs a vacation.
Stevens has recently received a letter from Miss Kenton, a former co-worker. It sounds like she would like to return to Darlington Hall, which Stevens is psyched about. Stevens decides to accept Mr. Farraday's offer and uses the road trip as a chance to visit Miss Kenton and ask her to return as housekeeper.
While road-tripping out to Miss Kenton's home in Cornwall, Stevens mulls over the events at Darlington Hall in the period between the two world wars, a time when both he and Miss Kenton worked together. These events are significant both to Stevens and to his employer, Mr. Darlington.
In 1923, when Lord Darlington hosts an international conference at Darlington Hall, Stevens's father dies. In the early 1930s, as Lord Darlington becomes more and more involved with the English fascists and the German cause—mostly out of ignorance rather than because he's a jerk. Well, he's kind of a jerk anyway: Stevens and Miss Kenton have to deal with his anti-Semitic policies.
On the evening of an important meeting Lord Darlington has organized between the German ambassador and English diplomats, Miss Kenton announces to Stevens that she's leaving Darlington Hall and getting hitched. While he's thinking back over these events, Stevens struggles to understand a) how Lord Darlington, who was a pretty nice dude (and a gentleman), ended up working with the Nazis and b) why Miss Kenton left and what part he may have played in her leaving.
On the road trip itself, Stevens takes the scenic route and thinks about how pretty England is. After spending the first night in Salisbury, he runs out of gas in Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon. He spends the night with some kind villagers but is kind of weirded out at being mistaken for a gentleman—he has an upper-crust accent but is definitely not upper-class.
When he arrives in Cornwall the next day, he finally meets up with Miss Kenton for tea in the afternoon, only to learn that he was mistaken: she isn't coming back to work. Miss Kenton tells him that she loves her husband and is staying put with him. She suggests to Stevens that he should stop worrying so much about the past.
The novel ends with Stevens making a stop at Weymouth pier on the way back to Darlington Hall. He spends his second evening in Weymouth sitting, watching the pier lights come on, and thinking over his life with regret and with the grand plan of pleasing his American employer.