Stevens is the English butler of Darlington Hall who spent the prime of his life in service to Lord Darlington. In the novel he is both protagonist and narrator. Stevens's life has been devoted to the pursuit of greatness built upon ideals of personal dignity and loyalty, as well as the fierce resolve to never lose control. Painfully repressed and precise as a result, he is unable to express or cope with natural, spontaneous emotions, even in the most personally meaningful situations. He hides within his adopted role, safely shielded and contained. However, Stevens is ultimately destroyed by the ideals he has so fervently embraced. In his fanatical pursuit of greatness, he allows his one chance at love to slip away. Furthermore, he binds his reputation and self-respect to Lord Darlington, whom he stubbornly trusts to be noble and working for the progress of humanity. He is convinced his unquestioning and loyal support will contribute to "the future well-being of the empire." Stevens's trust and self-deception turns ruinous when his lordship proves to be either a naive pawn of the Nazis, or a knowing advocate of the evil forces of fascism.
Miss Kenton served as housekeeper at Darlington Hall from the spring of 1922 until 1936. When she arrives, she is young, but already very proficient in her job. She proves to be a good match for Stevens; she is his equal in intelligence and competence, and she is undaunted by his remoteness. Unlike the butler, she is able to express emotions and to communicate warmth and humanness. She is also self-aware and honest, as demonstrated after the affair of the dismissed Jewish maids. She is brutally candid when she admits she did not quit (as she had threatened to if her girls were fired) out of fear for her own future. Miss Kenton's growing affection for Stevens is evident in her attempts to introduce flowers into his living quarters, their end-of-day talks over cups of cocoa, and spirited verbal exchanges with him over household issues. Over the years she tries to understand him and break through his wall of reserve, to reach the man within. But the wall proves to be unbreachable, and eventually Miss Kenton leaves Darlington Hall to marry another man. Nevertheless, during the span of 20 years from her leaving until she meets Stevens one last time, she has wondered if she made a mistake and if life might have been better with him.
Lord Darlington is the former owner of Darlington Hall. He is an aristocratic gentleman with deeply held principles of fairness and decency. As an Englishman, he is ashamed of the hardships heaped upon the German people by the Treaty of Versailles. According to his personal code of ethics, it is dishonorable to kick an enemy when he is down. This drives his lordship toward involvement in international politics, with the goal of modifying some of the harshest terms of the treaty. However, the interwar years have witnessed worldwide change—both political and social—that render Lord Darlington's morals and sense of fair play out-of-date and hopelessly naive. His high-minded ideals lead him into the perilous arena of high political affairs and an alliance with the growing Nazi regime. He is maneuvered like a pawn and finally disgraced as a Nazi collaborator and dupe.
William Stevens is James Stevens's father and a former butler himself. He comes to work at Darlington Hall as an under-butler following the death of his long-time employer, Mr. John Silvers. He has been a major influence in his son's life, instilling in him the values and ideals that shape and guide him, but also inflict lasting damage. The elder Stevens embodies the greatness Stevens aspires to. However, like his son, William's ideas of dignity and greatness do not permit expressions of emotion. Therefore, as a parent, he is aloof to the point of cruelty until he is dying, and then it is too late for his son to accept or respond to his deathbed declaration of pride and regret.
Mr. John Farraday is an American businessman who purchased Darlington Hall after Lord Darlington died. As part of the package, he wanted "a genuine old-fashioned English butler," and Stevens has stayed on to become Mr. Farraday's employee. As an American, Mr. Farraday has a different notion about employer/employee relationships. At times, he treats Stevens with friendly familiarity, engaging in playful teasing exchanges that Stevens calls "bantering." Mr. Farraday first suggests Stevens go off on a holiday and offers his car for the trip. It is his generosity that makes Stevens's journey possible.