So I just finished Camus's The Stranger and was so amazingly struck by the similarity in these two main characters. Mersault expresses unfounded loyalty to his friend, dedication to honesty, and an inability to feel complex emotions or relate to others (especially Marie). Stevens is amazingly loyal to Lord Darlington (to the point of denying his previous employment not out of shame, but because he would refuse to give up any of Darlington's secrets even after Darlington's death), dedicated to 'dignity', and unable to express any complex emotions.
I had to look up dignity: "The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect" as reported by google (really what better modern source is there?). Throughout the novel, Stevens struggles with defining what makes a great butler. Ultimately he relies on dignity for the answer, but then he is faced with defining dignity. His own definition (as modeled by his late father) seems to be something along the line of grace under pressure. Other great butlers of his generation, add a moral component: dignity is dependent upon serving someone who is making important decisions in the world. Later, he meets the villagers and in the person of Harry Smith (loved the generic naming) is offered another definition for dignity: taking an active part in politics (or important decisions) oneself.
It turns out that Stevens does not make many decisions himself (and, in fact, upon realizing the extent of Miss Kenton's feelings for him is faced with the loss of the love of his life). He does not take an active part in politics (again, it was perfectly illustrated in his memories with the night that the drunken Lords asked him for his opinion on several pressing matters). And, it turns out, he did not serve a great person. Lord Darlington comes off as meaning well and as having very good (and noble) intentions, but ultimately it looks as if he did more harm than good to the cause of peace and tranquility.
So we are left with grace under pressure. Certainly, Stevens has this characteristic. He is dignified when faced with negative commentary about Lord Darlington. He is dignified (and keeps secrets) for Darlington both in and after his life. He is dignified when he feels emotion towards Miss Kenton (when she is crying in her room and later when he discovers that she has been thinking of him all these years). But I am left wondering if this 'dignity' is any different from the autistic-like emotional apathy that we see in The Stranger? The Stranger is a French novel and The Remains of the Day is fairly derogatory towards the French. I argued that Mersault was not necessarily "strange." Could it be that he is strange for the French, but is "dignified" to the English?
I would argue that both Mersault and Stevens are dignified (per my google definintion). Their characters are so beautifully explained that the reader is left respecting each of them for their consistency.
Incidentally, I know I saw the movie, but I don't remember it as taking place on a motoring trip. I am going to re-watch the film to check that, but I think it took place mostly in the (what are memories in the novel) time of Lord Darlington. I picked this up to read because I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go and was curious to see if Ishiguro could pull off two such very different subject matters. Turns out he can, and amazingly well. I will definitely be reading more Ishiguro.
Overall, it was amazingly compelling for a novel that does not really have much of a plot or action sequence. The story unfolds beautifully and the characters are rich and entertaining.