Explain the antiwar theme in James Hilton's Good-bye, Mr. Chips.

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In James Hilton's 1934 novella Good-Bye, Mr. Chips, war serves as an essential backdrop to the narrative. Hilton's protagonist, Chips, began his lengthy tenure at Brookfield in 1870, just as the Franco-Prussian War was getting underway, and the theme of war and loss continues throughout. This is a story about the passage of time from the perspective—albeit told through the third-person—of a single individual, the titular character, and wars are the standard by which the passage of time is tracked. It is not only Mr. Chips about whom Hilton's narrative unfolds, however; it is also the institution itself, Brookfield. From that first reference to the Franco-Prussian War to the passing reference to the school's status during and after the Napoleanic Wars, conflict is a recurring theme.

As Chapter 12 comes to an end, the theme of war picks up considerably. This is unsurprising, as one of the greatest conflagrations in history is about to occur. With conflict between nations an undercurrent throughout Good-Bye, Mr. Chips, and the novella having been published in what would become retroactively known as "the inter-war period," the final passage of this chapter assumes greater significance than the story's characters could be assumed to appreciate:

"A year later, in 1914, he again attended the end-of-term dinner. There was a lot of war talk—civil war in Ulster, and trouble between Austria and Serbia. Herr Staefel, who was leaving for Germany the next day, told Chips he thought the Balkan business wouldn't come to anything."

"The Balkan business," of course, did come to something: The Great War (later called World War I). With the onset of the Great War, the theme of loss resonates greater than ever. The losses suffered by each of the major combatants in that horrific war were astounding, and it would be the exceedingly rare school not to be touched by those losses. As students mature and graduate, they are conscripted into military service and sent off to fight in the trenches that would characterize that particular war. Mr. Chips, by now, has been a teacher at Brookfield for over 40 years, and it would only be expected that the names of Brookfield graduates would appear on the lists of the dead regularly issued from the front. It falls to Mr. Chips to ritually announce those names before the student body.

Chapter 13 begins with the sentence, "The war years." Common to the initial period of a new war, expectations are that the end of the conflict will not be far off. Mr. Chips suggests as much, but it is in this section of Hilton's story where the constancy, irony, and futility of war is suggested. Note, in the following passage, the kindly teacher's reaction to news of the first fatality involving a Brookfield graduate:

"It seemed tragically sensational when the first Old Brookfeldian was killed in action—in September. Chips thought, when that news came: A hundred years ago boys from this school were fighting AGAINST the French. Strange, in a way, that the sacrifices of one generation should so cancel out those of another."

Good-Bye, Mr. Chips assumes a melancholy tone regarding the waste and tragedy of war. The English are hardly known for sentimentalism. Mr. Chips, however, can only maintain a stiff upper lip for so long as the list of names of students he has known who have been killed in the war grows in length.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The presence of a teacher who must read aloud the names of his students who have become the casualties of war is an antiwar statement.  Mr. Chips recalls these students, his students, sitting in his classroom.  They were full of hope and optimism.  They were children, playing pranks and being "nitwits."  As Mr. Chips reads out their names on a list of those who have died in the war, one sees the antiwar theme of the novel.  Nothing can justify the snuffing out of a life that once was filled with so much youthful hope.  Mr. Chips is a teacher, one who outlives many of his students who die in the war.  The teacher's role as memory of the students that have passed through is the embodiment of an anti- war statement, for nothing can justify such a painful loss.

There is an antiwar statement in Mr. Chips demeanor and what he comes to represent.  Mr. Chips publicly honors a teacher who died fighting for the Germans, as a rebuke to public prejudice.  Mr. Chips is an honorable man.  It is for this reason that his students love him.  Mr. Chips' honor is one that transcends the brutality and dishonor of war.  For the reasons that he is beloved in terms of honor, dignity, and treating people as ends in of themselves and not means to an end, his characterization is rebuke of war.  

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Good-bye, Mr. Chips

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