Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
John Taplow, who is about sixteen years old and in the lower fifth form of an English public school, appears at the flat of Andrew Crocker-Harris for an end-of-term tutorial in the hope of being advanced to the upper fifth. Seeing a box of chocolates, he helps himself to two pieces, eats one, and then, either out of conscience or fear of being caught, replaces the other.
Shortly thereafter, Frank Hunter arrives, and in the course of the conversation between the two it becomes clear that Crocker-Harris is retiring because of ill health. Known for his strict discipline, students dub him the “Crock” and “Himmler of the lower fifth.” Hunter, on the other hand, enjoys easy rapport with students, as can be seen in Taplow’s readiness to share confidences with him. While they wait for the “Crock” to appear, Hunter instructs Taplow in a proper golf swing. Taplow admits that, although like most students he had his share of fun at Crocker-Harris’s expense, he does have sympathy for him.
Taplow is in the midst of mimicking the classics master when Millie Crocker-Harris enters and overhears the mimicry. She dispatches Taplow on an errand to the druggist for Crocker-Harris’s heart medicine so that she can be alone with Hunter, with whom she is having an affair.
Crocker-Harris appears, only to find that Taplow is not there. When Taplow returns, Millie leaves to prepare dinner, and Hunter leaves pupil and master to their work on a translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.). As with the earlier incident with the chocolates, Taplow’s schoolboyish nervousness emerges in the form of a thoughtless comment about the master’s inability to pass his love for the Greek play on to the boys. Frightened by his own audacity, Taplow attempts to make amends by encouraging Crocker-Harris to talk about the rhymed translation he made of the play at the age of eighteen. Then, overcome by emotion for the first time in years, Crocker-Harris cuts short the session and abruptly dismisses Taplow.
The next visitor, Dr. Frobisher, adds to Crocker-Harris’s long-repressed sense of failure as a teacher when he informs him that the board voted to deny him a pension. In an attempt to be considerate, he requests that Crocker-Harris precede, rather than follow, a more popular master, whom the students will noisily applaud. When told about the denial of a pension, Millie is visibly annoyed and wonders how they will manage on the reduced salary her husband will receive in his new position at a crammer’s school.
Dr. Frobisher’s departure is followed by the arrival of Crocker-Harris’s successor, Peter Gilbert, who comes with his wife to look over the quarters that are to be their new home. The Gilberts seem to be headed for the same kind of life as their predecessors. Mrs. Gilbert is as materialistic as Millie and, like Millie, brought money to her marriage.
After the Gilberts leave, Taplow reappears unexpectedly, bringing a gift for Crocker-Harris, a secondhand copy of Robert Browning’s translation of Agamemnon that Taplow inscribed with a Greek line from the play, translated roughly as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” The emotional strain on Crocker-Harris is obvious, but his delight in the gift is cut short when Millie taunts him cruelly by telling him that Taplow earlier mimicked him; she adds that the gift is probably only a bribe for a passing grade.
Hunter faces Millie with the truth that both realized all along, that their affair is a purely physical one. He tells her that he intends to end their affair, partly because of her cruelty to her husband. He also tells her that he will not visit her at her parents’ home in the summer as they planned.
Hunter then insists on telling the classics master the truth about his relationship with Millie, only to be informed that Crocker-Harris knew of the affair since its inception and that Millie is the one who told him. Hunter mentions that he is only the last of Millie’s several affairs over the years. As Taplow did earlier, Hunter attempts to make amends to Crocker-Harris, telling him of Taplow’s liking for him and insisting that Taplow’s gift of the Browning version of Agamemnon is a genuine gesture. He promises to visit Crocker-Harris in the fall in his new home, even naming the specific date on which he will come. Crocker-Harris seems tentative in his acceptance of Hunter’s offer but expresses his recovered dignity by granting Taplow his advancement and by accepting Hunter’s offer of a visit. Most important, however, he phones Dr. Frobisher to inform him that he will, after all, as is his due as the older of the two retirees, speak after the popular younger retiree at the commencement ceremony, for, as he notes, “occasionally an anticlimax can be surprisingly effective.” Having made that decision, he sits down to dinner, saying to Millie that they must not let their dinner get cold.
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