Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Mr. Chips, a healthy eighty-five-year-old man, reflects on his life at Brookfield as he spends his final years at his home in Greenwich. The story opens on Mr. Chips’s final day of life, though he is healthy and does not suspect he will soon die.
Brookfield is an old school where Mr. Chips began teaching in 1870; he was twenty-two at the time. As a teacher, Mr. Chips is loved for his humor and his fondness for the students. In the early years, he had dreams of filling the role of headmaster but soon found that he was quite satisfied with his teaching. He is slightly underqualified for a leadership position anyways.
Mr. Chips, in his time after retirement, spends his days having tea with the new schoolboys, joining the Head for dinner, writing articles for Brookfield’s magazine, and—above all—reflecting on memories of his past. He sits long hours in thought while “waves of humor and sadness [sweep] over him . . . until tears [fall].” Mrs. Wickett, the landlady, never knows whether these tears result from crying or laughing; Mr. Chips is not sure either. Yet, Mr. Chips recognizes that he has a worry-free life of pleasant comfort. He does not have to stress about finances or lack of company. He is well-loved and receives many visitors.
Mr. Chips does not recount his memories chronologically, but many of his thoughts come back to his deceased wife, Katherine. Their meeting occurs when Mr. Chips is forty-eight, and she is twenty-five. She helps him when he twists his ankle rock climbing. They have opposing political viewpoints and personalities but love each other immensely. Katherine brings out the best in Mr. Chips; she turns his dull, boringness into a gentle understanding, making him a favorite among students and other faculty.
Katherine dies during childbirth on April 1, a few years after their marriage. Her death ages him, but throughout the rest of his life, Mr. Chips stays in good humor and is challenged by the words she might have said.
Though never earning the official title of headmaster, Mr. Chips soon has the opportunity to become the Acting Head. He is getting older and maintains his desire to teach the classics, not run the school. Thus, a new headmaster, Ralston, is brought in to relieve Mr. Chips of the position. Years pass, Mr. Chips turns sixty, and this new Head realizes that Mr. Chips is obstinate in teaching a curriculum that has yet to be revised in decades. Since Mr. Chips will not submit to his authority, Ralston tries to demand that Mr. Chips retire. He refuses.
Following the refusal, there is tension between these two men. In one of their conversations behind closed doors, a student overhears Ralston insulting Mr. Chips and recounts the story to his friends. Word spreads, and Mr. Chips is surprised at the huge and unified way the school supports him. As a result, Ralston resigns a few years later, and a new headmaster is appointed.
Mr. Chips decides, of his own accord, to retire not long after that. This is when he moves to Mrs. Wickett’s and begins a relaxing period of drinking tea and reading mystery novels.
After a year free of teacherly duties, the First World War begins. Headmaster Chatteris is overly stressed and asks Mr. Chips to help with some “odd jobs” at the school. Despite having enjoyed his previous years of teaching, Chatteris’s plea for help is a turning point for Mr. Chips:
For the first time in his life he felt necessary —and...
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necessary to something that was nearest his heart. There is no sublimer feeling in the world, and it was his at last.
Fortunately, he feels this way because Mr. Chips is obliged to fill the role of Acting Head when Chatteris dies.
The War continues, and Mr. Chips is saddened by the deaths of so many boys he taught. When reading the list of names before the school, Mr. Chips cries. He never forgets a student and gets emotional about their passing. This sense of caring extends to the current students who are fearful about the goings-on of the War. In one example, during an air raid, Mr. Chips continues to teach Latin and laugh at his own jokes. His behavior calms the boys, and Mr. Chips is given the label of a “legend.”
Finally, the story circles back to where it started: the day of Mr. Chips’s death. Unsuspecting, his peers send a young boy to Mr. Chips as a joke. Instead of retaliating, Mr. Chips is kind and gives the boy tea to make him comfortable. They both enjoy their time together, and this boy is later comforted that he met and said good-bye to Mr. Chips before he died.
In his bed, surrounded by his doctor, Mrs. Wickett, and the headmaster, Mr. Chips’s death comes as a peaceful sleep. His last words are about how he considers all the thousands of past and present schoolboys his children.