Good-bye, Mr. Chips

by James Hilton
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

The title Good-bye, Mr. Chips is taken from an expression that appears twice in the novel. On the night before their wedding, Katherine whispers “Good-bye, Mr. Chips” in the belief that, once they are married, they will never be the same again. Near the end of the novel, Linford, a new boy at school, departs from tea with the aged teacher with the words “Good-bye, Mr. Chips,” unaware that Chips will die the next day. These two episodes illustrate the factors that give Chips’s life its meaning: Katherine and the students of Brookfield School. From Katherine, Chips learns to temper justice with mercy and to balance learning with love, gentleness, and an appreciation of beauty. From his students, Chips derives his whole reason for living. The students of Brookfield School become Chips’s children, and he remembers their names and faces all the rest of his life. As he lies on his deathbed, Mr. Chips overhears one of the masters saying what a pity it was Chips never had children. At this, the old man opens his eyes and says “But I have, you know . . . I have . . . thousands of ’em . . . and all boys.”

Good-bye, Mr. Chips provides a nostalgic portrait of a teacher whose life is dedicated to his students. Although the schooling familiar to today’s juvenile and young adult readers differs sharply from that described in the novel, they will see many parallels between Mr. Chips and their own favorite teachers. In fact, shortly after the novel was published, Hilton was inundated with letters from people who wrote to tell him about their own “Mr. Chips” in diverse corners of the world. The book became an overnight sensation and was Hilton’s first successful novel. His character of Mr. Chips continues to remind readers of a teacher who was stern but caring, idiosyncratic and a bit “odd,” unforgettable despite all of his or her foibles, and widely loved by generations of youngsters.

Hilton’s novel teaches a number of lessons that make it particularly well suited to younger readers. Good-bye, Mr. Chips demonstrates, for example, that people must continue to develop throughout their lives. When Mr. Chips nervously took his first prep (a type of study hall) at the age of twenty-two, no one would have guessed that this was the man who would one day become synonymous with Brookfield School. Chips’s success is gradual, proving that one need not be instantly popular in order to succeed in the end. Mr. Chips also demonstrates that it is the extent to which one cares for other people that earns their admiration, not the extent of one’s knowledge or wealth. Hilton mentions several times that Chips is not regarded as a superb scholar or as having a keen intelligence. His students learn from him not because he knows so much but because he cares so much about them. Mr. Chips represents a sort of gentility that was becoming rare even in his own day. When the German master, Mr. Staefel, is killed on the Western Front, Mr. Chips ignores the fact that he was fighting against England. He announces Mr. Staefel’s name among the honored dead at Chapel, inspired by what this teacher meant to Brookfield School, not the side on which he was fighting during the war. Even those who are appalled by this breach of propriety admire Chips’s motives. He soon gains a reputation for being “pre-war,” a product of the values of an earlier (and perhaps more noble) time.

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