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Good-bye, Mr. Chips is an episodic novel about the most beloved teacher at a British preparatory school. Although many of its vignettes appear in chronological order, the novel has no single narrative. It achieves its unity, not through a single story line but through the figure of Chips himself. Each episode provides another detail about the novel’s central character and the crucial role that he played in the lives of his students.

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Mr. Chips is a composite of the “ideal teacher,” a representation of the dedication and love found in all who excel at this profession. Nevertheless, James Hilton takes great pains to make Mr. Chips seem ordinary. He is not the greatest scholar on the faculty of Brookfield School. He does not win the admiration of his pupils through skill at games or athletics. He was not even a particularly good teacher or administrator when he was young. Rather, like many other teachers, he improved year by year, eventually coming to symbolize Brookfield School.

Mr. Chips was born in 1848 and visited the Great Exhibition (also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition) in London when he was three years old. In 1870, he was hired by Brookfield School’s old master, Wetherby, who died the following summer. In later years, he would be the only teacher left who recalled the school’s early days.

Mr. Chips is recognizable everywhere because of his tattered academic gown, a habit of interjecting the words “umph” and “um,” and the jokes that he uses when teaching his lessons. He has a old-fashioned view of education and the value of classics. Chips sees Latin and Greek not as real languages, but as the source of a few phrases that gentlemen use to adorn their speech. He resists new techniques of pedagogy and was all the more successful for being a member of “the old school.”

After more than a quarter century of teaching, Mr. Chips is appointed housemaster in 1896. That same year, he vacations in the Lake District of northwestern England. On a hike there, he meets Katherine Bridges, twenty-five years old to his forty-eight. With her blue eyes, straw-colored hair, freckled cheeks, and relaxed nature, Chips falls in love with Katherine at once, and they are married that same summer. Ideologically, Katherine is as different from Chips as she could be. She is a “new woman” who admires the ideas of such social reformers as Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), authors whom Chips detests. Under her influence, however, his thinking becomes sharper. He is also exposed to a tenderness and sense of beauty lacking in his life. With Katherine by his side, Chips for the first time becomes truly loved, not merely respected, at Brookfield School. This brief interlude of happiness comes to an end, however, when both Katherine and their baby die in childbirth on April 1, 1898. Chips then falls back into the role of a bachelor so completely that most people forget that he had ever been married.

Mr. Chips retires in 1913 at the age of sixty-five but returns to the school as acting headmaster during World War I. He dies soon after, a dedicated teacher to the end.

Places Discussed

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Brookfield School

Brookfield School. English public school (comparable to an American “private” school, that is, one that is not government run) at which Mr. Chipping (nicknamed “Mr. Chips”) spends his entire career teaching boys. Of unspecified location, the school functions as an idealized and realistic microcosm of England. The men who lead it and the boys who develop under their tutelage are allegorical inhabitants of this symbolic design. As a benevolent archetypal mentor, casting his personality over and through everything and everyone, Chipping is the paragon of all that is held dear to the English heart.

Brookfield is “an old foundation,” its history dating to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of the sixteenth century, when England first asserted itself as a major world power brimming with self-confidence. However, Brookfield’s fortunes throughout the centuries have gone up and down. Unlike famous schools such as Harrow and Eton, Brookfield has never achieved first-rate status; it has attracted students from the middle class and masters who are solid but not brilliant scholars. Such a setting allows for a realistic representation of England as a whole and also underscores the unpleasant British emphasis on class and social standing, which Chipping, in his quiet way seeks to make more democratic, though he reveres much that is traditional.

Under different headmasters, the school, like England, changes, abandoning the classics for the moderns and altering the organizational structure that Chipping struggles to preserve when made acting headmaster. Ultimately, Brookfield School, like England, is compelled to change not only because of the Great War, in which its own great losses mirror those of the nation as a whole, but also because of social issues such as woman’s suffrage and class distinctions. Through Chipping’s reactions and solutions and the pains Brookfield School must endure, readers recognize the paradox of English life in those times, indeed the paradox of any society in a period of upheaval: While change is as inevitable as growth, one must be careful of what may be lost in the gain and cherish that which the past has taught and bequeathed. In great part from the lessons Chipping learns from his brief marriage to a young nonacademic woman, who comes to Brookfield and introduces new ways and ideas, he steers Brookfield through the perils of change with grace and understanding and support.

Brookfield School symbolizes all that is believed good, decent, traditional, and sacred about English life during the period in which it is set. Beneath this paean to society, however, lies a deep irony, one of which Chipping is well aware: To preserve the ideals embodied in the symbol, sometimes the physical structure of the symbol must be altered, even transformed, and in overly ambitious or inefficient hands, such as Headmaster Ralston’s, change can spell disorder. However, the faith of the British people in themselves as phoenixlike is embodied in Chipping and Brookfield as school and nation and man rise again and again from their own ashes to adapt to and fashion the times.

Mrs. Wickett’s house

Mrs. Wickett’s house. Boardinghouse in which Chipping lives. In his retirement, he can watch the school from his room and experience its life vicariously. The house is close enough to the school for him to invite boys to tea, thus allowing him to maintain his connections; he still knows all the boys and is a part of the whole while technically apart. His books, his papers, his photographs, all the trappings of his life make up his room, which serves as a symbolic cave of death and rebirth, as he retires to it and emerges again, reborn, to lead the school through difficult times during the war, only to return to die there, and live on, reborn, in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.

*Lake District

*Lake District. Region in northern England that is a popular tourist destination and the subject of much Romantic poetry, a symbol of poetic genius and inspiration. In this English shrine of Romanticism and celebration of nature and life, Chipping goes on vacation in 1896 and meets young Kathy, with whom he falls in love and marries. For all her youth, Kathy teaches Chipping more about humanity in their short time together than he could ever learn in the greatest books. Though she and her baby die when she is in childbirth, Kathy’s presence is with Chipping throughout the novel and is an indispensable element of the spiritual setting of the novel.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

Bellman, Samuel Irving. “The Apocalypse in Literature.” Costerus 7 (1973): 13-25. Describes the episode in which the boys play an April Fools’ Day joke on Mr. Chips, who, distraught over the deaths of his wife and child, does not understand the prank. Uses this incident to discuss human estrangement.

Mathews, T. S. “A Gallery of Novels.” The New Republic 19, no. 1024 (July 18, 1934): 271-272. Calls Good-bye, Mr. Chips a little tale that “gives us the soft English character in a hard nutshell.” Notes that the real world is not as tender and gentle as the one portrayed in the book.

Mott, Frank Luther. Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Tells how Hilton’s bicycle ride through the English countryside inspired him to write a novel based on the recollections of his own school days.

Scott, Patrick. “James Hilton’s Good-bye, Mr. Chips and the Strange Death of Liberal England.” South Atlantic Quarterly 85, no 4 (Autumn, 1986): 319-328. Calls for a reassessment of the novel, pointing to the importance of Hilton’s commentary on the historical and cultural significance of the old schoolmaster and the school.

Weeks, Edward. Foreword to Good-bye, Mr. Chips. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. Hails Good-bye Mr. Chips as Hilton’s most successful novel and “the most endearing portrait of a schoolteacher in our time.”

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