Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 919
Eliot, a young tutor at a college of Cambridge University, is informed by Jago, a senior tutor, that the master of the college, Vernon Royce, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jago goes on to tell him that a new master will have to be elected within a few months. Jago himself desires the position. Soon after, Eliot is invited to meet with two other fellows of the college, Chrystal and Brown, about influencing a wealthy London businessman, Sir Horace Timberlake, to make a large contribution to the college. The subject of Jago’s bid to be master comes up, and both Brown and Chrystal agree that he will make a good candidate. Others, too, agree, and it seems that Jago might be elected with a clear majority.
When the faculty of the college is told of Brown’s plan to support Jago, a second faction forms, in support of Crawford, a senior physicist. The announcement of opposition to Jago’s candidacy leads to a bitter argument between Eliot and Getliff, one of Crawford’s supporters, and the college becomes divided between the two factions, with each trying to win converts from the other side. Although he is somewhat confident of victory for the party supporting Jago, Brown warns that they consist mainly of junior, not senior, faculty members.
During the waiting period, a series of political maneuvering takes place. Jago’s party hopes that securing the large grant from Timberlake might give more clout to their side. Internal problems soon begin to take their toll. One of the junior tutors, Nightingale, begins to use his support of Jago as a lever to advance himself at Eliot’s expense. Later, Nightingale switches his allegiance to Crawford’s party. Brown’s attempts to win him back are to no avail. With Nightingale’s defection, Jago’s supporters no longer hold a clear majority. Jago contemplates withdrawing his name, but the others advise against it.
As the master of the college wastes away, the contest between Crawford and Jago becomes increasingly bitter. Insults and insinuations circulate about Jago and his wife, and tension grows. Jago and Crawford agree that it would be proper if they themselves do not cast votes in the contest. Nightingale threatens Luke, a younger faculty member, with loss of position if he does not change sides. Luke dismisses the threat as insubstantial, but both he and Eliot lament the situation.
The conflict permeates all aspects of college life. When Winslow’s son does poorly on his university examinations, Calvert behaves rudely to him. When Eliot visits his old friends, Getliff and his wife, Katherine, their dinner is spoiled by a bitter argument over Jago’s fitness for the position of master.
The stalemate threatens to result in a possibility none of the faculty relishes, that the decision will revert to the local bishop, who might even appoint an outsider as master. Calvert suggests that all involved in the election sign a petition instructing Jago and Crawford to vote for themselves to bring about a clear majority for one of them and to prevent the appointment of an outsider; if they fail to do this, all the faculty will switch their votes to favor one of the two. Jago and Crawford are upset by this move, which they consider disrespectful to their rank as senior members. Calvert secretly hopes it will strengthen Jago’s position.
When the master of the college dies, Gay, an old, eccentric, and sightly senile faculty member, takes charge of the election. Brown and his friends learn that they have secured the large grant from Timberlake. Winslow, who is college bursar, resigns because he feels incompetent; he did nothing to gain the grant and does not feel qualified to manage it.
Though the grant appears to have strengthened Jago’s position, his election is suddenly placed in jeopardy when Pilbrow announces that he cannot vote for him. Jago’s party is disheartened by this shift and decides to try to persuade Gay to support their side. Before they can do so, a new problem arises. Jago’s wife, Alice, is greatly affected by a flyer Nightingale has written and circulated that attacks her character and abilities. She is so upset that Brown and Eliot put off their plans to visit Gay while they comfort her, and Jago again thinks of backing out. At dinner that night, Jago rebukes Crawford for letting his supporters resort to such tactics. At first, Crawford does not acknowledge his responsibility in the matter, but later he agrees to talk to Nightingale about his behavior.
When Brown and Eliot visit Gay, they secure a reasonable assurance that he will vote for Jago. At a final meeting of both parties, Chrystal surprises his friends by announcing that he is satisfied with neither of the two candidates and wishes to choose a new one. The group debates his suggestion, then rejects it. At the last minute, Chrystal throws his support to Crawford. This decides the outcome of the election, since, even with Gay’s support, Jago could no longer win. Election day comes. Brown, Crawford, Calvert, Gay, Eliot, and Luke vote for Jago; Chrystal, Desperd-Smith, Getliff, Jago, Nightingale, Pilbrow, and Winslow vote for Crawford, who thus won the election with a clear majority.
Afterward, Eliot’s party is glum and wonders how Jago will react. At dinner that night, Jago asks Crawford to be his guest for dinner on the following day, and he participates in a toast to the new master.
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