Last Updated on February 23, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319
Louis Auchincloss based Justin Martyr Academy on Groton, the elite preparatory school in Massachusetts that he attended. Through the character of Frank Prescott, the founder and long-term rector of Justin, the author provides an overview of upper-class American society over eight decades. Frank was born in the Civil War era and retired from Justin during World War Two. Along with changing views of education, Auchincloss shows the relationship between church and state in the United States, as well-to-do family send their sons to an avowedly Christian school. While gender is not an explicit focus, he provides insights into the contributions of gender segregated institutions on broader social organization.
The character of Prescott is presented through multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of friends and colleagues. His sometimes-wavering commitment to Christian faith as a motivating force in establishing and leading the school is a central concern. Under his firm leadership, the school grows and develops into a clear breeding ground for top-level business and government leaders; Frank is led to wonder how this elitism relates to his original idea of a religious-based education.
Various characters point out the paradoxes in the tremendous influence of private schools have in a democratic nation, as well as the consequences of nonconformity. The head of a boys’s school has three daughters who are systematically excluded from its benefits. Cordelia rejects the system, first by choosing a Catholic rather than Episcopal husband and then through an affair and expatriate French adventure. For a legacy student, Justin Griscam, the consequences of rebellion are tragic, including alcoholism, vandalism, and death (probably by suicide).
The challenge of writing a critical fictional work about the world from which one emerged are evident. Despite their critical stances, many of the characters support Prescott himself as well as the institution he built. The novel suggests the need for reform of such institutions but not for a radical overhaul of the system.