Last Updated on February 23, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577
The most relevant quotes from Auchincloss’s novel would address the contradictions inherent in Francis Prescott’s mission in establishing the ideal American preparatory school for boys in New England. The primary narrator, Brian Aspinwall, tries to assemble a biography of the illustrious Prescott, the rector of Justin Martyr Academy, where Aspinwall works as a teacher. During this process, Aspinwall reaches the somewhat maddening conclusion that Prescott’s vision was never fully actualized because of the contradictory aspects of the school and its legacy.
The first important quote comes in one of Aspinwall’s diary entries near the beginning of the novel:
I have a discreditable feeling of resentment . . . as though I alone . . . had any true appreciation of his greatness. Of course this is nonsense and egotism, yet I cannot help feeling that the man I see when we’re alone is different from the idol of the crowd.
This quote illustrates Aspinwall’s affinity for Prescott, almost to the point of possessiveness. Prescott has what Aspinwall believe is a special moral superiority over the majority, and he wants to immortalize this formidable strength of character in a biography of the man. This quote also introduces the concept that Prescott is not what he appears to be. Aspinwall observes that Prescott behaves differently in private than in public, which seems to indicate a somewhat contradictory nature.
The next important quote from the text comes in “Cordelia’s Story.” At the urging of David Griscam, Aspinwall goes to interview one of Prescott’s daughters, Cordelia, about her famous father. At the end of her interview, she reflects on her relationship with her father:
King Lear had not been content to deny me my share of his kingdom, he had seized the little principality that I had gained on my own.
In this quote, Cordelia alludes to the famous Shakespearean tragic king to represent her father—a play on her own name. This quote demonstrates how Prescott’s monomaniacal obsession with Justin caused him to neglect his own family. In Cordelia’s eyes, her father was greedy and cold, unwilling to give her either his affection or approval. The “principality” he took was her late lover, Charley; Cordelia feels as though her father robbed her of happiness even as an adult. This quote is important to understanding the novel as a whole because it reveals one of Prescott’s failings. Despite Aspinwall and others’s adulation of him, Prescott is a flawed father who favored prestige over kindness, which seems to go against his grandiose vision for his exemplary institution.
After Prescott’s death, Aspinwall reflects on the process by which he came to truly understand the man instead of the legend:
He knew his capacity to be petty, vain, tyrannical, vindictive, even cruel. He fully recognized his propensity for self-dramatization and his habit of sacrificing individuals to the imagined good of his school. Yet he also saw . . . that his own peculiar genius was for persuading his fellow men life could be exciting and that God wanted them to find it so.
This quote comes in the last pages of the novel, as Aspinwall contemplates writing Prescott’s biography. This quote distills the contradictory aspects of Prescott’s character who, despite all of his deeply human flaws, had one extraordinary gift for inspiring others. This ability to inspire, to make Justin students realize they are capable of living impactful lives, is ultimately what redeems Prescott in Aspinwall’s mind.