Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Louis Auchincloss’s novel centers on Francis Prescott, the rector of a prestigious New England boys’ preparatory school. The story follows the school under Prescott’s lead over half a century. The author shows how the school’s increasing prestige depends on its isolation from, rather than full engagement with, US democratic ideals. Not only the rector and his family but also the students, faculty, and alumni variously suffer from the unfairness built into this example of private education.
Democracy and Elitism
Commitment to both Christian and democratic values is a cornerstone of the school from its earliest days. Auchincloss presents the ways in which the school’s exclusivity effectively contradicts its ability to truly fulfill its mission. He explores the impact of maintaining an isolated space as an incubator for the supposed best and brightest, who will be the nation’s leaders.
Hypocrisy and Honesty
The novel primarily considers the relationship between hypocrisy and honesty through the character of Prescott. He continues to pay lip service to the values by which the school was established, even as he supports changes that undermine those original principles. The secular erosion of religious precepts is one key area on which Prescott’s behavior contradicts his beliefs. The rector also supports a highly unequal system—even in the face of obvious prejudice, such as gender discrimination against his own daughters. The desire to honestly chronicle Prescott’s life also weighs heavily on Brian Aspinwall, his biographer, who struggles with decisions about whether to exclude details that do not match his vision of his admired mentor.
As the novel covers five decades of history, it follows significant changes in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. The author emphasizes class and gender divisions while largely disregarding race. The character of Cordelia, Frank’s daughter, exemplifies the changing roles of women, at least among the privileged classes. The book also considers the impact of the world wars on the composition of the student body and faculty.