I’ve read and reviewed plenty of character studies on this website, but I’ve not tackled the most quintessential kind: the-old-man-looking-back-on-his-life trope. That is until now. One of the most well-known titles in this subgenre is the 1934 novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton. Even though it doesn’t have the same cultural legacy that it did in the past, its warmth, sweetness, somberness, and humor made the book likable and endure for such a long time.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is about Mr. Chipping – an old classics schoolmaster at the Brookfield School. Mr. Chips – as he is affectionately known as – dreams by the fire as he reflects on his days as being a teacher at an English boarding school for many decades. He recalls his early period as a difficult taskmaster schooling his students. He later views his middle-age period as a rebirth when he meets Katherine – a young woman whose opinions change him for the better. He evolves into the lovable old schoolmaster who’s constantly reliable while Brookfield experiences new students and a new, uncertain world full of conflict.
This subgenre of the character study is self explanatory. The old man in question usually reflects on his actions and relationships that he’s made throughout the years. As a result, there’s not much of a plot nor stakes in it. However, that’s not an inherently bad thing. Sometimes, it’s good to read a book that’s not all about making one heart’s pound.
This can work if the main character is interesting, and in this case, Mr. Chips is in a way. He’s not exactly the textbook-definition of the word interesting as he’s described in the novella as being friendly, yet people wouldn’t necessarily be chums with. He’s more eccentric in a good way. Mr. Chips has his way of speaking by saying “umph” at least once in his sentences and being unfiltered like recalling casually how he disciplined one student to the latter’s son. And of course, he makes plenty of puns (check out the one he makes about the Lex Canuleia)! And yet, he means no ill. In addition, he has afternoon tea with new students to get to know them even when he’s retired. All of these traits and actions make him endearing and reliable.
Additionally, even though I wouldn’t label the novella as a romance, I certainly was invested in the relationship between Chips and Katherine because of how realistic and unexpected it was. They have different ideologies, for Chips is conservative, while Katherine lends more socialist. I appreciate that Hilton gives Catherine these kinds of beliefs even if she’s essentially a plot device that makes Chip turn his life around. As a result, they disagree on certain things. Even though their romance only takes up a small section of the tome, it effectively shows how Chips’s views evolve by telling the readers so. What makes it unexpected is how they meet. While Chips is vacationing in the Lake District, he’s up in the mountains when he sees Katherine waving excitedly. He mistakes this as her needing to be rescued, but it turns out that she’s an expert climber and that she brings him down after he sprains his ankle. She not only saves him physically, but also mentally and emotionally, since she’s responsible for the afternoon teas that he has with new students and allows him to open up to new experiences and ways of thinking even if he disagrees.
It doesn’t have the same cultural legacy as it did in the past, yet it endures. There are books and movies that have replaced Goodbye Mr. Chips as being the most well known teacher stories. I’m talking about stuff like Dead Poet Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Freedom Writers. Additionally, I’m sure that today’s filmmakers don’t want to touch a tale involving a relationship with a big age gap. The implications involving that are barely addressed in the book. Finally, although it has had four different adaptations made – two feature films and two television presentations – over 6 decades, the most recent was from 2002. Since then, it has come to my attention that the original premise for the beloved television show Breaking Bad was having Walter White turn from Mr. Chips to Scarface. Also, Jeopardy had a clue about the book in a category about (fittingly enough) “c”haracter studies in an episode that aired earlier this year.
The only thing that I have nitpick is that there’s more telling than showing. The novella explains to readers how Chips feels as he goes through the various episodes in his life. It leaves little to the imagination, but honestly, it’s still enjoyable.
Moreover, I have to acknowledge that Goodbye, Mr. Chips has several different editions. The one I read was the 1962 one. It contains a foreword by Edward Weeks and illustrations by H.M. Brock. Both were pretty charming since the former discussed his relationship with Hilton and why the author wrote the novella in the first place, and the latter had sketches of various moments featured in the book.
All in all – umph, Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton is as warm as Earl Grey tea, as sweet as sponge cake, somber as an English boarding school, and as humorous as the main character’s puns. While it doesn’t have the same cultural legacy as it once did, it still endures, and I can see why. Mr. Chips is a character that people recognize as someone they’ve known in their lives even with all of his quirks. The relationships that he has with his students and with Katherine are relatable and endearing. I would recommend this old-man-looking-back-on-his-life character study to those who love sentimental novels as well as to those who love reading about teachers fictional or nonfictional.
Before I go, I want to let you all know that I’ll be talking about the 1939 movie adaptation with Zita Short on her The 300 Passions Podcast! We’ll be discussing as always why it failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…Passions list. It’ll be my third time on that podcast. I had seen the movie before, and it motivated me to read this book, so it’ll be a fun time talking about how faithful it is to the novella. Stay tuned for my movie review of that and of the other adaptations (that I got my husband Carl to watch) as well as for that upcoming episode! Goodbye, book review!
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