The History Boys – Themes Essay
The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Notes on Key Themes
Sexual charm is something that can be exploited as a declaration of power and dominance, and a way to build the sense of pride manipulate people. Dakin wants to make love with Fiona on the headmaster’s study floor and he believes that his performance in bed is better than the headmaster. This is a way to consolidate his masculinity and sense of superiority, as if he ‘wins’ the headmaster in a battle. Dakin’s metaphor comparing sex to war adds to the feeling that he is a smart, witty guy who stands out in the group. It also shows that he considers conquering a woman is somewhat like attacking a country. Dakin exploits Irwin’s homosexual interest in him to force him to be honest to his feelings.
As receptors of the two conflicting philosophies, they are pawns in a game in which they have limited control. They struggle to adjust to Irwin’s teaching method when he Irwin takes over Mrs. Lintott. They struggle with the idea of using poetry as ‘gobbets’ to prove a point in their history essays. They are confused about how to start the class and what to do during the class shared by Hector and Irwin. Caught in the current education system, their say is limited (They’re steered to adopt an exam-oriented approach; they can’t be true to themselves at interviews; as elite students, the options for their future path is indeed more narrow than broad – everybody (except Hector) expects them to go to Oxbridge)
Well-aware of how adults play their game in school, sexual scandal can be used as a weapon against someone. – Dakin exposes the headmaster touching up Fiona to save Hector from early retirement.
Posner affirms his unrequited love for Dakin, even if it means a life-long misery. He does not want the ‘phrase’ to pass despite the pain. He wants to get into Cambridge because of Dakin. In making it come true, he is willing to sacrifice his personal sentiments associated with his Jewish origins (he
uses a detached approach when writing about the Holocaust in the exam). He is still very interested in things about Dakin after he has grown up. He keeps urging Irwin to share his story with Dakin when he works as Irwin’s assistant for the BBC program.
Lying works! Lying helps you survive in the adult world.
Irwin lies about his credentials. He forges qualifications at Oxford to earn a teaching position while he actually attends Bristol. Irwin’s unorthodox approach of ignoring the truths plays a key role in leading the boys to a prosperous future. They all get into Oxbridge successfully. The boys are told to betray their interests in order to succeed at interviews. For example, one shouldn’t express passion for acting, nor say that Mozart is his favourite musician.
The boys realize that they are drawn in a competition in which circumstances do not go in favour of them. Their wealthier counterparts in private schools are better equipped than them. The wealthier students who have been to Rome will have the competitive edge when it comes to historical events like the Reformation.
Teachers are no sacred figures. They are just ordinary human beings who are also subject to earthly emotions and desires. Hector’s emotional breakdown in class, after he is forced into early retirement due to the groping. Even the ultimate symbol of discipline, the Headmaster, exhibits sexual behavior (on Fiona) which is obviously against morality. Irwin’s inner struggle when Dakin seduces him into a drink (euphemism for a sexual act)
The boys indulge Hector:
Posner offers to take the ride.
Scripps offers to take the ride for ‘god’s sake’.
Dakin offers to take the ride after Hector’s emotional breakdown as a way to show sympathy. No one has the intention to expose or complain about him.
Dakin breaks into the headmaster’s room, exposes his secret (feeling up
Fiona), to save Hector.
Why would the boys indulge Hector in the genital massage?
A way to show their devotion to Hector
Teenagers find pleasure and excitement in breaking rules and having secret business. The hitting, which is described as ‘bread eaten in secret’ by Hector, does not make the boys very frustrated. It adds fun to the classroom instead. The secret physical contact (hitting plus fiddling) balances the blind obedience to discipline they’re expected in school. Take it as a joke, something fun and stupid to lighten up their routine life. Sexuality is yet to mature at the age of 17. They are still in a stage of confusion in terms of sexual exploration. They may be willing to ‘give it a try’. An outlet for homosexuality pursuit to Posner (Posner offers to take the ride, but is rejected) Morality is just a matter of how you draw the line, and a matter of whether you feel good or bad about something. The notion of morality actually varies from person to person. None of the boys experience trauma due to the fiddling. The boys are actually being honest to their true feelings. They don’t feel traumatic; so they find it unnecessary to abide by the social rules in this case.
Though Hector’s groping of the boys’ genitals is not acceptable by the standard moral code, Hector is in some other aspects more moral than other members of the school authority: He remains honest and true to himself (his expresses his real feelings of the Holocaust “unprecedented horror”; he questions why the boys can’t tell the truth at interviews.) His attitude is purest in terms of the pursuit of knowledge.
Though Hector and Posner are considered misfit in the school, their homosexual identity is met with a considerable degree of acceptance when same-sex relationship was still a controversial issue in the 1980’s. The headmaster’s main criticism of Hector comes from the unquantifiable outcomes of his teaching, not his homosexuality. His fiddling of the boys’ privates is merely an excuse for the headmaster to get rid of him. Dakin wishes
Hector to simply ‘go for it (male-male love)’ in ‘controlled conditions’. The boys are completely comfortable with Posner being open about his affection for Dakin. Dakin, though having no interest in Posner, gives him a hug in the end. Dakin acts against his heterosexuality to seduce Irwin.
Mrs. Lintott shows sympathy for Hector’s early retirement by saying he is ‘unlucky’ and proposes a list of ‘what ifs’ situations which would have saved Hector. Even for Scripps, whose Christian values are commonly believed to be at odds with homosexuality, feels comfortable in getting along and discussing about homosexual pursuits with Posner.
Homosexuality is considered out of line, which leads to some of the gay characters leaving their sexual identity in the closet. Hector has a ‘somewhat unexpected wife’. He may have married out of social expectations. The boys indulge Hector in the groping on the motorcycle.
Irwin refuses to open up his personal life to the boys.
When Posner confesses to him that he is homosexual, Irwin defensively says to Mrs. Linitott that his sympathy does not suggest that ‘he may be in the same boat’ with Posner. Irwin suppresses his desire to have a ‘drink’ with Dakin despite Dakin’s aggressive request. Headmaster dismisses the importance of talented gay people such as Michelangelo, Oscar Wilde and Plato as ‘shrunken violets’, saying that it’s ‘not normal.’ There is a belief that homosexuality is just ‘a phrase’ in life, like any other confused state experienced by teenagers. It shows that people do not generally accept that sexual orientation is inborn.
Tragic endings of the gay characters:
Posner is in a delicate psychological state, in therapy.
Hector dies in the motorcycle accident.
Irwin spends the rest of his life confined to the wheelchair. *Is it the writer’s attempt to draw our attention the plight of gay people at that time?
What makes a person a misfit?
Sexual orientation / Race (e.g. Jewish) / when a teenager’s level of physical maturity fails to catch up with the majority (Posner is small and late in growing up)
Plurality makes people lonely and detached from the reality: Posner cannot get rid of Dakin after he has grown up. He makes friends only online. Hector and Posner seek refuge in literature, which largely depicts a fictional world. They try to breach isolation through reading, in a uniquely intimate fashion (almost having physical contact on page 56 when they share the same sense of loneliness and exclusion) Posner and Hector share the same sense of isolation revealed in compound adjectives (p. 55-56), e.g. un-rejoicing, un-kissed, un-embaced. It’s as if a person has enjoyed love and happiness, but the feeling is being taken away with the addition of the prefix ‘un’.