It is easy for me to see why this little book, hardly more than a novella, is a literary classic. It touches on themes common to the human condition, and on scenes that most of us have played out in one form or another. It strikes chords we can all hum along with. It is a collection of passages from a good man’s life, that we can rummage through and always pull out something with which we can relate.
The plot vehicle is of an old man, Arthur Chipping (called, “Mr. Chips”), remembering his life as a beloved school teacher (or “school master” since this is a very English novel). So there is, of course, the major theme of “growing old.” Mr. Hilton distills that theme by means of a lot of flashbacks to episodes in Chips’ life. In doing so, he never looses the thread that this is all Chips’ recollections in a present time-line. But first, he provides a preamble, as such, that speaks to the experience of aging:
A great joke, this growing old— but a sad joke, too, in a way. And as Chips sat by his fire with autumn gales rattling the windows, the waves of humor and sadness swept over him very often until tears fell so that when Mrs. Wickett came in with his cup of tea she did not know whether he had been laughing or crying. And neither did Chips himself.
You recognize that feeling when you reach a certain point—when most of life is behind you, and you look back and try to come to terms with it all. Just what that entails is very specific to everyone who has ever lived. At some point in the process, though, it involves joy for remembered love, and tears for what’s been lost.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips reads like a long short story. Events are related from Chips point-of-view, but the overall POV is omniscient. That is, Mr. Hilton moves to the views of other characters when it’s suitable and he offers much comment, from a detached viewpoint, on Chips and the situations of his life, and how it all affected him.
Mr. Hilton introduces the reader to Chips when Chips has retired. He is renting a room across the street from the English boys’ school where he taught Latin and History for over forty years before retiring in 1913. He is still active and alert (even witty) though we get the impression he is rather staid and set in his ways. But that impression might not be completely accurate. Mr. Hilton implies such with a curious phrase in referring to Chips’ daily routine that ends in a slumber that is not so much different from his waking:
For his days and nights were equally full of dreaming.
It seems to me that the reader can take that phrase a couple of ways. Dreaming can be an avoidance of life, or a quixotic challenge to humdrum living. Chips’ life, I think, touched on both.
In his first 25 years of teaching at his school (Brookfield), Chips worked very competently, and was well-liked, though he was considered “…a dry and rather neutral sort of person.” But, in a nutshell, he worked himself over the years into a rut. Mr. Hilton’s description of Chips’ rut is specific to pedagogy, but is still apropos to most of us:
…giving the same lessons year after year had formed a groove into which the other affairs of his life adjusted themselves with insidious ease. He worked well; he was conscientious; he was a fixture that gave service, satisfaction, confidence, everything except inspiration.
Chips didn’t inspire because he was not inspired. But then he found Katherine Bridges, a young woman 23 years his junior. She was a radical for that time, believing in women’s suffrage, coed education, and even admiring socialist thinkers. Still, the attraction of opposites hit her, and she and the conservative Mr. Chips were soon deeply in love.
…and they were married in London a week before the beginning of the autumn term.
Chips’ marriage to Katherine was his “goodbye” to his staid, uninspired life. Kathie invigorated and inspired him, and it was apparent to everyone who knew Chips. Though he had always had a sense of humor, it came to be his defining trait during this period, to the point that friends and students came to anticipate the clever remarks Chips had to say about anything.
This change was the result of the influence of a good woman. One who was very compatible with Chips, though it would not appear so at first blush. Kathie did not change him so much as she brought out what was inside of him all the time. Mr. Hilton tells us:
She made him, to all appearances, a new man; though most of the newness was really a warming to life of things that were old, imprisoned, and unguessed.
We are very fortunate, indeed, if our cold, imprisoned, and unguessed potentials can be realized at any point in our lives. Showing us that transformation—the need for it—is a great joy of this book.
So while there is that idea of “inspired change,” this story is mostly about the changes that come through simply living: the passage of time, what we lose, regrets, sad and fond memories. That theme is amply shown in the scenes of Chips in his old age, but is foreshadowed in a scene where Chips meets a young man about to be shipped off to France at the start of World War I.
The man had been poor as a child, but part of a group from a poor school invited to play football (soccer) one year against the richer lads at Brookfield (an event resulting from the urging of the Brookfield staff by Chips as prompted by his wife). The man remembered, fondly, that day and the kindness shown him and his schoolmates by Chips’ wife:
‘One o’ the best days aht I ever ’ad in me life. Wish it was then and not nah— straight, I do. I’m off to Frawnce to-morrer.”
Facing an uncertain and harsh future, the man was desirous to return to a better time. He could not, of course. Life and time will move on.
Chips’ life at Brookfield during WWI is the other big time recounted in his story. He had retired by the time the war started, but the loss of staff to the war caused the Chancellor to ask him to return to his duties at the school. He did so, gladly, and even became acting Head of Brookfield when the official one fell ill. When the man died, the school governors asked Chips to remain as Head for the war’s duration.
This time was as inspiring for Chips as was the time of his marriage. And he grew in a similar way.
For the first time in his life he felt necessary— and necessary to something that was nearest his heart. There is no sublimer feeling in the world, and it was his at last.
Chips was a steady, calming influence on the students and staff during the war years. At one point, he even continued a Latin lesson while German bombs dropped outside. He simply thought the room they were in was as safe as any shelter, and they just as well continue lessons until they couldn’t.
With the war’s end, Chips returned to his retirement, but maintained his connection to Brookfield. He entertained students, showed up at school functions, and contributed every way he could on small duties (like editing a school directory).
As Chips had grown from the love and inspiration of his wife (she died two years after their marriage), he also grew from his time at Brookfield. The school became a replacement for his lost wife, and its staff and students became his family. He grew in that relationship in a way that is rare for a person to do with their job. Of that relationship, Mr. Hilton tells us:
It was a service that gave him freedom to be supremely and completely himself.
How very rare. But he was only able to achieve that relationship, I think, because he had loved Katherine.
The end of the book relates the end of Chip’s life. There is a pleasing balance in that relating, with the images of routine and sleep shown at the first of the book. Indeed, Chips’ death is depicted as him greatly needing to sleep, and of finally going to sleep, and dreaming of a roll-call of students sang to him as a chorus.
What I see depicted so brilliantly in the account of Mr. Chips’ life is the very bittersweetness of this life. Especially, as applied to the lives of ordinary people, common people, good people; to those who are extraordinary in their commonness. Us. And among us, the inspirations we give to each other, allow us to in turn, inspire.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a short book. Mr. Hilton wrote it quickly in 1933 and felt it was as complete as it needed to be. That’s probably true, although it is obvious to me that the story could easily have been expanded into a novel of greater length. Would it have been better that way? I think maybe so. It would have added greater dramatic impact to all the scenes of the pageant of Chips’ life, especially of his marriage and the war years at Brookfield. And it would have made the ending even more touching and satisfying.
But even so, I rank this book as among my favorites—along with Mr. Hilton’s other great novel, Lost Horizon. It is a meditation on life: the living of it, and the ending of it, and how it is so greatly enhanced by the sharing of kindness and love.