Monday, April 23, 2012

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a novel (really novella) about a man who is at the end of his life which has been, by some standards, unremarkable.  Mr. Chipping, after graduating with adequate grades from a middling university, becomes a teacher at an ordinary boarding school, not elite enough to streamline its students to Oxford.  Mr. Chips, as everyone calls him, serves a long tenure at the fictitious school and the story of his decades of teaching leading up to and following the first World War is told in reflection.

This is a sentimental story, one that is meant to make the reader feel good.  Typically, such novels are not very challenging but I was pleasantly surprised by a scene that occurs during the Great War when Chips is reading something aloud to the student body. To say too much would give away some details but this moment, for me, elevated the eponymous character from being a cliché, overly idealized doddering old man, to an interesting and inspiring individual.  Until this scene, I couldn’t understand the appreciation his students held for him.  That he had endeared himself is evident in how many of his former students continue to visit him for years after he is no longer teaching. 

There is something fulfilling about this little book.  It is not a profound story nor is it meant to do more than what it does.  Hilton wastes no moment and no word, although he does give Chips a rather tedious speech affectation that I found a bit bothersome.  It would have been downright annoying in a longer novel and I respect Hilton’s choice not to draw things out.

What makes this novel interesting for me is that the reader sees a lot of change through the nearly stagnant perspective of the protagonist.  He is neither fundamentally conservative nor radically liberal.  When faced with change, he remains, for the most part, unchanged; however, he does not remain untouched; therefore, the events that touch his life resonate with a more universal significance.  If the novel's conclusion is unsurprising, it is precisely that, because it is not a surprise, which makes this novel a pleasant read.  I can see why it was made into a movie more than once and, although I haven’t seen the story on film, I have no doubt that anyone who enjoyed the movie, whatever version they saw, would love reading this novel.  I certainly enjoyed it and will probably watch the more recent film version sooner rather than later. 

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