The History Boys

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Class and Gender Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Purpose of Education Theme Icon
History and Truth Theme Icon
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon
Hope and Failure Theme Icon
Class and Gender Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The History Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Class and Gender Theme Icon

The History Boys takes place at an all-boys school in England. It’s a grammar school, meaning that students don’t have to pay to attend (though they have to pass entrance exams), and the most prestigious schools in Britain are private schools, which primarily serve richer students. Irwin reminds the boys that they’ll be competing against more privileged peers, like people who have traveled to Rome and can talk about that on the exam. Given their class background, the grammar school boys have a harder road to success. Rudge, in particular, comes from a working-class family. Throughout the play, people look down on him, condescend to him, and assume that he won’t succeed. His father was a janitor—but he was a janitor at Oxford, and this fact ultimately helps Rudge get admitted. This is only the case, however, because Oxford apparently wants to make a show of progress by having the son of a janitor attend as an undergraduate. This situation helps illuminate the way that class figures in the play’s overall argument about historical truth. Throughout history, socioeconomic status works in contradictory and sometimes random ways to affect the ways that events unfold. Class is mostly a hurdle for these boys on their journey, but at one crucial moment, Rudge’s working-class background helps him. The play thus shows class as one of the invisible factors affecting history.

Another of these invisible factors is gender. The play calls attention to the way that women are edged out of positions of power and erased from history, and it also dramatizes this fact in its own structure. There is only one female character who speaks in the play: Mrs. Lintott. The others (including Dakin’s love interest, Fiona) exist only when men talk about them. Mrs. Lintott even notes partway through the play that she has not yet been given the chance to have her own internal life through narration. Later, she gives a memorable monologue about the role of women in history, arguing that “history is women following behind with the bucket.” Men take the lead and make the mistakes, and women clean up. She also says that men are better than women at skewing historical facts to suit whatever narrative they want. Mrs. Lintott’s observations thus call attention to another way that history fails to be fully truthful—it often erases the experience of women.

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Class and Gender ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Class and Gender appears in each act of The History Boys. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Class and Gender Quotes in The History Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in The History Boys related to the theme of Class and Gender.
Act 1 Quotes

Hate them because these boys and girls against whom you are to compete have been groomed like thoroughbreds for this one particular race.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting passage, Irwin--a history teacher who claims to come from Oxford--gives his students some advice for applying to Oxford and Cambridge. Irwin, recognizing that his students are working or middle class, tells them to despise the upper-class students with whom they're competing for acceptance to elite universities. Upper-class students have a huge advantage in applying to good schools: not only do they have the money to attend; they've attended elite preparatory schools like Eton that prepare them for study at university.

Irwin's comments characterize all of English society as a frantic race for success and respectability. The race is organized along class-lines: poor people are fighting with rich people (who have a huge advantage) for the same things. Education is an enormous part of success in England--in a way that has no true counterpart in the U.S. Thus, Irwin's intense, cold-hearted way of looking at university admission could potentially be justified by the vast importance of where one went to school in English culture.


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I’m a Jew.
I’m small.
I’m homosexual.
And I live in Sheffield.
I’m fucked.

Related Characters: Posner (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Posner sums up his life in the bleakest of terms. He's an outsider in every conceivable sense: religious, sexual, aesthetic, and cultural.

It's worth taking those "senses" one at a time. First, Posner is Jewish. In the U.K., anti-Semitism remained common in mainstream society well into the 20th century (and arguably still does today). Posner is at odds with his classmates, for whom going to church is a vital part of community life. Second, Posner is gay--a hard thing for anyone living in a close-knit, conservative community. (Bennet is a homosexual himself, and may have modeled Posner on his own experiences growing up.) Posner is also small, and therefore, he assumes, unattractive. Finally, he's from a small, working-class community, meaning that he has few if any chances at social mobility. More keenly than his peers, Posner wants to go to a great school--he thinks that by going to Cambridge, he can escape the misery of his small-town life.