The History Boys shows that history is ultimately random—both in terms of what happens, and in terms of what we choose to remember. Linked to this theme is the question of whether or not it is important to search for truth in the study of history. Irwin tells the boys that it is not important to be truthful in their arguments—as long as their arguments are unique and interesting. Scripps says at one point that in Irwin’s classes, truth is just “another point of view.” In his scene as a TV journalist, Irwin then demonstrates the random way that we remember history by showing that, when visiting an old abbey, people tend to be most interested in monks’ ancient toilet paper. Yet Irwin’s way of dismissing absolute historical truth sometimes leads to morally questionable results. This becomes most pointed in the boys’ discussion of the Holocaust, when Irwin suggests that the boys should put the event in context or proportion. Posner and Hector object to this, saying that such an argument diminishes the suffering and horror of the event in a way that is unacceptable.
At times, the characters step out to narrate in the midst of the action, and this effectively dramatizes the difference between the way events feel as they are happening in real time, and the way that we remember them historically. As the scenes unfold, they seem to have many possible meanings and interpretations. When a character steps out to narrate, they often add nuance to what we’re seeing, making us feel that we’ve come closer to the “truth” of the matter. But these narrative asides also break up the emotional trajectory of the scene. A story told after the fact cannot fully encompass the emotions and dynamics felt in the present.
In the end, the play most poignantly demonstrates the randomness of history and of life with the motorcycle accident. Different characters narrate this event after the fact, and we don’t see it occur onstage. Scripps notes that we don’t know the factual truth of the story, but that Irwin has taught him to never accept a neat narrative. The play ends with this idea that there is no single historical truth. Life is always more complex, both emotionally and factually, than the historical version of it can be.
History and Truth ThemeTracker
History and Truth Quotes in The History Boys
I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone to Oxford I’d probably never have worked out the difference.
There’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
With respect, can I stop you? No, with a poem or any work of art we can never say ‘in other words.’ If it is a work of art there are no other words.
Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a strip-tease.
TIMMS: Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.
HECTOR: You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.
TIMMS: I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.
HECTOR: But it will, Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.
History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It’s a performance. It’s entertainment. And if it isn’t, make it so.
HECTOR: Codes, spells, runes — call them what you like, but do not call them gobbets.
IRWIN: I just thought it would be useful…
HECTOR: Oh, it would be useful…every answer a Christmas tree hung with the appropriate gobbets. Except that they’re learned by heart. And that is where they belong and like the other components of the heart not to be defiled by being trotted out to order.
IRWIN: So what are they meant to be storing them up for, these boys? Education isn’t something for when they’re old and grey and sitting by the fire. It’s for now. The exam is next month.
HECTOR: And what happens after the exam? Life goes on. Gobbets!
The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.
It is a sad fact that whatever the sublimity and splendour of the ruins of our great abbeys to the droves of often apathetic visitors the monastic life only comes alive when contemplating its toilet arrangements.
What has truth got to do with it? I thought that we’d already decided that for the purposes of this examination truth is, if not an irrelevant, then so relative as just to amount to another point of view.
How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another.