The History Boys

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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.
Hope and Failure Theme Icon

The hope of getting into Oxford or Cambridge is a driving force in the play. The Headmaster wants it badly for his students, and the students want it, too. Only Hector seems to understand that a prestigious university won’t be the culmination of his students’ lives and happiness—yet he doesn’t have all the answers, either. Hector admits to Irwin that part of him wants the boys to “compete,” and Mrs. Lintott suggests that Hector’s teaching prepares the boys for their ultimate failure, rather than trying to guide them towards success. Similarly, Dakin argues at one point that “literature is actually about losers” who are compensating for something. Though he is being glib, Dakin’s argument also rings true, given the experiences of the adults in the play. All of them have ended up teaching at the school after a life that is in some ways marked by failure. Hector has suppressed his sexuality, and is married to a woman. Mrs. Lintott has an ex-husband who told her lies, and she’s now relegated to being a lower-form teacher. Irwin pretends that he got a degree at Oxford, but he didn’t—he went to a less prestigious school, and then went to Oxford for a teaching certificate. He lies to cover up his feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability.

The culmination of this theme comes with the litany of the boys’ accomplishments at the very end of the play. They all achieved their initial short-term dream of going to Oxford or Cambridge, but then went on to varying levels of success and happiness. One of the most notable biographies is Posner’s. He ends up frustrated and alone, spending lots of time in the local library, living a “shadow life” online, and following his former classmate’s successes from afar. The meaning of Posner’s apparent failure is not entirely clear. He lives a rich life of the mind, but in poorer material and social circumstances. The play ultimately suggests that there is no way to live a life that is free of frustration, and that grand youthful hopes will always end in some degree of failure and compromise.

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Hope and Failure ThemeTracker

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

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

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.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Timms (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Hector's view of education is again at loggerheads with the realities of the scholastic world. Hector teaches his students that it's more important to embrace and memorize poetry in the present, so that somewhere down the line, it will give his students spiritual and intellectual nourishment when they need it more. Hector refuses to think in terms of university applications or materialistic success. He's just the opposite of Irwin, who speaks of using poetry to "add flavor" to one's admissions essay. Hector would never think of "using" poetry for such a narrow, practical purpose--poetry, he believes is something nobler and more powerful than that, useful for things like accepting one's mortality or finding meaning in grief and suffering. In his own way, Hector and Irwin agree that poetry is "useful"--but where Irwin thinks of poetry's use in practical terms, Hector argues that poetry has a spiritual or emotional use.


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One of the hardest things for boys to learn is that a teacher is human. One of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is not to try and tell them.

Related Characters: Mrs. Lintott (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

In this touching scene, Irwin reports to Mrs. Lintott that Posner has come to him, worried that he might be gay. Irwin confesses that he wasn't sure what to tell his student--he was even tempted to admit that he's "in the same boat." Irwin doesn't explain to Mrs. Lintott exactly what he means by "the same boat" (Irwin is also gay? He's also lonely? He's also used to falling in love with people who don't love him back?).

The passage is important because it shows Irwin--previously, a cocky, intimidatingly smooth, figure--is actually sad, lonely man; hardly the "image of success" that an Oxbridge graduate should be. Irwin's loneliness is especially poignant because he was hired to inspire the boys to successfully apply to Oxford and Cambridge--and yet Irwin's entire life is proof that going to a great school doesn't buy happiness. Mrs. Lintott illustrates Irwin's problem by noting that teachers always face the temptation to confess their humanity to their own students. The true burden of a good teacher, it's suggested, is to remain professional, confident, and generally authoritative, in order to inspire one's students--even if it's easier to be imperfectly human with them.

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.

DAKIN: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers.
DAKIN: It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.

Related Characters: Dakin (speaker), Scripps (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, two students, Dakin and Scripps, give their interpretations of the arts, suggesting the diverging paths their intellectual development has taken. Dakin sees literature as a kind of medicine, designed to make people feel better when they're sad or lonely. Scrips seems to think of the arts as more universal and nuanced.

Dakin and Scripps's diverging interpretations of the arts says a lot about their personalities. Dakin is popular and charismatic--by suggesting that literature is about losers, he suggests that he himself doesn't need literature as much as the other "history boys"; he's so popular and well-liked that Eliot and Yeats don't apply to him. Scripps, a more lonely, introspective boy, thinks of art as something that helps everyone--whether you're charismatic or not, art can make your life better.

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!

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Irwin has just praised Hector for giving his students vast quantities of "gobbets" of information. Hector immediately takes offense at Irwin's use of such a word, instead suggesting that the information Hector has passed to his students is a kind of magical secret--"codes, spells, runes."

A "gobbet," it's important to know, is a lump or morsel of food--Irwin metaphorically implies that Hector is "nourishing" his children with culture during his General Studies lessons. And yet Hector is irritated with Irwin's use of the word. Art and culture, he insists, aren't just objects to be gobbled up and digested by his students--rather, culture must be stored over time, so that years from now, the students will be able to turn to poetry and music for their spiritual satisfaction.

The differences between Irwin and Hector couldn't be plainer. Irwin thinks in short-term, highly practical terms: he wants his students to pass their exams this year. Hector, by contrast, seems to respect his students on a deeper level--he wants them to be happy in life, not just successful with their university applications. And yet he also doesn't accept that for many of them, life really could be better if they got into an elite college.

Act 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Irwin (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this "flash forward," we learn that Irwin, years after teaching the students in Sheffield, finds work as a TV educator: he guides viewers through the medieval abbeys of England, sensationalizing their history. Irwin has a natural intuition for the aspects of history that prove most entertaining and amusing--for instance, when touring the abbeys, he focuses on the buildings' bizarre toilet facilities.

Irwin's approach to touring the abbeys is an apt metaphor for the way he views culture in general. He's more concerned with providing a novel or counterintuitive interpretation of a familiar cultural artifact than he is in building genuine respect or interest in the object. Thus, he's more interested in a witty essay on World War I than he is in the facts of the war; more interested in interpreting Kipling than he is in the beauty of Kipling's poetry; more interested in the abbey's toilets than the abbey in all its medieval majesty. (Or if he's not necessarily more interested in these things, he at least realizes that others are, and so gives them what they want.)

What made me piss my life away in this god-forsaken school? There’s nothing of me left. Go away. Class dismissed. Go.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Hector begins to question his own philosophy of education and truth. Hector has spent his entire adult life teaching his students that poetry and art are valuable because they nourish the soul--yet he's also used his students for his own sexual pleasure. Now that Hector has been "found out," he begins to wonder if he was wrong to focus to exclusively on the spiritual side of education. In the middle of a lesson, Hector weeps into his desk, claiming that he's wasted his life.

What does Hector mean, "There's nothing of me left?" Hector has devoted his entire life to educating his students--now that he's been pressured to resign from school (since the Headmaster has found out about his acts of molestation), he sees his life in ruins. In a slightly different sense, Hector's resignation is symbolic of the school's changing philosophy of education: Hector's lofty, idealistic approach to the liberal arts is fading away, replaced by the more practical methods of Irwin. Notice, too, that in his moment of crisis, Hector seems not to derive any strength or satisfaction from poetry and art--in other words, he can't do the very thing he's always encouraged his students to do in times of depression.

What’s all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against the boys’ ultimate failure?

Related Characters: Mrs. Lintott (speaker), Hector
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mrs. Lintott reveals that she doesn't really admire Hector's approach to education any more than she admires Irwin's. Hector teaches his students to embrace art and poetry as "medicines" against suffering and loneliness. In doing so, Hector confirms his own loneliness and suffering--he's spent his entire adult life feeling lonely and sorry for himself, so it's only natural that he should pass on his pessimistic philosophy of poetry to his students.

Another way of interpreting Hector's educational philosophy is that Hector teaches his students how to accept and make light of their sadness, but doesn't actually teach them how to escape sadness. Irwin thinks that education is a tool with which students can "rise" in life, while Hector thinks it's a way for students to accept their fate (assuming that they never rise at all). Neither view of education is entirely satisfactory, Bennet suggests--the truth, as with everything in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

Why are you so bold in argument and talking but when it actually comes to the point, when it’s something that’s actually happening, I mean now, you’re so fucking careful?

Related Characters: Dakin (speaker), Irwin
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

In this uncomfortable scene, Dakin discovers the truth about Irwin. Irwin has implied that he went to study at Oxford as an undergraduate, when in reality, he just got his teaching diploma there. Irwin is visibly uncomfortable knowing that Dakin has found out his secret, and made further uncomfortable when Dakin propositions Irwin for sex. Dakin teases Irwin for his nervousness--Irwin has always been proud and reckless in his arguing, but in real life, he's extremely timid.

The passage reinforces the limits of Irwin's philosophy of education. Irwin emphasizes the importance of boldness and outward appearance. Yet beneath the surface--both in Irwin's style of argument and his lifestyle--there's not much depth or strength. Irwin pretends to be a successful Oxford man, but his success is a facade that Dakin eventually sees through. In the end, then, Irwin--both as a character and as a teacher--is no more attractive or successful than Hector.