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.
Sex and Sexuality Theme Icon

The boys in the play are coming of age both intellectually and sexually, and these two growing up processes are often linked in The History Boys. In one scene, Scripps and Dakin compare Dakin’s seduction of Fiona with the progress of World War II. Later, Dakin concludes that “history is fucking.” The play raises major questions about the purpose of education, so these comments make us wonder, too, about the purpose of sex. Is it a realm of personal fulfillment? Or does it serve as a way to gain certain levels of success in society? A major plot point in the play is the revelation that Hector gropes the boys when they ride behind him on his motorcycle. When the Headmaster finds out about this, Hector starts to defend himself by saying that the transmission of knowledge is necessarily erotic—further tying these two themes together. The headmaster shuts him down, however, saying that his activity “isn’t normal.” This moment illustrates the ways that the boys will be asked to curtail their sexual desires to fit within certain societal norms as they grow up. It also shows, however, that Hector’s vision of sex and knowledge has grave shortcomings. He sees them as ways to move towards personal fulfillment—but in acting on this idea, he has crossed a social boundary that is meant to protect his students, and he ruins his own career.

The play frequently deals with themes of homosexuality, and Bennett himself is gay. Hector is married to a woman, but his molestation of the boys suggests that he is repressing an attracting to men, and his friend and colleague Mrs. Lintott also suggests this. Posner is attracted to Dakin, and wonders if this is just a “phase,” but ultimately decides that it is not. Irwin, too, is attracted to Dakin. Their homosexual attractions place these characters outside the realm of societal “normalcy” and lead to feelings of loneliness and frustration for them. The play ultimately uses sex and sexuality to illustrate the boys’ processes of maturation, and to show that becoming adults requires working either within or against a set of prescribed rules for behavior. Conformity often leads to loneliness and lack of fulfillment, but society also punishes those who rebel against its rules. Adulthood requires that the boys balance these various demands, while also reaching towards a state of greater self-knowledge.

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Sex and Sexuality ThemeTracker

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

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

Dakin’s navel, I remember, was small and hard like an unripe blackberry. Posner’s navel was softer and more like that of the eponymous orange. Posner envied Dakin his navel and all the rest of him. That this envy might amount to love does not yet occur to Posner, as to date it has only caused him misery and dissatisfaction.

Related Characters: Scripps (speaker), Posner, Dakin
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Posner one of the narrators of the play, is gay, which makes his life intensely difficult at school. Posner, his classmates assume, is just immature--he doesn't talk about having sex with women because he's so inexperienced. In actuality, Posner doesn't participate in sexual conversations with his friends because he's attracted to his friends  (mostly Dakin), not to women. And even Posner, we're told by his best friend, Scripps, isn't totally aware of his own sexuality at this point in the play: homosexuality is so foreign to his tiny town of Sheffield that he has no way of understanding his own feelings for Dakin, and instead sees them as jealousy rather than attraction.

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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.

HECTOR: The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act. In the Renaissance…
HEADMASTER: Fuck the Renaissance. And fuck literature and Plato and Michaelangelo and Oscar Wilde and all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school and it isn’t normal.

Related Characters: Hector (speaker), Headmaster (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the Headmaster of the school speaks to Hector about his alleged sexual misconduct with his students. The Headmaster has learned that Hector rides on a motorcycle with his students, and sometimes gropes them. Furthermore, he now also believes that Hector molests his students during his classes--hence the locked door.

Hector begins to justify his sexual behavior to the Headmaster by citing the supposed proximity between education and eroticism. But the Headmaster will have no part of it: he dismisses Hector along with the long tradition of homoerotic intellectual figures (including Plato, who in his dialogue the Symposium claimed that true enlightenment is only possible with homosexual sex), claiming that Hector's attachment to his students isn't "normal."

Who's right here? It's possible to sympathize with Hector even as we recognize that he's abused his power and molested minors. Hector, presumably a closeted homosexual, has no outlets for his sexual desires--thus, he satisfies his urges by groping his students on the motorcycle. Hector genuinely cares about his children, yet he also uses them for his own pleasure. (There's a long tradition of gay English schoolteachers, including Auden and Ruskin.) At the same time, the boys are still boys, and so they can't really consent to this, even if they seem to go along with it, and the molestation could (and will) affect them for the rest of their lives. Hector's behavior is thus both extremely immoral and deeply sympathetic.