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.
Hope and Failure ThemeTracker
Hope and Failure Quotes in The History Boys
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.
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.
I’m a Jew.
And I live in Sheffield.
DAKIN: The more you read, though, the more you see that literature is actually about losers.
DAKIN: It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.
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!
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 made me piss my life away in this god-forsaken school? There’s nothing of me left. Go away. Class dismissed. Go.
What’s all this learning by heart for, except as some sort of insurance against the boys’ ultimate failure?