‘The History Boy’s’ is a play by Alan Bennett. The characters Hector, Irwin and Mrs. Lintott all help the boys prepare for the exams. The character Hector is not a conventional tragic hero but can be seen as one. A tragic hero is a character who most effectively evokes both our pity and horror as he is neither thoroughly good nor thoroughly bad but a mixture of both. The tragic effect will be stronger if the hero is of higher than ordinary moral worth. Such a character is exhibited as suffering a change in fortune from happiness to misery because of his mistaken choice of action, to which is lead by his hamartia. The character of Hectors’ hamartia could be his view of education; being more to mould students into more rounded human beings as opposed to just enabling them to pass exams. In tragedy, a tragic hero’s fatal flaw will ultimately lead to the characters downfall. In the play, Hectors downfall is caused by his complacency, his sexuality and his view of education, all of which are contributing factors to his tragic demise. Although there are many reasons for Hector’s downfall, I think the most important is due to his view of education which in the 1980’s no longer seemed relevant.
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Hector’s view of education is to make his students more ’rounded human beings’ and can be summed up in his quotation from A.E. Housman that ‘knowledge is not general, it is specific, and nothing to do with getting on’. His teaching methods, as described by the headmaster, ‘do not follow the prescribed path and there is ‘no method that I know of that enables me to assess the job that he is doing’. Hector regards exams as the ‘enemy of education’ and teaches the boys knowledge for its own sake. His opinion of exams means he could jeopardise the student’s chances of gaining places at Oxbridge. Although Hectors teaching methods may be questionable, the boys look up to him. Hectors view of education forces the headmaster to employ a new teacher who will make the boys realise how ‘worthless’ Hectors lessons are. Akthar says ‘It’s just the knowledge, sir.’ Timms ‘The pursuit of it for its own sake, sir.’ Posner replies ‘Not useful, sir. Not like your lessons.’ The boys start to realise the differing lessons. ‘Your teaching methods…has always seemed to me to be selfish, less to do with the interests of the boys than some cockeyed notion you have about culture’. Hectors view of education can be seen as ultimately leading to his downfall as it is the real reason he gets fired and the boys start to become discontented with his old fashioned ways.
In the Thacterite 1980’s, where ‘Education was in a state of change and Traditional values of order and discipline were being changed by more progressive methods. The Conservative government of the time, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, was looking to make a two-tier system where the best schools academically were rewarded with extra funding and those with poor results were forced to improve in order to survive’. This change in the education encouraged schools to strive for higher grades. Hector doesn’t agree with the modern view of education, that ‘education is the reduction of education which can be used as a tool for your own personal advancement’. The headmaster states ‘We need a strategy, Dorothy. A game plan.’ The headmaster, a self aggrandizing character who wants the boys to excel and go to Oxbridge, realises Hectors methods of teaching, the boys might enable them to reach their full potential. The headmaster enlists the help of Oxford educated Irwin, a history teacher who is the antithesis of Hector. The headmaster suggests Hector’s teaching methods are dated as Hector has an ‘old fashioned redemptive power of words’. Irwin’s lessons change the boy’s views on Hector and they find Irwin’s lessons more useful than Hectors which consist of ‘just the knowledge’. The modern view of education conflicts with Hectors antiquated methods. The changing views of education ultimately, but not directly, leads to him getting fired.
Irwin is the antithesis of Hector and can also be seen as the antagonist. He has been bought in as part of the headmasters ‘game plan’ to get the boys into Oxbridge. Irwin teaches with an analytical approach and encourages the boys to find ‘an angle’ on history. The difference between hectors obsolete methods and Irwin’s modern approach is highlighted when Irwin asks the boys what goes on in his lessons ‘Not useful, sir. Not like your lessons.’ ‘Breaking bread with the dead, sir. That’s what we do.’ Irwin ultimately fails to spot Akthar’s Auden quotation. Irwin also fails to realise that through literature, the present can share with, and learn from the past, which is Hectors view whereas Irwin merely classes this as ‘Wider reading’. Irwin, being the antithesis of Hector, his opinion is ‘Education is not something for when they’re old and grey and sitting by the fire. It’s for now.’ Irwin’s and Hectors conflicting views are exemplified in the scene in which the holocaust is discussed and whether it should be taught. Irwin claims ‘It’s a question of tone, surely. Tact.’ And Hector replies ‘Not tact. Decorum’. Decorum refers to that which is appropriate to the object about which a person speaks, Hector’s opinion is speaking about the holocaust must be an act of reverence. On the other hand, Irwin’s view of ‘tact’ is to avoid the emotions which would prevent his point from being made. Irwin view of ‘tact’ encourages the boys to ‘distance’ themselves, Irwin replies to Posner’s opinion on the holocaust with ‘good point’, Scripps replies to this by saying ‘You keep saying, ‘Good point.’ Not a good point, sir. True. To you the Holocaust is just another topic on which we may get a question’. Differing from Hectors view, Irwin sees history as ‘performance’ and ‘entertainment’ as opposed to being ‘a matter of conviction’. Irwin’s view of education can be seen as an important factor leading to Hectors downfall as his different approach to learning leads to the boys to realise how useless Hectors lessons are as opposed to Irwin’s. In reply to a point Hector makes about the holocaust, Dakin says ‘I do see it, sir. Only I don’t agree with it. Not… not anymore.’ Dakin is disentranced. Without the respect of the boys and without their acceptance of Hectors teaching methods, Hectors character is broken. This will lead to his downfall.
Hector’s homosexuality is an ongoing theme throughout the play and can be seen as an important reason for his downfall. Although his sexuality is used as an excuse for the headmaster to fire Hector, is can be directly linked with his death. A tragic hero’s hamartia will ultimately lead to the hero’s downfall and death. Hector’s attraction to his pupils can be seen as his hamartia. Once the headmaster has found out about Hectors fondling of the boys, he could no longer take the boys on the back of his bike. In the play, this results in Irwin riding the bike with Hector, the bike crashes. The character Posner has theories as to why this happened ‘Irwin had never been on the back of the bike before, going round the corner he leaned out instead of in and so unbalanced Hector.’. This suggests that his fondling of the boys was directly linked to his downfall as when it was discovered, Hector was asked to retire early, and due to the fact Irwin rode on the bike as opposed to the boys, the bike crashed which lead to his death. However, it can be seen that his fondling was just a ‘thing on the side’ and an excuse for the headmaster to fire him as it would seem unfair to fire Hector for not agreeing with his Thacterite educational views.
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In conclusion I think Hector’s view on education was a factor leading to his downfall to some extent but it was also caused by modern educational thinking and his sexuality. Hector considered A levels as ‘credentials’ and saw exams as the ‘enemy of education’. Hector didn’t intend to teach to pass exams but to make the boys ‘more well rounded people’. This method of teaching does not appeal to the headmaster as his teaching methods do not follow the ‘prescribed path’ and therefore will not ensure the boys make it into oxford. The modern view of education, merely to jus pass exams makes Hectors teaching methods outdated, this is the real reason I think Hector was asked to retire early as there is no place for his views anymore. Hectors sexuality, I think was a catalyst for his downfall as the fondling of the boys was just an excuse to ask him to retire early. Overall, I think Hectors view of education led to his downfall, as a result of the modernist view of education. Hectors sexuality, in my opinion was merely a catalyst for his downfall, and that his view on education was the main reason, and as Irwin states at the end of the play “He was a good man but I do not think there is time for his kind of teaching anymore”.
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