Examining Crocker Harriss Character In Lower Fifth English Literature Essay

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'A gentle master', as inscribed in Greek in Taplow's gift of 'The Agamemnon' for Crocker-Harris, is a vastly more fitting and deserved 'epitaph' for him than 'the Himmler of the Lower Fifth', the description of him used by the entire school and passed on to him by tactless Peter Gilbert. This is clear through Crocker-Harris's actions towards the other characters, and through their reactions to him, for example through the way Crocker-Harris treats Taplow towards the end of his lesson, and through the way Taplow reacts, by giving Crocker-Harris a farewell present, it is clear that Crocker-Harris is able to allow people to like him.

However, clearly Crocker-Harris does not put this attitude across all the time. Taplow originally believes, or pretends to believe, that Crocker-Harris "hates people to like him". He has found this out through his experiences in Crocker-Harris's classes which, although the play never leaves Crocker-Harris's sitting room, are told to the audience through Taplow recalling them to Frank, at the start of the play: "In form the other day he made one of his little classical jokes…" The audience then hears the pupil's perspective of Crocker-Harris's behaviour, as he rules with a rod of iron, unsympathetically embarrassing Taplow for the single reason that Taplow was trying to be polite and trying to prevent Crocker-Harris from being embarrassed. Taplow gives another example of Crocker-Harris's 'rod-of-iron' rule when he complains to Frank that he will not be told whether he has his remove or not until the last day of term. He then explains that Crocker-Harris is the 'only' master that sticks to this pedantic rule, and Frank has to admit that he doesn't follow it. These actions, as described by Taplow, give Crocker-Harris his Himmler-like reputation, as not only does he appear to shut himself off emotionally from the rest of the characters, he appears to have no emotions when it comes to making decisions on which to base his actions. When Crocker-Harris acts in this way, it is as though he is merely a methodical and robotic machine, programmed to implement the exact letter of the law without a moment's hesitation or indecision, as Himmler himself must have been, as the commander of the 'Gestapo' secret police and the 'SS', and being founder and officer-in-charge of the concentration camps and death squads.

What Taplow shows Frank, therefore, is a dislike of the way Crocker-Harris acts in certain situations, as opposed to a dislike of him as a person. As soon as Crocker-Harris is placed in a situation to which his robotic system is not accustomed, however, such as the situation which both Peter Gilbert and Taplow create, Crocker-Harris has to think for himself and make decisions, which are, naturally, influenced by his emotions towards the other characters in the play. There is now a marked difference in Crocker-Harris's behaviour.

However, although Crocker-Harris's 'rod-of-iron' approach to life seems to be for blocking out emotions, which allows Crocker-Harris to use his 'ready-made' decisions in most situations, this approach also inhibits when he does need to make a decision which will greatly affect him. Whilst he is speaking to Dr Frobisher he receives the news that he is not going to be granted a pension by the governors, even though a similar case of early retirement was given a pension five years ago. In this situation, Crocker-Harris's emotional shield prevents him from showing any objection, though underneath the surface he is enraged by the fact that 'Buller', the more popular sports coach, got a pension while he, having taught for a longer time than Buller, receives nothing. This is just one example of how he has been letting things like this happen to him for many years and instead of doing anything about it, he has made it worse by pretending not to be bothered and retreating behind his facade, allowing himself to be taken for granted and unappreciated. The other noticeable example is when Dr Frobisher, commenting on the excellence of Peter Gilbert, forgets which honours Crocker-Harris received at Oxford; in his own words, "It's sometimes rather hard to remember that you are perhaps the most brilliant classical scholar we have ever had at the school." This is similar to Frank telling Crocker-Harris that he "doesn't know what they'll do without him," as if his only contribution to the school was making a timetable each year. The reason that people can get away with these misinterpretations of Crocker-Harris's potential is that he does nothing outwardly to show others what he is really like; he takes life as it comes at him because he is scared of what might happen if he makes a positive move.

However, the Crocker-Harris that is seen by Peter Gilbert and by Taplow, after giving Crocker-Harris his gift is a Crocker-Harris which has been made to 'malfunction', due to the emotional strain on him being too great. The result of this is a tired, overworked shadow of the man, who feels alone and unwanted. Here the audience has to feel sorry for Crocker-Harris when they see him handing his farewell present back to Taplow, not realising that anyone would be able to sense the man he really is and give him, Andrew Crocker-Harris, a gift. Rattigan's stage directions best show the feelings of the two characters, as Taplow "thrusts" the book toward Crocker-Harris, and after a slight glance, Crocker-Harris hands it back. Then, Taplow "brusquely thrusts the book back to Crocker-Harris"; showing Crocker-Harris that he really would like him to have it.

However, the gift is meant for Crocker-Harris to enjoy, because Taplow has seen him as he should be seen and knows of his pain in losing his own verse translation of 'The Agamemnon', in losing his job and income, in not receiving his pension, and in being stuck with a wife who cheats on him and does not love him the way he needs to be loved. Taplow has managed to see the real Crocker-Harris, and so therefore his choice of epitaph is more important than the epitaph given to him by the school, which has only seen the wrong side of Crocker-Harris. The final example of Crocker-Harris being a 'kind and gentle master' stems from him using the word 'epitaph' himself when he hears the school's nickname for him, 'the Himmler of the Lower Fifth'. The reason he proves himself as a 'kind and gentle master', however, is because he has the ability to free himself of his bad reputation, due to the fact that he has finally stood up for himself. He separates himself from Millie, who he has only continued to be with through his non-emotional approach to life; he shows Dr Frobisher and the school that he is not worthless, by sticking out for the last speech at the speeches, as is his right, being the more senior teacher and he allows himself to show emotion, in particular to Taplow. All-in-all, at the end of this play, all the decisions that Crocker-Harris makes as he starts his new life point to him being a gentle master, not only in his teaching career, but throughout his entire life, making this 'epitaph' entirely more deserved.

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