In 1933, western Europe was exhausted. Less than two decades before the writing of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, over 35 million people had lost their lives in a conflict that had no discernible meaning other than the rearrangement of borders, economic interests, and power relationships. The British Imperial forces had suffered 1.2 million dead and 2 million wounded. An entire generation had been decimated. In Britain, this pointless bloodletting included all levels of society: the working class, the middle class, and the monied and aristocratic upper class. The Public Schools, like Hilton’s imaginary Brookfield, provided the leadership backbone of the military.
Britain was not psychologically prepared for another such conflict. On February 9th, 1933 an oath was taken by the University students at the Oxford Union “never to bear arms for king or country.” Wilfred Owen wrote his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” near the end of World War I displaying the moral exhaustion, intellectual anger, and prophetic judgment of a generation against the stupidity of human extermination and slaughter. His poem offered a powerful rejection of the Horatian adage: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” Britain seemed no longer to find such triumphalist patriotism an admirable sentiment. A month after the fateful Oxford Oath in March 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany.
This virile and stolid approach to war, though exhausting, was part of the Western tradition. The Just War theory is the belief that there are legitimate uses of force, from capital punishment to war. This form of violence is held to be justified by Scripture (Romans 13), Reason (Thomas Aquinas), and Tradition and Necessity (Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke). In terms of theological worldviews we find Trentine Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Hooker), Eastern Orthodox, as well as the Reformed Protestants holding to this position. Many of these traditional denominations in the modern era have modified their historical positions on war, emphasizing peacemaking. And from their denominational start, the Anabaptist tradition of Mennonites and Quakers held to pacifism, though they are the minority.
Written in the same year (1933) for the British Weekly as a light sentimental story to fill its Christmas edition, the short novel by James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, has become a minor classic. Beside the themes of age, romance, tradition, generational change, and the English Public School system itself, the novel, set over the period of several European conflicts, addresses the age-old questions of peace and war, and the proper human response to the martial savagery surrounding us.
Chips, in his role as an archetypal Wise Teacher, addresses this question, often in asides and humor. Atypical of the elites of his generation, Chips gives a balanced middle-class Victorian viewpoint, which repudiates the evil of war while simultaneously assuming its necessity as a part of life. Though pleading for peace as a literary theme, the novel honors the Just War tradition. In this manner, Hilton relies on the stock response of all human experience: war is bad; peace is good; war is sometimes unavoidable. Chips’ stock response follows in the classical tradition of Edmund Burke: “Wars are just for whom they are necessary.”
Hilton presents the magisterial Mr. Chips as a metaphorical embodiment of England in its social evolution, confronting multi-generations of war, and relying on the historical traditions of the classical and Christian just war tradition. Though Chips (as character) is shown to embody the stoic values of Britain’s yeomanry, Hilton (as author) is already projecting his imagination toward a hopeful and more pacific future—a Shangri-la.
Chips: A Human Allegory
In his essay James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips and the strange death of liberal England, Patrick Scott makes some astute observations regarding the structure and internal dating found in the novel. Just as the American author, Henry Adams, structured his own autobiographical memoir to overlay the history of the United States, so Scott believes that Hilton has mapped the fictional life of Chips against the history of the British Liberal movement, creating a “striking historical allegory.”1 Hilton’s official explanation of the origins of this novel—writing it within a four day period—makes it a remarkable achievement.2 Whether subconsciously or with full conscious artistry, Hilton built his novel around the personal memory of his boyhood schoolmaster W. H. Balgarnie, as well as the political situation of English culture as it faced an increasingly ominous political climate in Europe.
Hilton has Chips born in 1848, the year of revolutions. Chips sees Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, and the Crystal Palace, a celebration of science, modernism, and industry. Scott notes that 1867 is mentioned, the year of the Second Reform Act; and Chips begins teaching at Brookfield in 1870, the year that compulsory education is established. Says Scott: “In the mid-1890’s, with his marriage, Chips discovers the attraction of the new ideas of Shaw and Morris, and the justice of votes for women; though he is never himself a socialist, his marriage to one marks the happiest period of his life, and only ends with the tragic suddenness in 1898, the year of Gladstone’s death.”3
In 1916, Chips returns to Brookfield at the same time that conscription begins. He lives on in memories, and student teas, and academic conversations until his death in 1933. Exhausted, just as England was exhausted, Chips’ life parallels the history of British liberalism and middle-class rationality that had shaped English society and balanced change with tradition. Now that intellectual balancing act was being tested once again.
Chips: Lessons on War and Peace
Chips was a traditionalist and a classicist. His views on war and peace were typical of those educated in a British Public School system: civilized, and humane, but virtuously courageous. War, he believed, is horrible, but it is part of life. And because war is part of life, it intertwines through our human story not as something to relish, but as something to be endured.
It is an unfortunate confusion of our era to think that the Just War tradition is the opposite of pacifism. Pacifism and militarism are the polar opposites, while the ameliorating caveats and limited rationalizations of Just War Theory represent the expression of the Aristotelian Golden Mean. Chips’ views are the views of a civilization stretching back to Cicero, through Aquinas, through the Reformers, through Johnson, through Arnold, and through the Public (British private) School system itself. The commonplace lessons that Chips exemplifies throughout the novel are stock responses to the geopolitical realities of life. He has no other way to cope with the growing militant evil. His responses are presented in the order in which they appear in the text.
First, history is full of wars, remembered and forgotten. In a passing aside regarding an old headmaster, Chips remarks: “Weatherby had been an old man in those days—1870—easy to remember because of the Franco-Prussian war.”4 History books are full of wars. We date events by wars. And yet, who remembers the Franco-Prussian war? For many in our current generation, the Vietnam war is as ancient as the Gallic War. Who remembers Weatherby? Only Chips. Teachers like Chips are the guardians of historical and collective memory, personal and scholarly. The memory of war, and the causes of war, fades unless a society takes intentional steps to impress their history on the next generation.
Second, heroes stand around us like ghosts. Reminiscing about Collingwood, a student from 1902, Chips and his housekeeper Mr. Wickett compare notes about an unlikely hero: “Yes, I knew ‘im, sir. Cheeky, ‘e was to me, gener’ly. But we never ‘ad no bad words between us. Just cheeky-like. ‘E never meant no harm. That kind never does, sir. Wasn’t it ‘im that got the medal, sir?”5 Chips acknowledges this, and adds that he was killed in Egypt. Lesson: Those irritating children who pass our way in life make up the people who give their lives for wars better or worse. Our memories of them are like spectral images.
Third, common people die in war. After Chips talks to a Cockney Private bound for France, we find that, “A month or so later Chips heard that he had been killed in the Passchendaele.”6 There is a sad irony in this deadpan remark. People die in war: this is not a particularly deep thought, it’s tautological. Yet this is the simple horrible truth about war; it is destructive and brutal. And it is the children of the working class who made up the overwhelming fodder of the killing fields.
Fourth, warfare is a nasty, unpredictable business. In ironic understatement, Hilton has the German teacher, Herr Staefel, leaving for Germany, telling Chips that the “Balkan business wouldn’t come to anything.”7 War is not something we can plan, nor is peace; yet we must strive for peace and attempt to avoid war. But it is not a rational controllable thing… No one believed at the beginning of World War I that it would result in such an incredible loss of life.
Fifth, war is a cruel and bitter joke. When young Forrester questions Chips about the War, the old schoolmaster says of the smallest school boy at Brookfield, “Are you thinking of—um—joining up Forrester?”8 A good joke. Forrester was, of course, “killed in 1918—shot down in flames over Cambrai.” This is gallows humor, witticisms that make one cry.
Sixth, war brings historical absurdities. When Chips tried to explain to the young, 18 year old, Blades, the tragic-comedy of history, that 100 years previously English soldiers had been fighting against the French, and were now fighting with and for them, Blades “only laughed. What had all that history stuff to do with it anyway?”9 Not only are we condemned, in our general historical ignorance, to relive history; we are condemned to relive it with paradoxical and absurd variations.
Seventh, war is a terrific waste of human beings. “Gallipoli…The Somme.” These are merely words on paper for us now. But for those who experienced these battles they are words of terror. At Gallipoli, a disastrous attempt by the British Imperial Forces to take Istanbul, about 400,000 casualties existed on both sides. At the Somme, the bloodiest offensive perhaps in history, 1.5 million casualties occurred in a 3 month period.10 Civilized nations were grinding human beings, body, soul, and spirit into ground meat and bone.
Eighth, war should not destroy our common human dignity and friendship. The recounting of the death of Herr Staefel is one of Hilton’s greatest expressions of human empathy and the love for a friend. It was the tradition to read the lists of Brookfield’s dead during chapel. On this occasion, Chips does something different.
On the following day, after the names and biographies of old boys [Brookfieldians], he paused a moment and then added: ‘Those of you who were here from before the War will remember Max Staefel, the German master. He was in Germany, visiting his home, when war broke out. He was popular while he was here, and made many friends. Those who knew him will be sorry to hear that he was killed last week, on the Western Front.’11
Later, one of the students exclaims: “On the Western Front, Chips said. Does that mean he was fighting for the Germans!” Yes! The student does not understand the lesson, however. Yes, Staefel was a German and therefore, an enemy. Staefel was also a man, Chip’s friend, and part of Brookfield.
Ninth, war is an ugly, uncivilized business. “Once asked for his opinion of bayonet practice being carried on near the cricket pavilion, he answered, with that lazy, lightly asthmatic intonation that had been so often and so extravagantly imitated: “It seems—to me—umph—a very vulgar way of killing people.”12 Unlike the American militarist George Patton, who relished and loved war, the normal reaction to bloody violence is a mocking disdain.
Tenth, War is a recurrent historical reality. As the Germans bombed the British countryside, Chips continued to teach his students in Latin, cracking jokes. He had one of them translate from Caesar’s Gallic Wars the phrase “Genus hoc erat pugnae quo se Germani exercuerant”—“This was the kind of fight in which the Germans busied themselves.”13 The Germans were fought in the first century BC; the Germans were being fought in the twentieth century AD. Unfortunately, they were about to fight them again. Militarism and tyranny are continuous threats to peace. War does not go away because we wish it would.
Hilton has written a profoundly anti-war novel, while at the same time affirming the cardinal virtue of courage.
Chips Falling Where He May
Though the character Chips was an optimist about the world and the future, the author Hilton himself reflected the exhaustion of the post-World War I era. Hilton says:
Mr. Chips was too valiant an optimist to face the tragic impasse of the twentieth century—the fact that civilization, because in its higher manifestations it is essentially organized for peace, cannot long survive war—even a war supposedly undertaken on its behalf. There can be no war to end wars, because all wars begin other wars. There can be no such thing as a war to save democracy, because all wars destroy democracy.”14
In this case, it is clear that the fictional character Chips is not the mere mouthpiece for his creator, and that the author is less sanguine about the bloody events that are shaping themselves in Europe on the eve of World War II. There is almost a sense of doom, and of looking at England as an already fallen nation, when Hilton says: “Let history write the epitaph—England, liberalism, democracy were not so bad—not so good, either, on all occasion, but better, maybe in a longer retrospect. Some of us may even survive to make such a retrospect. All over the world today the theme and accents of barbarism are being orchestrated…”15
The events of World War II were even more destructive than the casualty lists of the First War, but it was the optimism of Chips, and not the pessimism of Hilton, that proved to be the strength of the English character in its fight against Nazism. In this, the imaginary Chips spoke in the tradition of the defiant poet of Maldon, the commonsense manliness of Dr. Johnson, and the resolute necessity of Churchill. Chips was not merely Brookfield; Chips was England.
Chips in Shangri-la
Hilton’s imagination took two tracks—fight or flight. In Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Hilton had his allegorical spokesman for the middle class to fight, however reluctantly, the enemy before them. The British stereotype is to stay the course, bear the burden, keep the lip stiff, take the beating, and to give back as good as one is given. But Hilton also desired an escape from a world heading toward a military hell of dictators using techniques “of mass hypnotism, as practiced by controlled press and radio…being schooled to construct a façade of justification for any and every excess.”16
In this second highly successful classic of the same year, Lost Horizon (1933), Hilton expressed a kind of dreamlike desire for a world away from martial conflict. In Shangri-la, humans could live a life of fulfillment, work, rationality, creativity, and health. Unlike most contemporary utopian tales, Hilton did not write a dystopia. Yet part of the charm of his village in the Himalayan clouds is that, though it is not perfect, it is a place that satisfies our wish-fulfillment for peace. What dystopian elements that do come in the novel represent the discord from the outside world, and from the sense that this special world of shalom—of tranquil peace—is lost like Eden. Even in this, Hilton reminds us that a fully peaceful world is an imaginary world.
- Scott, Patrick. “James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips and the strange death of liberal England.” South Atlantic Quarterly 85.4 (1986): 321.
- Hammond, John R. Lost Horizon Companion (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2008), 20.
- Scott, Patrick, 321.
- Hilton, James. Goodbye, Mr. Chips (New York: Little, Brown and Company,  2004), 6.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 91.
- Ibid., 92.
- Ibid., 93-94.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 101-102.
- Ibid., 103.
- Ibid., 106-107.
- Hilton, James. To You, Mr. Chips (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938) 52.
- Ibid., 55.
- Ibid., 56.