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Analysis of Women in "The History Boys"

Updated on April 19, 2016
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The role of women in the History Boys

In ‘The History Boys’, Alan Bennett addresses the issue of the role of women in society, which, in a nation under Margaret Thatcher, was being given increasing attention and his presentation of women in the play is, arguably, a satirical representation of the reality of the time. In line with changing times it could be seen that Bennett proposes advancements concerning the responsibility of women through Mrs Lintott, who Bennett poignantly uses to shape the views of the audience. Mrs Lintott is also given a subversive voice, providing a fresh view of men, women and history. In doing so Bennett challenges both an overtly male society and the stereotyped role of female passivity. Bennett, however, also demonstrates the existence of a patriarchal society using various devices, namely the perception of discrepancy and freedom created by the holiday atmosphere.


How Bennett presents marriage

For example, Bennett presents marriage as a confinement of social experience. This is contrasted with the more traditional view in comedy of marriage being central to a happy ending. Both Hector’s ‘somewhat unexpected wife’ and ‘Mrs Headmaster’ are absent from the stage and the glimpses we are given of these marriages are far from ‘happy’. Both wives ‘help out’ at the charity shop, marginalized social roles ridiculed by Hector – ‘they all seem to nowadays’. Hector’s wife, he claims, would not be ‘interested’ in his ‘fiddling’ boys on the pillion. However, the Headmaster’s wife plays a significant, albeit disruptive, role in the comedy: her exposure of Hector’s activities with the boys on the motorbike leads, ultimately, through his reinstatement and the Headmaster’s orders not to give the boys lifts, to Hector’s death and Irwin’s crippling. Moreover, the final impression the audience is given of Hector’s wife, in a scene between Dorothy and Irwin near the end of the play (Act 2, scene 15), is Dorothy’s surmise that Mrs Hector had ‘sort of known all along’ about her husband and that ‘A husband in a low light, that’s what they want, these supposedly unsuspecting wives, the man’s lukewarm attentions, just what they married them for’. So, far from submissive, Hector’s wife has, arguably, some control in her marriage.


Fiona's relationship with Dakin

Through the presentation of Fiona, Bennett explores another sexual stereotype, namely through her relationship with Dakin. Bennett presents Fiona as being a sexual object, whose inclusion in the play heightens male sexual prowess and dominance. This is epitomized by Dakin’s statement that “I’m hoping one of the times might be on the study floor... it’s like the Headmaster says one should have targets”. Dakin accentuates the relationship between sex and education as he notes the importance of measurable targets in pursuing Fiona. Dakin having sex with Fiona on the floor of the Headmaster’s study will also result in the comic upheaval of youth dominating age which again emphasises Fiona's role in heightening male dominance.

Bennett's use of imagery and language concerning Fiona

Bennett uses imagery of war in describing Fiona; and the humour rests in the word play, as Dakin compares sexual advances with Fiona and the advances of the British soldiers in the war. Fiona is depicted as his ‘Western Front’, a territory to be taken, and, more alarming, the enemy, the ‘Hun’; her body is ‘ground’ to be ‘reconnoitered’; Dakin’s efforts to continue to her intimate parts are ‘deployments’. This both symbolically and literally depicts Fiona’s subservience and reaffirms her character as elevating male sexual accomplishment. The language becomes more explicit when he states he ‘had begun the evening thinking this might be the big push’. What’s more, he seems to be enjoying his cleverness with language: ‘And the beauty of it is, the metaphor really fits’. In addition, Bennett emphasises Fiona’s role as an enjoyable pursuit which presents a sense of insignificance associated with the role of women. Fiona is introduced after Rudge discusses his relationship which occurs " only on Fridays..." Because he "...needs the weekend free for 'rugger and golf.' And it’s at this point that Bennett introduces Dakin 'currently seeing Fiona',as if Fiona is merely a recreation. Even more damming, Bennett juxtaposes Rudge’s ‘Fuck ‘em’ with Dakin’s words, ‘Currently, I’m seeing Fiona’,emphasizing Fiona's image as a sexual target. Moreover the fact that recreational activities and women are portrayed in the same light degrades women's role in society to be solely focused around pleasing men.


How Mrs Lintott is presented as a commentator?

It is Bennett’s presentation of Dorothy Lintott, however, that challenges the patriarchal nature of the play’s society. Despite what could be interpreted as shrewish comments on marriage, (‘story-telling so much of it, which is what men do naturally. My ex, for instance, he told stories…Legged it to Dumfies’), Dorothy is given the role as astute and perceptive commentator. In a play about history, she provides a fresh and amusing view ,which is particularly conveyed through the role-play scene of mock interviews as she controversially comments on history as being “a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men”.Here Bennett allows the audience to consider a dominant, aggressive and conflict-oriented stereotype of men, which is also supported by Dakin's relationship with Fiona, and the continuous power struggle between Hector and Irwin, which inadvertently presents Mrs Lintott as holding the ability to shape the attitudes of the audience. Moreover, Dakin's “yawning” alone would ordinarily be a comic device to generate the audience's laughter; however, Mrs Lintott's comment that”...[he] wouldn't be yawning otherwise”, perhaps curbs their laughter, thus demonstrating female potency within the play.

How are women presented in the play?

How are women presented in the play?

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Mrs Lintott and her relationship with men

Moreover, it is Dorothy’s perceptive voice that condemns the arrogant Dakin as ‘cunt-struck’. She harnesses the derogatory male language of female private parts to derogate men, calling the Headmaster ‘twat’ repeatedly and ‘to go further down the same proscribed path, a condescending cunt’. Here, the female voice raises laughs in her mocking of both men and figures of authority. Although traditionally the purpose of female characters on stage in comedy was to be figures of mockery both from the audience and other male characters, Bennett uses the character of Mrs Lintott to display the Headmaster’s idiocy in the first scene in which she appears on stage. He believes the boys need to “Think charm. Think Polish...”. However, Dorothy’s ironic response compares his idea of education to a “sprig of parsley” ,and subversively the Headmaster’s appearance on stage becomes the centre of the audience’s mockery. This portrays Mrs Lintott’s perceptiveness, her ability to puncture the bombast of the Headmaster and, more, a glimpse of the role she plays in shaping the views of the audience. Most importantly, however, Dorothy is, like Scripps, given a role as omniscient and perspicacious onlooker and observer of events over time. At the end, she steps outside the linear framework to expose the truth about society and the boys’ futures, in doing so, she tailors the thoughts of the audience's understanding of the play. In the final scene she satirically comments on society, stating they are “Pillars of a community that no longer has much use for pillars”. Bennett allows Mrs Lintott to further criticise “masculine ineptitude” as she demonstrates the unfulfilled outcome of the boys’ future as a result of the “masculine” approach to teaching. The comment that Dakin “like[s] money”,ironically denotes the value of an education focused solely on achieving 'targets'.

Does Mrs Lintott emphasise womens muted role in society?

However, it could be interpreted that Bennett uses Mrs Lintott to emphasize women’s muted role in society, presenting her as showing elements present within the 'submissive' contemporary stereotype of women. Bennett presents Mrs Lintott’s confession that she has “not hitherto been allotted an inner voice...” in contrast with the self-absorbed behaviour of the male characters; on multiple occasions Bennett indubitably juxtaposes Mrs Lintott’s role of passively accepting confidences of more prominent figures such as the headmaster, which heightens the audience’s sense of sympathy for her position. Furthermore, the reference to the lack of an “inner voice” emphasizes the enclosed world of male relationships within the play and the limited affect women had on the world. Bennett presents Hector, the Headmaster and Irwin as having very well defined teaching philosophies: the headmaster is concerned with superficial 'targets',Hector believes“all knowledge is precious...” and Irwin is chiefly concerned with originality and practical uses of it. However, Bennett excludes Mrs Lintott from the educational debate and presents her without any viewpoint on it, emphasizing the passive role of women(woman). There is further evidence for this as Mrs Lintott reminds them “one of the dons...may be a women” ; here Bennett notes the assumption made by the male dominant society that men are always in positions of influence and for a man to be inferior to a woman is inconceivable.


The General presentation of women in the play

However, it could be interpreted that Bennett uses Mrs Lintott to emphasize women’s muted role in society, presenting her as showing elements present within the 'submissive' contemporary stereotype of women. Bennett presents Mrs Lintott’s confession that she has “not hitherto been allotted an inner voice...” in contrast with the self-absorbed behaviour of the male characters; on multiple occasions Bennett indubitably juxtaposes Mrs Lintott’s role of passively accepting confidences of more prominent figures such as the headmaster, which heightens the audience’s sense of sympathy for her position. Furthermore, the reference to the lack of an “inner voice” emphasizes the enclosed world of male relationships within the play and the limited affect women had on the world. Bennett presents Hector, the Headmaster and Irwin as having very well defined teaching philosophies: the headmaster is concerned with superficial 'targets',Hector believes“all knowledge is precious...” and Irwin is chiefly concerned with originality and practical uses of it. However, Bennett excludes Mrs Lintott from the educational debate and presents her without any viewpoint on it, emphasizing the passive role of women(woman). There is further evidence for this as Mrs Lintott reminds them “one of the dons...may be a women” ; here Bennett notes the assumption made by the male dominant society that men are always in positions of influence and for a man to be inferior to a woman is inconceivable.


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    • profile image

      Yasmine 4 years ago

      Hi this is really helpful I have a history boys exam in may. Do you by any chance have notes on the characters Irvin , scripps and mrs lintott ?

    • sahbam16 profile image
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      sahbam16 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hey I'm glad it helped. Yes I do have a few notes on the characters, how would you like me to get them to you?

    • profile image

      Yasmine 4 years ago

      Hi, please could you send me them by email it's yasminekb@hotmail.com

      All lowercase. Many thanks I've been struggling on character analysis side.

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      Kieran Moore 3 years ago

      Would you be able to tell me your name please, I'm looking to use a sentence of your analysis as a critic for my essay. Thanks a lot

    • profile image

      maryam 4 months ago

      I have a history boys exam in 3 months time. what kind of questions am I looking at?

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