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The History Boys - A Grade Example Essay - English Literature Ella 1 - How does Bennett portray the Headmaster?

Updated on April 12, 2012

How does Bennett portray the Headmaster? You should explore one or two episodes in detail. In your answer you should consider:

  • Bennett’s language choices
  • Dramatic techniques.

Within the play, The Headmaster (Felix)’s character is generally portrayed as being strict (adhering closely to the school rules and formalities), volatile in both his aggressive speech to other characters and behaviour, and unlikable to all of the other characters. He also tends to fail at maintaining respect and authority with the other characters. Felix’s character is also often used as a point of mockery for the other characters, contrasting his strict, dull character with the boy’s and teachers more fun and liberal approach to teaching and learning. This creates the image of the typical, unlikable Headmaster.
An example of this is in Hector’s French lesson where Felix enters the scene using a formal register saying “Mr Hector, I hope I’m not. . .” (using the formal title “mr” and the formality of trying to say “I hope I’m not” with the verb “hope” indicating politeness), but is immediately interrupted by a contrasting non formal gesture that Bennett describes as “an admonitory finger” from Hector. This adjective “admonitory” showing that Hector feels he is the only authority figure in his lessons, undermining Felix’s authority and creating humour in the process, with a blatant attempt at reversing of authority, showing that even Mr Hector attempts to mock Felix. Hectors additional statement of “L’anglais, c’est interdit” as an imperative for the Headmaster adds to this idea of mockery and role reversal within the classroom. He is also often portrayed as being obsessed with school league tables. The use of Felix going back on his own words and saying not “silliness” to the boys is an example of being overcautious about putting the boys off of learning and improving their chances of doing well in the league tables for his own self centered satisfaction. Felix taking back the adjective “silly”, being not a strong word, suggests that he is manipulative and thinks about smaller, intricate details, realising that even the smallest attack on the boy’s education might affect their chances of success. Felix retracting his comment also shows how he is willing to be insincere in order to improve the boy’s chances.
Felix’s interrupting the French lesson and not waiting is an example of his being obsessed with league tables because he wants the boy’s to realise that there isn’t time to waste if they wanted to get into Oxford. His purpose of entry being that he wanted to introduce Irwin and take time off Hector’s timetable in order to accommodate him.The fact that the Headmaster didn’t wait til after the lesson is also another addition to his unlikable character, impatience.
The idea that Mr Felix is challenged by Hector’s comment, with him attempting to play along with the demand rather than take authority and speak in English anyway, reveals to the audience that Felix does not himself feel in control and makes desperate attempts at proving himself, showing insecurities. His bumbling attempts at French in “pourquoi cet garcon. . . Dakin, isn’t it? . . . est sans ses . . . trousers” with the use of the non fluency feature of pausing indicated by ellipses, and having to code switch back to English for the simple concrete noun “trousers” shows that Felix is not as intelligent as the others around him and is a further indication of how the both the boys and Hector undermine his authority and mock him with it. This time, using their better knowledge of French to do so.

Felix’s use of the common affirmative idiom “of course” in “wounded soldier, of course, yes” further exemplifies his insecurity and shows his need to try to prove that he is as learned and intelligent as the other staff and boys that he is in charge of. The addition of “yes” at the end emphasises his need to reassure the boys that he indeed does know what is happening in the French exercise before him. This is a clever juxtaposition of ideas because although the Headmaster realises what is happening in terms of French, he does not realise that the boys are making the story up spontaneously to cover up the somewhat incriminating (for Hector) exercise that was happening before. Bennett showing that the boys are ready to band together with Hector as a humorous team to mock and trick Felix shows the audience that the Headmaster is not very likable and creates a divide in the characters of the play. This creates bathos because Felix is portrayed as being so unlikable and so pitiful that it has become humorous for boy the boys and the audience.
The use of the boy’s proposed self-evident statements after the Headmaster begins to question what is happening before him with volatile style “Belgique? Pourquoi Belgique?” (repeating “belgique” twice showing anger and impatience) and and “sa tante?” (a short sentence showing disbelief) and the responses “A Ypres, sir. Ypres” -using the repetition of Ypres to suggest obviousness and monosyllabic short sentences to make it seem like the Headmaster needed clear and concise answers to understand -, and Timms’ “la famille entiere” -being also a short sentence reinforces this humor - is another example of Felix’s volatile character contrasting with the boy’s lighthearted and easy mocking. This emphasises the extent of Felix’s character being unlikable by the others, being volatile and strict, and how he cannot maintain authority and respect.

In another section, Felix rants to Dorothy about Hector’s motorbike boy-fumbling. A use of the semantic field of statistics is used with a lexical choice of “unpredictable” and “unquantifiable”, “assess” and “results” pushing the idea that the Headmaster is both a mathematical manipulator and a boring person. Mrs Lintott’s short monosyllabic response after the long monologue by Felix is another example of the juxtaposition of Felix with a character that doesn’t like him, showing Mrs Lintott’s reluctance to speak to him, even if he is her boss and the subject matter interests her (Hector being her friend).
The Headmasters use of the dysphemism “I am glad he handles his pupil’s balls” is another example of his unlikable character, showing no respect for formalities when in the presence of teachers alone, encouraging the idea that he is only polite and formal in front of the boys in order to achieve better results from them, with the notion that if he is respectable the boys will work harder to please him. The use of “balls” is also taboo in the context of talking about a fellow staff member, and particularly so in front of a respected woman like Mrs Lintott.
The statement “I assumed you knew” shows how insensitive and self centered the Headmaster can be, with the verb “assumed” implying that he thought about Mrs Lintott knowing or not knowing the information he revealed, but didn’t care enough to clarify his assumption. The use of the stage direction “Mrs Lintott says nothing” shows how upset she is at what she heard and not being told earlier. The response of “he hadn’t told you why he was going?” is an example of insensitivity of Felix who didn’t think that it could be taken as an insult to not being told information by a close friend.
The use of the idiom “I don’t want to spell it out” shows an attack on Mrs Lintott’s intelligence and the Headmasters disregard for Mrs Lintott’s feelings making him seem unlikable once again. However, the attempt at emphasising with Hector is unprecedented and shows that there might be more to the Headmaster than at first glance. These attempts of relating Mrs Lintott’s life to his “you know the form” and justifying Hector “to be fair I think more appreciative than investigatory” shows a better understanding of the situation as previously known by the headmaster, and signs of empathising. The use of hedging in “I think” and the idiom “to be fair” shows an attempt at being caring for Mrs Lintott’s feelings, who he does understand has been hurt by the news. Ending the statement in “but It is inexcusable nonetheless” with the conjunction “but” indicating that Felix wants to clarify that although he justifies what Hector did, it is still wrong, shows that the Headmaster wants to remain authoritative and professional and shows a genuine interest in the boy’s well being.
Therefore, although for the most part the Headmaster’s character is portrayed as one of being mocked, strict, formal, school-centric and unlikable, it can also be said that he does have moments of empathising and genuine, altruistic care.


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from London

      Yes :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      is this actually how to write the answer?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for this example essay, it really helped put me back on track in terms of referencing the play, and elaborating my arguments towards the headmaster. Once again, thanks.


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