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James Hilton’s genial portrayal of a Latin master in a turn-of-the-century British public school, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, was published as a magazine story in England in 1933, in book form in America a year later; it has inspired two film versions, one in 1939, one in 1969, and a full-length Masterpiece Theatre production for television in 2002. In 1994, Ethan Canin published his short story, “The Palace Thief,” presenting the unique tribulations of an ancient history teacher at an elite Virginia prep school; it was made into the 2002 film, The Emperor’s Club. Both stories are predicated on teachers’ attempts to mold boys’ minds and character in the tradition of the Victorian British classical education; their plotlines similarly span decades in the lives of their protagonists, featuring their devotion to their profession and to the institutions they serve, their idealistic pedagogical goals, the ups and downs of their careers, and their eventual retirements. Within these similar outlines, the two literary originals differ radically in tone and theme – to such an extent, in fact, that one is tempted to read Canin’s story as a conscious inversion and subversion of Hilton’s iconic portrayal of a beloved schoolmaster. Further complexities arise when the cinematic versions of both stories are added into the critical mix, for each resulting text idiosyncratically invests its plot with meaning that varies according to its medium, its audience, and its makers’ cultural assumptions concerning both the Victorian educational ideal itself and the notions of “manliness” that underpin that ideal.


Pre-print version of article that appeared in Classical and Modern Literature, published by the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia.


Classical and Modern Literature, Inc.



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