Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” – the importance of literature

Below is a pretty lengthy post, of an essay I wrote to discuss writing style with my Y11s in the run-up to their Christmas mocks.

“Literature is medicine, wisdom, elastoplast, everything”. How does Bennett presents the importance of the literature in the play?

Bennett’s conflicted representation of literature is perhaps startling coming from a man who is, after all, an accomplished and acclaimed writer. Hector’s viewpoint of literature as salvation, comfort, the ultimate distinguisher of humanity, is, after all, the way that writers would, we assume, like to view themselves: creating something of value within the world. However, by the end of the play a very different perspective emerges. Literature (with a capital ‘L’, as ascribed to works of canonical quality) and ‘popular culture’ become indistinguishable as Hector teaches the “tosh” of Gracie Fields and Brief Encounter alongside Larkin, Housman and Shakespeare. For the boys, literature loses its significance, echoing the ways in which the boys grow up and lose some of their admiration for the adults in their lives. The tragedy of Posner is the crucial answer to this question: he is searching for meaning, solace and comfort, and while he has all of the quotations from Hector he has none of the guidance he needs. Although as a writer, Bennett – like many others – might like to think his work has longevity and speaks to our humanity, he is also ruefully aware that for many, echoes of the past fall short.

If you’re studying The History Boys, I’ve also written a five-star revision guide that’s available for just £3!

How to start a great essay

Essay writing is a great way to practise writing skills, whether your preferred genre is fiction or non-fiction. You need to have a clear goal in mind, your phrasing needs to be both beautiful and clear, and you need to make every word, as when writing poetry, count. It’s always been a great art form too – although I suppose essayists were something like the newspaper editorial columnists of their day! While columnists write generally on relatively transient and personal ideas, the great essayists wrote meditations where they really thought about the big questions. William Hazlitt and John Stuart Mill …