Although the book may be brief and forgettable, it is more because of who Mr. Charles Edward Chipping is than anything else. His respite in this world is not born from a go-getting attitude, more a humdrum turn of the cheek, getting slapped through the British education system. There he is content, not just because of his lack of belief in himself, but also because of his lacklustre lifestyle. It is hard to engage with the old-hat formalities of the British way of life because it is so infused with fusty elders dithering about going “what ho” and looking back on their better days when, in reality, their best days would be among the worst of a modern generation. Shy Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) may be, that does not stop him from being boastful of his impact on a school he lived at for many years.
Nor does it stop him from talking of those that influenced him. Can they influence the life of a teacher all that much, though? Their memory is of him being a good person. He does right by his students even when they do not do right by him. Audiences are meant to approach Mr. Chips with care, not just because he is that rendition of nice men who worked hard for what they believed in, but because he cannot do harm to anyone around him. Sam Wood directs that well, Goodbye, Mr Chips excels in its technical efforts. Its sets and interactions of extras and supporting characters makes the world of this all-boys school lively, but audiences must remember the inference and aspiration such a message creates.
Had Chips been a character we could respect beyond a dithering old crone, then Goodbye, Mr. Chips would be far more palatable. Instead, it pries at the frailties of old age and the dependable spirit of a teacher with nothing left to give the world. It is rather sad. Donat and Wood do not intend this, nor does the book, but the impact of it all is that there is tragedy underlining this life. The conscious choice to not reciprocate any feeling toward it beyond it making Chips wish to persevere is a frightfully dense attitude to take. His wife has passed on, as have his children. He is completely alone, and instead of accepting the horrible nature of that, Chips is rather content to wither away in his role as a teacher.
He guides those to a life he once had but has not held for quite some time. Chips is not the man these creatives wish him to be. His decades of tenure at the all-boys school are poorly adapted and unrewarding for an audience that know him no better than the usual remit of strangers that pass through school halls. Goodbye, Mr. Chips, we hardly knew you. Not because you were hard to understand or broad enough to apply your thoughts to so many, but because the dithering, old-school prose is poor in quality and lacking in charm. Perhaps it is too harsh to expect more than love from a man who devoted his life to the school he teaches at, but there is a sadness to it beyond that love. It is sad that he never moved on because while he may feel at home there, his impact on the school and its pupils is never fully showcased.