Lit Guides

The Schoolboy’s Story | Summary and Analysis

Summary of The Schoolboy's Story by Charles Dickens

The Schoolboy’s Story by Charles Dickens employs a first-person narrator to tell the story of Old Cheeseman and his relationship with his fellow schoolmates. The themes of this story are school conflict, poverty, slight ragging, and the maturity that comes with understanding. Though several of the students’ actions are unquestionably disrespectful to Old Cheeseman, Dickens writes the story in a light-hearted manner that conveys the childish ignorance of students. The readers also witness, through the narrator’s eyes, the evolution in the fellows’ mindset from beginning to end.

The Schoolboy’s Story | Summary

The narrator introduces the readers to the main character- Old Cheeseman. Old Cheeseman was a Latin Master, but that was not always the case. He was once a ‘fellow’, or a student, just like the narrator and his friends. He would often stay at the boarding school during the holidays, sitting in a room and reading a book, eating the rather unappetizing meals provided by the school. He was always happy when the other students returned, for it quelled his loneliness. He would take any good-natured teasing in his stride, and though he was not particularly close to anyone, there was no bad blood between him and his classmates.

This changed when Old Cheeseman was promoted from a student to the second Latin Master, now to be formally referred to as Mr. Cheeseman. This absolutely infuriated the other fellows, who viewed Old Cheeseman as a “traitor” who was selling out information to the superiors. Thus was formed by the fellows a Society in opposition of Cheeseman, with a boy named Bob as the President. They wrote satirical verses about him and recited them while standing near the second Master’s desk, they sent him to Coventry and refused to speak to or even acknowledge him. It took a toll on the Old Cheeseman- he became pale and worn, often crying. He never brought the Society’s actions to the attention of the superiors, but rather than being praised, the President called him a coward.

Old Cheeseman’s only friend was a woman named Jane, the wardrobe lady. She was quite well-liked by all the fellows, but she took special care of Cheeseman. On noticing this, the Society held several meetings and came to a conclusion- they decided to give Jane an ultimatum. They asked her to either sever all ties with the Old Cheeseman, or they would send her to Coventry, too. She thought it was terribly cruel of them, choosing Old Cheeseman in a heartbeat and remaining loyal to him. Days later, the Old Cheeseman’s desk was found empty, and rumours circulated that he had drowned himself, unable to bear the ridicule of the Society. It sent them into panic, wondering whether they were liable to punishment, whether the President would be hung.

The next morning, the Reverend came into the classroom to explain the situation. Apparently, Old Cheeseman was of a sorrowful childhood and grew up with financial difficulty under the cost of his unwilling grandfather. The grandfather had died, and with no will, all his money and property were passed down to Old Cheeseman, hence he no longer required his job. He would be arriving the next week to bid everyone farewell himself. The news shocked the Society. They debated whether to dissolve, and some wanted to leave, which angered the President. The President assumed Old Cheeseman would want to impeach them himself and give some money to Jane before heading on his way.

On the day of Old Cheeseman’s visit, the society was proved quite wrong. He delivered a heart-touching speech and said he held all of them dearly to his heart, which brought about tears and cheers from everyone in the Society. Old Cheeseman sponsored an enormous feast for them all, and it seemed as though all the bad blood was behind them. However, they later realised that their old friend Jane was nowhere to be found, and couldn’t quite believe that she had left. Three months later, she reappeared- and to the fellows’ shocked delight, she had married the Old Cheeseman.

It was holiday time at the end of the story. When Cheeseman asked if anyone was staying at the boarding school during the break, the narrator raised his hand. And in knowing how lonely it could become, Cheeseman invited the narrator to spend the holiday at his and Jane’s house. It was a magnificent trip, and the narrator reveals that they even have a small son. The narrator concludes by saying that is all he knows about Old Cheeseman- that he is a favourite, along with the rest of his little family.

 

The Schoolboy’s Story | Analysis

Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers of all time, especially well-known for his beautifully constructed prose. His characterization always made a huge impact on the story because of the importance he gave to description and detail. It is interesting to note how he conveys the nuances of a personality through their external traits and actions. All of these aspects are seen in The Schoolboy’s Story. Dickens employs a first-person narrator to tell the story of Old Cheeseman, and the tone in which the piece is written makes it seem as though the narrator is directly addressing the audience, even directing a few questions towards them. The themes of this story are school conflict, poverty, slight ragging, and the maturity that comes with understanding. Though several of the students’ actions are unquestionably disrespectful to Old Cheeseman, Dickens writes it in a light-hearted manner that conveys the childish ignorance of students. The readers also witness, through the narrator’s eyes, the evolution in the fellows’ mindset from beginning to end.

The narrator begins with a slight disclaimer:  “I have no particular adventures of my own to fall back upon.”  He then proceeds to tell the story of Old Cheeseman. This opening line solidifies the narrator as a bystander, almost an observer of sorts and helps the readers understand that this story, though told by the narrator, cannot be considered his adventure. It is rather the adventure of the second Latin Master, but by the very fact that it is being retold, we may assume it had a great impact on the narrator. He also mentions “the manner in which our fellows get their constitutions destroyed for the sake of profit.”- mentioning this, in the beginning, helps the readers connect to the reason why the fellows felt so betrayed by Old Cheeseman.

“He never went home for the holidays. His accounts (he never learnt any extras) were sent to a Bank, and the Bank paid them”

This line represents Old Cheeseman’s solitude. It also foreshadows the future confirmation about his rather unfortunate family circumstances and difficult upbringing. The fact that he remained at the boarding school throughout the vacation highlights his lack of “home” or familial comfort. The narrator then remembers that “when the fellows began to come back, not wanting to, he was always glad to see them” which symbolises how Old Cheeseman looked at his fellow students as family, in a sense, as their presence relieved him of his loneliness. We may assume from these inferences that the Society’s conduct later on- mocking him and ignoring him- was quite hurtful to Old Cheeseman. This link will be looked back upon in more depth during that section of the story.

“Our fellows all agreed that Old Cheeseman was a spy, and a deserter, who had gone over to the enemy’s camp, and sold himself for gold.” The fellows all turned their back on Old Cheeseman because they believed him to be siding with ‘the enemy’, in this case, the institution. Further, they were upset he had done so for money. Here, we may see the slight ignorance of the fellows, who do not seem to realise that whether one likes it or not, they do need money to survive in the world. “It was no excuse for him that he had sold himself for very little gold—two pounds ten a quarter, and his washing, as was reported.” For Old Cheeseman to take up a job of many efforts and little monetary reward, it is obvious that he quite desperately needed the money. He must have been living a very difficult life. The fact that the fellows completely disregard all of these aspects and look at it purely from the perspective of ‘us or the institution’ is a slight immaturity clouded by their own cold war with the ‘enemy’.

The fact that the fellows went out of their way to make a Society against Old Cheeseman shows the level of resentment towards him. Readers may wonder why they took such hurtful measures, and the answer seems to be nothing more than their childish immaturity and inability to put themselves in another’s shoes. These traits are often seen in students, whose injustices feel amplified and who do not understand the weight of their words or actions, because they believe themselves to be the victim. Earlier, it was mentioned that the Society’s conduct towards Old Cheeseman must have been hurtful. It is made clear when the narrator says “He grew paler and more worn, and sometimes of an evening he was seen sitting at his desk with a precious long snuff to his candle, and his hands before his face, crying.” This may also be because of the returning feeling of loneliness. Old Cheeseman always felt lonely during vacations and was eager for the fellows’ return- they used to symbolise a brightness in his dull, boring life. However, after they deserted him, he was once more left alone, almost like an extension of his lonely holidays. The fact that he refused to complain to the Reverend symbolises his kindness and maturity, as well as his forgiving nature. It is possible that he understood the reason for the fellows’ actions, and did not want to cause a fuss, hence simply put up with it. The President of the Society called it ‘cowardice’. This is a blatant depiction of being blinded by anger or dislike, and therefore being unable to rationalise a person properly.

The character Jane was the only one who stood by Old Cheeseman in his trying times. “The more the Society went against him, the more Jane stood by him.” and when they gave her an ultimatum, “informed the President and the deputation, in a way not at all like her usual way, that they were a parcel of malicious young savages, and turned the whole respected body out of the room.” Her courage to speak out for what she believed in and the way she responded to the situation showcases her ingrained values. She did not turn down the ultimatum only because of her friendship with Old Cheeseman, but also because of the blatant rudeness of the Society’s behaviour. In this story, Jane symbolises a moral compass. She is the only character that responds in a just manner from the beginning and truly tried to understand Old Cheeseman. Meanwhile, the fact that the Society refused to even associate with Old Cheeseman’s friends showed how deep-rooted their dislike of him was.

When the Society thought Old Cheeseman had drowned himself, they became worried and wondered “whether the President was liable to hanging or only transportation for life, and the President’s face showed a great anxiety to know which.” The fact that they were more worried about their own fate rather than Old Cheeseman indicates childlike egocentrism. However, when the Reverend reveals, in a plot twist, that Old Cheeseman is now rich, the President assumes that he is going to arrive specifically to show them a lesson. The tables turn immediately with the Old Cheeseman’s newfound wealth. This is a clever way for Dickens to highlight the theme of wealth and poverty. The President of the Society was the son of a rich man, and it is this status that held him up to be revered by his classmates. Now, with Cheeseman’s wealth being greater, the President’s value drops and he becomes vulnerable to punishment for his actions. This symbolises the way in which wealth can shield people from rightful punishment, and how people’s wrongful actions are many times disregarded in the face of wealth.

The President also “said that they must stand or fall together, and that if a breach was made it should be over his body.” which highlights how easily people attempt to throw the blame on others and escape when caught. It depicts the false loyalty of those who join for a cause such as this one- mocking another. The bond is fleeting and weak, any talk of consequence can crumble it. However, Old Cheeseman was not there to hand out lessons or punishment- rather, he thanked them and shook their hands, and his genuine feeling brought tears to the fellows’ eyes. This emphasises the power of sincerity. We can see it is at this moment that the fellows realise their mistake, and the emotion pours out of them as tears. The President said “Indeed, I don’t deserve it, sir; upon my honour, I don’t;” there was sobbing and crying all over the school. Every other fellow said he didn’t deserve it, much in the same way; but Old Cheeseman, not minding that a bit, went cheerfully round to every boy, and wound up with every master.” The usage of “on my honour” conveys how serious he was about his words, and “I don’t deserve it” referred to more than just the handshake, but the forgiveness as a whole.

Old Cheeseman treated the fellows to a meal. This is in reference to the beginning of the story, where he could not even afford to go home for the holiday and ate unappetizing meat from school. It shows how far he has been able to come, and how generously he spends for the others in the school despite everything they put him through. It proves that he can act like the bigger person- as the narrator later says, “The gentleman was always Old Cheeseman, and the lady was always Jane.” The one who took everything in his stride and forgave selflessly, and the one who stood up for what she believed in. Both are noble qualities, hence the title of gentleman and lady. In the end, it is revealed that the narrator is a “new boy”. It is unknown whether he watched this story take place or heard of it from others- either way, the story and the Cheesemans made a lasting impression on him.

Old Cheeseman offers to give the narrator a home for the holidays, as he would have otherwise spent it alone. This is a testament to Cheeseman’s own childhood experiences. He does not want anyone else to experience the same loneliness, and he is finally in a position to help another. Hence, he is able to put an end to the cycle, stopping the solitude from engulfing another student. From beginning to end, we understand the childish wrongdoings and the rectification, and the gentle maturity and acceptance of Old Cheeseman.

 

 

 

 

 

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