Mr. William Hundert, the protagonist and narrator of Ethan Canin’s novella “The Palace Thief,” is a classics teacher almost as obsessed with issues of...moreMr. William Hundert, the protagonist and narrator of Ethan Canin’s novella “The Palace Thief,” is a classics teacher almost as obsessed with issues of character and the character development of his students as he is with the history of ancient Greece and Rome. As a scholar of classical antiquity, Hundert must certainly be familiar with the etymological derivation of the word “character” from its Greek origin as “engraved mark.” (”character.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 13 Jan. 2008. .) As the word has evolved into English, it is often also associated with the notion of a “distinctive mark or imprint on a person’s soul.”
Whether consciously or not, Mr. Hundert seems determined to leave his own distinctive mark on his students. Describing his vocation at St. Benedict’s, for instance, he explains that “I gave service there to the minds of three generations of boys and always left upon them, if I was successful, the delicate imprint of their culture” (p. 155, emphasis added). In a pivotal exchange with Sedgewick Bell’s father, the senator, Hundert states his goal even more explicitly: “It’s my job, sir, to mold your son’s character” (p. 163). As the dedicated teacher declares in the story’s movie version: “However much we stumble, it is a teacher’s burden always to hope that, with learning, a boy’s character might be changed, and so the destiny of a man.”
For Hundert, the stakes involved in his character-molding efforts are extremely high. As an avowed disciple of Heraclitus, Hundert clearly agrees with the Greek philosopher that a “man’s character is his fate”—or destiny (p. 193). Sadly for Mr. Hundert, however, Senator Bell disagrees that Sedgwick’s teacher’s responsibility transcends strictly academic training. “I’m sorry, young man,” he condescends to Hundert, “but you will not mold him. I will mold him. You will merely teach him” (pp. 163-164). In the movie version of Ethan Canin’s novella, the senator continues: “Teach him his times tables. Teach him that the world is round. But (only) I will mold his character.”
In both The Emperor’s Club (movie) and the story on which it is based, Hundert’s efforts to shape young Sedgewick’s character—and thus his fate or destiny—all come to naught. Whether due to his father’s poor example or pernicious influence on his son—or something engraved on his nature from birth, what Hundert describes as “the corruption in [Sedgewick’s] character” (p. 195) dooms his teacher’s most conscientious efforts to alter his wayward student’s fate. As a result, Hundert finally concludes that he has “failed” Sedgewick by not succeeding in reshaping his character via their interactions both in high school and thereafter.
Perhaps Mr. Hundert draws some ironic consolation from the conceit that he has failed to reshape Sedgewick Bell’s personal character. But I believe he also overestimates the influence his character-building tutelage might have on students like his. (Hundert’s presumption that he might alter “a boy’s character…, and so the destiny of a man,” in other words, smacks of the mortal flaw of hubris!) All of our life’s experiences influence the person we become and the kind of character we develop. Our parents naturally have an enormous impact on this process—as do our teachers, coaches, religious mentors, other role models, etc. But aren’t we also just as responsible and accountable ourselves for our own character development as are the external influences on each of us?
According to one important excerpt from her famous Diary, Anne Frank emphasizes a similar point: “How true Daddy’s words were when he said: ‘All children must look after their own upbringing.’ Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” (sic) I wonder what Mr. Hundert might think of Anne Frank’s observation. I wonder whether he could draw any solace from how it would apply to his sense of profound disillusionment over the fate of his former student, Sedgewick Bell.(less)