Places: The Masters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1951

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Cambridge

*Cambridge. Masters, TheSeat of one of England’s great universities, along with Oxford. Cambridge itself figures little in the novel and is presented as an adjunct to the university rather than an entity in its own right. The novel unfolds largely within the confines of the college itself, but from time to time, characters go into the city to visit friends, shop along its various streets, or visit the market place with its church, Great St. Mary’s, whose bells echo over the college walls tolling the passing time.

*Cambridge University

*Cambridge University. One of England’s two great universities, Cambridge is made up of various colleges, in which students and many faculty members live. However, it also exists apart from them, offering lectures, providing laboratories for research, a university library, and a senate, and finally granting degrees. Snow looks at the university primarily as it has an impact on his novel’s unnamed college, as when the university supplements the income of the college through the academic work its fellows undertake outside the college.

Students of Cambridge, along with those of Oxford University, produced most of prewar Britain’s leaders: its captains of industry, bankers, diplomats, and other functionaries who ran the government and maintained what was left of the empire. Unlike educational systems in most other countries, Cambridge and Oxford exerted considerable power throughout Great Britain. Because Snow is writing about the relationship among various segments of British society, he portrays the university as a testing ground for the values and codes experienced elsewhere in British society.


College. Unnamed college of Cambridge University in which the novel is set. Snow’s coda to the novel, “Reflections on the College Past,” explains that he did not supply a fictional name for his college but deliberately left it anonymous, although it clearly reflects the college system present at Cambridge at the time. Because the novel is meant to be a study of character and of how power was maintained and transferred in British society, even within this circumscribed environment, Snow opted for this claustrophobic locale within which to set his fiction.

The various components of an Oxbridge college are all present: the master’s lodge, the hall for dining, the fellows’ common room, the individual studies and living quarters of instructors and students. They all have a place in the unfolding of the novel’s themes. Because the locale is so limited, Snow can concentrate on the various personalities of his characters, whom he uses as types to indicate the various ways within the university that decisions are made and what influences such decisions–economic, political, and social–so that the college becomes a microcosm of the contending forces at work in British society. This is particularly true in the subtle conflict between the college’s scientists and the humanists, a theme that Snow returned to in his famous series of lectures published as The Two Cultures (1959). As one who moved within both cultures, Snow was especially well situated to comment on the conflicts arising from what he perceived as a growing gulf between the two ways of comprehending the world.


*London. Although Great Britain’s capital city does not play a direct role in the novel, it represents the world to which the college, through its graduates and fellows, is connected. The location of the government, the Houses of Parliament, the Home and Foreign Office, and the Royal Society, London mirrors the local structure of the college and provides a connection with the wider world of events and power.

BibliographyCooper, William. C. P. Snow. London: Longmans, 1959. Part of the British Writers Series, this booklet provides valuable information on Snow, especially on the unifying themes found in his literature.Davis, Robert Gorham. C. P. Snow. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965. A short, concise overview of C. P. Snow intended as a general introduction to his work.Green, Martin Burgess. Science and the Shabby Curate of Poetry: Essays About the Two Cultures. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965. Responses from a variety of scholars to Snow’s theory that a “scientific” and a “literary” culture exist in European and world culture.Karl, Frederick Robert. C. P. Snow: The Politics of Conscience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965. Deals with the themes in Snow’s novel, particularly his concerns over class struggle and division in the English society he knew and in society worldwide.
Categories: Places