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"Hullo, Brown! here's something for you," called out the reading man next moment. "Why, your old master, Arnold of Rugby, is dead."

Tom's hand stopped half-way in his cast, and his line and flies went all tangling round and round his rod; . . . He felt completely carried off his moral and intellectual legs, as if he had lost his standing-point in the invisible world. Besides which, the deep, loving loyalty which he felt for his old leader made the shock intensely painful. It was the first great wrench of his life, the first gap which the angel Death had made in his circle, and he felt numbed, and beaten down, and spiritless. Well, well! I believe it was good for him and for many others in like case, who had to learn by that loss that the soul of man cannot stand or lean upon any human prop, however strong, and wise, and good; but that He upon whom alone it can stand and lean will knock away all such props in His own wise and merciful way, until there is no ground or stay left but Himself, the Rock of Ages. [Part II, Chapter 9 — "Finis"]

decorated initial 'S'oon after Tom arrives at Rugby, he encounters the Thomas Arnold, its great headmaster, at afternoon chapel: "As the hymn after the prayers was being sung, and the chapel was getting a little dark, he was beginning to feel that he had been really worshipping. And then came that great event in his, as in every Rugby boy's life of that day — the first sermon from the Doctor." Admitting that "more worthy pens than mine have described that scene," Hughes begins his description as a catalogue:

— the oak pulpit standing out by itself above the School seats; the tall, gallant form, the kindling eye, the voice, now soft as the low notes of a flute, now clear and stirring as the call of the light-infantry bugle, of him who stood there Sunday after Sunday, witnessing and pleading for his Lord, the King of righteousness and love and glory, with whose Spirit he was filled, and in whose power he spoke; the long lines of young faces, rising tier above tier down the whole length of the chapel, from the little boy's who had just left his mother to the young man's who was going out next week into the great world, rejoicing in his strength. It was a great and solemn sight, and never more so than at this time of year, when the only lights in the chapel were in the pulpit and at the seats of the prepostors of the week, and the soft twilight stole over the rest of the chapel, deepening into darkness in the high gallery behind the organ. [Part I, Chapter 7 — "Settling to the Collar"]

Two views of Rugby Chapel in Arnold's Time. [Click on thumbnails for larger images]

Grasping for a means of explaining the great headmaster's power for good with these young boys, Hughes asks, "what was it, after all, which seized and held these three hundred boys, dragging them out of themselves, willing or unwilling, for twenty minutes, on Sunday afternoons?" Admitting that a select few, a tiny minority (among which he doesn't include himself or Tom), "were worthy to hear and able to carry away the deepest and wisest words there spoken," he asks, "What was it that moved and held us, the rest of the three hundred reckless, childish boys, who feared the Doctor with all our hearts, and very little besides in heaven or earth; who thought more of our sets in the School than of the Church of Christ, and put the traditions of Rugby and the public opinion of boys in our daily life above the laws of God?" Admitting that most of the young boys couldn't understand either themselves or most of Arnold's high truths, he decides that his audience listened to their headmaster as "to a man whom we felt to be, with all his heart and soul and strength, striving against whatever was mean and unmanly and unrighteous in our little world." Thomas Arnold, according to Hughes, was a true Carlylean hero and worthy of hero-worship, and he was so because when he spoke

It was not the cold, clear voice of one giving advice and warning from serene heights to those who were struggling and sinning below, but the warm, living voice of one who was fighting for us and by our sides, and calling on us to help him and ourselves and one another. And so, wearily and little by little, but surely and steadily on the whole, was brought home to the young boy, for the first time, the meaning of his life — that it was no fool's or sluggard's paradise into which he had wandered by chance, but a battlefield ordained from of old, where there are no spectators, but the youngest must take his side, and the stakes are life and death. And he who roused this consciousness in them showed them at the same time, by every word he spoke in the pulpit, and by his whole daily life, how that battle was to be fought, and stood there before them their fellow-soldier and the captain of their band — the true sort of captain, too, for a boy's army — one who had no misgivings, and gave no uncertain word of command, and, let who would yield or make truce, would fight the fight out (so every boy felt) to the last gasp and the last drop of blood. . . . . . this thoroughness and undaunted courage which, more than anything else, won his way to the hearts of the great mass of those on whom he left his mark, and made them believe first in him and then in his Master.

Tom, whom Hughes describes as essentially a young savage, found that it "was this quality above all others which moved such boys as our hero, who had nothing whatever remarkable about him except excess of boyishness —by which I mean animal life in its fullest measure, good nature and honest impulses, hatred of injustice and meanness, and thoughtlessness enough to sink a three-decker [i.e., a warship with three rows of guns and not a novel]. And so . . . he hardly ever left the chapel on Sunday evenings without a serious resolve to stand by and follow the Doctor, and a feeling that it was only cowardice (the incarnation of all other sins in such a boy's mind) which hindered him from doing so with all his heart."

As the story progresses, Hughes repeatly allows Tom to experience Arnold's greatness. When his friend East confesses to the headmaster his failure to become confirmed makes him feel an outcast, Arnold comforts him:

"When I stuck, he lifted me just as if I'd been a little child. And he seemed to know all I'd felt, and to have gone through it all. And I burst out crying — more than I've done this five years; and he sat down by me, and stroked my head; and I went blundering on, and told him all — much worse things than I've told you. And he wasn't shocked a bit, and didn't snub me, or tell me I was a fool, and it was all nothing but pride or wickedness, though I dare say it was. And he didn't tell me not to follow out my thoughts, and he didn't give me any cut-and-dried explanation. But when I'd done he just talked a bit. I can hardly remember what he said yet; but it seemed to spread round me like healing, and strength, and light, and to bear me up, and plant me on a rock, where I could hold my footing and fight for myself. I don't know what to do, I feel so happy." [Part II, Chapter 7 — "Harry East's Dilemmas and Deliverance"]

Arnold has the same effect on the teachers working under his direction at Rugby as he does on East and the other students. As one of the masters puts it, "What a sight it is . . . the Doctor as a ruler! Perhaps ours is the only little corner of the British Empire which is thoroughly, wisely, and strongly ruled just now. I'm more and more thankful every day of my life that I came here to be under him." If the reader has not figured it out before now, when the master speaks we realize that Thomas Arnold is a latter-day Abbott Sampson from Carlyle's Past and Present — a true hero who knows how to lead, not by forcing people to do what he wants or crudely imposing his will but by leading them along. As the master explains, Arnold carries out reform with tact and patience. Surprised, Tom admits he had not realized the purpose of some of Arnold's changes. "Of course you didn't," said the master, "or else, . . . you would have shouted with the whole school against putting down old customs. And that's the way that all the Doctor's reforms have been carried out when he has been left to himself — quietly and naturally, putting a good thing in the place of a bad, and letting the bad die out; no wavering, and no hurry — the best thing that could be done for the time being, and patience for the rest."

On Tom's last day at Rugby before he is about to set out for Rugby (and end up as the protagonist of a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford), he has a talk with one of his teachers about his days at Oxford and learns to his great surprise how closely Arnold followed his development from a rather mindless young boy who often got into trouble into something close to a model schoolboy —or as close to one as a boy with no academic interests could be. His teacher explains that

after some talk, we both agreed that you in particular wanted some object in the School beyond games and mischief; for it was quite clear that you never would make the regular school work your first object. And so the Doctor, at the beginning of the next half-year, looked out the best of the new boys, and separated you and East, and put the young boy into your study, in the hope that when you had somebody to lean on you, you would begin to stand a little steadier yourself, and get manliness and thoughtfulness. And I can assure you he has watched the experiment ever since with great satisfaction. Ah! not one of you boys will ever know the anxiety you have given him, or the care with which he has watched over every step in your school lives. [Part II, Chapter 8 — "Tom Brown's Last Match"]

This revelation stuns Tom, in part because he had no idea the headmaster had paid such close attention to him and in part because he had taken for granted that he himself was completely responsible for the way he turned out to be a school leader. Until this conversation with his teacher, Hughes tells us, "Tom had never given wholly in to or understood the Doctor. At first he had thoroughly feared him," then "he had learnt to regard him with love and respect, and to think him a very great and wise and good man," and no he learns how much the apparently distant headmaster had been part of his life. He had thought

he was a splendid master; but every one knew that masters could do very little out of school hours. . . . It was a new light to him to find that, besides teaching the sixth, and governing and guiding the whole School, editing classics, and writing histories, the great headmaster had found time in those busy years to watch over the career even of him, Tom Brown, and his particular friends, and, no doubt, of fifty other boys at the same time, and all this without taking the least credit to himself, or seeming to know, or let any one else know, that he ever thought particularly of any boy at all.

The Doctor's victory was complete from that moment over Tom Brown at any rate. . . . . It had taken eight long years to do it; but now it was done thoroughly, and there wasn't a corner of him left which didn't believe in the Doctor. . . . And so, after a half confession of his previous shortcomings, and sorrowful adieus to his tutor, from whom he received two beautifully-bound volumes of the Doctor's sermons, as a parting present, he marched down to the Schoolhouse, a hero-worshipper, who would have satisfied the soul of Thomas Carlyle himself.

Here (in case we had missed his point) Hughes explicitly states that Thomas Arnold appears to the young boy about to set off for Oxford as a true Carlylean hero-worshipper. He makes an implicit point as well, for he turns the great headmaster's relation to Tom into a metaphor for God's relation to Tom and to all human beings: without Tom's being aware of his continual oversight and concern, Arnold, like God, nonetheless has a role in his life. But this is just a metaphor, and Arnold, however much a hero, is not God. As the epigraph from the novel with which I began emphasizes, Arnold dies, and his death reminds Tom that God is the only one in whom he can place his trust. Even in death Dr. Arnold serves as a spiritual leader for Tom.

Related Material


Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.

Last modified 4 August 2006