The sequel to Tom Brown’s School Days that culminates in Tom’s graduation from Rugby and his formation as an honorable Christian gentleman who embodies Dr. Arnold’s ideal of “muscular Christianity”—moral courage in the battleground of good versus evil that corresponds to the “pluck” that Tom displays on the rugby field and in the cricket match—this Victorian novel follows Tom’s university life until the completion of his M.A. degree and marriage. During these years in the culture of Oxford Tom acquires a well-formed, sensitive conscience and grows in prudence and wisdom while he enjoys the physical life of athletics with his passion for boating, cricket, and fishing that are integral to his life.
Despite Tom’s moral development at Rugby from a mischievous, spirited, and undisciplined boy to an earnest, poised leader of the school, at Oxford he undergoes further moral formation and overcomes more of the impulsive and thoughtless behavior that ruled his early years at Rugby. Forming his best friendship with John Hardy, a poor, ascetic upperclassman that excels in scholarship and crew, Tom learns to use better judgment and exercise more self control from Hardy’s steadying influence. Flirting with a barmaid beneath his social class and giving the impression of falling in love with her, Tom finds his romance an innocent pastime until Hardy reprimands him for misleading the girl with his fond attention. Tom learns from Hardy the meaning of honor and chivalry as he finally ends the relationship with a contrite letter apologizing for trifling with her emotions.
In another foolish decision Tom borrows money from a money lender and goes into debt, exceeding his budget and upsetting his father by his wasteful living. Making light of the trouble he brings to himself and the problems he causes to others, Tom ignores the consequences of his actions, resorting to the prevalent clichés of the day: “No, as my old uncle says, ‘a young fellow must sow his wild oats’, and Oxford seems a place specially set apart by Providence for that operation”—a rationalization that the author condemns as “simply devilish, for it means that a young man is to give way to the temptations and follow the lusts of his age.” Tom’s struggle at Oxford requires him to rise above the profligate ways and self-indulgent habits of his peers and acquire “the power of going out of oneself, and seeing and appreciating whatever is noble and living in another man”—a quality that Hardy exemplifies. Whereas Hardy’s meager allowance demands the practice of frugality and self-denial, Tom’s attitude is to enjoy every pleasure Oxford offers: “I never deny myself any pleasure, that I can afford, if a thing isn’t wrong in itself, and doesn’t hinder anyone else”—an attitude he soon outgrows as he gains in moral earnestness.
While Tom enjoys the wine parties, boating matches, billiards, and brawls between town and gown at the university, he soon identifies with “the brotherhood of muscular Christians” that separate themselves from the “musclemen.” While both groups cultivate fitness and participate vigorously in the athletic life of the university, “the ‘muscleman’ seems to have no belief whatever as to the purposes for which his body has been given him, except … belabouring men and captivating women for his benefit or pleasure….” The muscular Christians, on the other hand, embrace the knightly and Christian ideals of defending the weak and conquering injustices—principles that inspire Tom’s political views as he advocates for the cause of Henry Winburn, a boyhood friend victimized by poverty and persecuted by an irascible farmer who manipulates the letter of the law to evict Henry from his home. Although Tom is surrounded by the affluent and aristocratic element of Oxford, he commits his loyal friendship to the financially struggling Hardy whose poverty stigmatizes him as a “servitor” (a student required to perform servile work at the school to afford his education). Tom rejects the dominant values of rank, money, and family name that govern Oxford life to honor the cause of the unfortunate and pursue a love of justice.
Just as Tom comes to distinguish between athletic strength for the beautification of the body and muscular Christianity for the cause of justice, he also learns to differentiate between the two models of heroism he most admires in his two best friends, Jervis and Hardy. Jervis, the captain of the St. Ambrose rowing team, and Hardy, the disciplined scholar, both win Tom’s highest praise for their integrity, self-discipline, and stamina, but Jervis presumed that life’s only teacher was experience and thus never exerted his influence as a friend or leader. He never corrected or improved Tom, believing that “there was no man or thing in the world too bad to be tolerated” and that “the world was not going so very wrong.” On the other hand, Hardy was always agonizing over the difference between the ways things are and the way things ought to be and judging the status of Oxford, England, and the world by the highest moral principles, “and never letting slip a chance of trying to set right, here a thread, and there a thread.” Tom, however, grows more in wisdom and stature from the personal influence and encouragement of Hardy’s friendship than from Jervis’s theory about school of experience.
For example, when Tom is rowing for his college in a most competitive race and hears the rousing voice of Hardy cheering the team, “The voice seemed to give him strength and keep him to his work.” When Hardy joins the team and accompanies Tom to practice and then afterwards to the pub, his close friendship and honest advice guide Tom in disentangling his budding romance with the barmaid Patty. Hardy intervenes to prevent Tom from spoiling her relationship to Harry Winburn, her former sweetheart who has already captured her heart with the hope to marry her. As a true friend Hardy minces no words: “You shan’t go on with this folly, this sin, for want of warning.” Knowing that Tom’s family would never approve of marriage to a barmaid, Hardy makes Tom examine his conscience and acknowledge the insincerity of a courtship that professes love without meaning it: “Think of your family. You don’t mean to say—you dare not tell me, that you will marry her?” Quoting Thomas Carlyle (“Rouse up! Art thou a man? And darest not do this thing?”), Hardy exhorts Tom to assert nobleness, chivalry, and manliness and do valorous battle to defeat the temptations of the flesh.
The muscular Christianity that Tom learns from Hardy not only rescues Tom from the superficiality of the “musclemen” of the university and the dishonor of wooing a woman with no intentions of marriage but also prepares Tom for his greatest source of happiness, his marriage to Mary Porter, an elegant and attractive young lady he meets at Oxford who enjoys Tom’s company but never thought of him in a romantic light despite his education, social class, athletic nature, or fun-loving sociability. When recalling their love story, Mary confesses she liked Tom because her favorite cousin Katie introduced him, she enjoyed dancing with him as a partner, and she delighted in his mirthful company, but she admits, “I couldn’t have married you then—given myself up to you then.” She had not discovered his true character.
The turning point occurred when purely by accident Mary saw Tom carrying a poor, lame girl–an episode that recalled a similar scene earlier in their relationship when Mary sprained an ankle and also needed Tom’s assistance. Without his awareness Tom captured Mary’s heart by his knightly, magnanimous deed. Glimpsing Tom’s noble, chivalric nature, she sees in him the essence of an honorable man, not the image of an Oxford gentleman. True education forms character, not a social status. Because Tom followed the tenets of muscular Christianity inspired by Hardy’s friendship, he won Mary’s heart. She explains to Tom that she did not marry him to be “comfortable”:
It was because you were out of sorts with the world, smarting with the wrongs you saw on every side, struggling after something higher and better, and siding with the poor and the weak, that I loved you. We should never have been here, dear, if you had been a young gentleman satisfied with himself and the world, and likely to get on well in society.