Tom Jones Essays and Criticism
by Henry Fielding

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Fielding's Portrayal of Teachers

(Novels for Students)

Among the significant characters in Tom Jones, three are teachers. In a story of multi-layered and intertwined ironies, these characters, individually and collectively, are especially rich. While Fielding makes clear that all of his characters point beyond themselves, he draws the teachers in such a way that they point obviously—and unflatteringly— to certain groups. This is especially true of the tutors Thwackum and Square.

Teachers, of course, are supposed to be wiser than most, since they are entrusted to instruct others. Fielding’s teachers, however, are not wise, nor are they ethical. Therein lies one of the book’s many ironies.

Mr. Partridge, the wrongly accused schoolmaster, is the first of the three to appear. He is no worse a person than the average man or woman, but he is no better and no smarter. In fact, his lack of mental sharpness is his downfall. Fielding tells readers that Jenny Jones, the servant whom Partridge instructs in Latin, soon has more facility with the language than he does. This is certainly a clue to his limited intellect. On the other hand, the fact that he teaches her is to his credit; not only is she a mere servant, but she is a woman. She is not even an attractive woman, which would have given Partridge a selfish motive to spend time with her. He seems to have taught her purely out of recognition of her abilities.

If teaching Jenny was kind, though, it was not wise. Partridge’s mean, suspicious wife objects to it. When the schoolmaster is foolish enough to exchange words with Jenny in Latin while she is serving dinner, Mrs. Partridge jumps to conclusions about what has passed between them and soon uses these conclusions as an excuse to destroy her husband.

Partridge also does not excel in morality. When he takes up with Tom en route to London, he does so because he hopes for an opportunity to clear his name and re-establish his reputation. Therefore, while he, unlike many others, has no desire to harm Tom, if Tom is harmed in Partridge’s effort to redeem himself, Partridge will not mind and may not even notice. When Squire Allworthy approaches Partridge near the end of the book to find out what all transpired as Tom and Partridge traveled together to London, Partridge, if he thought for a moment, would realize that what he says may be critical in determining Tom’s fate. Partridge thinks only of himself, however; he takes the occasion to tell Allworthy not only that he is not Tom’s father but also that Tom has just committed incest with his mother. This added information (which turns out to be wrong) does not help Partridge’s cause, but it certainly hurts Tom’s until it is corrected. That Partridge speaks out of foolishness rather than hatred does not change the impact of his words.

The schoolmaster, then, is often either foolish or incorrect and is master of nothing—not even of himself. The best that can be said about him is that he is the least reprehensible of the three educators.

Thwackum and Square, the two men who tutor Tom and Master Blifil, seem to have more knowledge than does Partridge—although not enough to get what they want—but they definitely have even less moral fiber. Like Partridge, they are self-serving; unlike him, they are purposely destructive and just plain mean.

The tutors are in many ways twin characters; they share many attributes and goals. Both are pretentious and self-righteous, always eager to punish Tom (on a trumped-up charge, if necessary) while indulging themselves in hypocrisy and lies. Both eagerly absorb Master Blifil’s flattery; his kind of artificial virtue is exactly their cup of tea. Both covet Allworthy’s fortune, and both scheme to marry his sister, Bridget, to get their hands on it. To that end, they are doubly happy to conspire with her son, Master Blifil, against Tom at every turn. This is where their understanding, if not their villainy, falls short, however. In the first place, Bridget sees through them and has no intention of...

(The entire section is 13,330 words.)