Jude the Obscure (reread)

Thomas Hardy is one of those authors people tend to passionately love or passionately hate. I am firmly in the love column and have been ever since I first read The Mayor of Casterbridge as a gloomy 17-year-old. I was odd enough that I liked most of the books I read in school, but Hardy was one of the few authors I was assigned in high school whose books I then went out and binged on. Within a year of studying Mayor as a high school senior, I had read The Return of the Native and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. By the end of my second year of college, I’d read all three of these books again and added The Woodlanders, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Jude the Obscure. So that’s six Hardy novels in three years—three of them twice! Yep, that’s passion!

However, as I’ve discovered other authors, both classic and contemporary, I’ve spent less time with Hardy. I’ve reread Tess and Return once each since graduating college, but I’ve held off on returning to Jude, Hardy’s last and darkest novel. The details of the story had become hazy, and as I started this reread, I wondered if I would continue to find Hardy as bewitching as I did as a teenager. Would Hardy’s story of a man’s futile dream to “get above his raising” still resonate? I was only a few chapters into Jude when I knew that this book has all the power that I remembered.

Jude Hawley is a dreamer. His parents are dead, and he lives with an aunt who doesn’t see much of a future for Jude. But Jude longs to be a scholar, haunting the hallowed halls of Christminster (a thinly disguised stand-in for Oxford). After long days as a stonemason, he spends long nights immersed in Latin and Greek, philosophy and theology, hoping to make up for his lack of schooling, assuming that his dedication to his goal will be enough. Here we see him dreaming of Christminster:

Jude continued in his walk homeward alone, pondering so deeply that he forgot to feel timid. He suddenly grew older. It had been the yearning of his heart to find something to anchor on, to cling to—for some place which he could call admirable. Should he find that place in this city if he could get there? Would it be a spot in which, without fear of farmers, or hindrance, or ridicule, he could watch and wait, and set himself to some mighty undertaking like the men of old of whom he had heard? As the halo had been to his eyes when gazing at it a quarter of an hour earlier, so was the spot mentally to him as he pursued his dark way.

‘It is a city of light,’ he said to himself.

‘The tree of knowledge grows there,’ he added a few steps further on.

‘It is a place that teachers of men spring from and go to.’

‘It is what you may call a castle, manned by scholarship and religion.’

After this figure he was silent a long while, till he added:

‘It would just suit me.”

As readers, we know that however much the university might suit Jude, his dream of gaining entry to that castle will never be achieved. The tragedy of Jude’s situation is that he can never quite accept the limitations society has placed upon him. When he wants something, he becomes consumed with longing. And it’s all the more heart-breaking because there’s nothing wrong with what he wants. He wants education. But Victorian England’s strict class structure makes the scholarly life impossible, and one early mistake involving a woman named Arabella (someone who has figured out exactly how to work the system) make Jude’s perfectly sensible dreams impossible.

Besides education, Jude’s other passion is Sue Bridehead, who is a fascinating character in her own right. Sue, like Jude, just doesn’t quite fit in with society. When we first meet her, she is working in a shop that makes religious art, but her passion is for the figures of Greek myth. As the novel goes on, we learn that Sue is torn between her own desires and her longing for society’s approval. Her conflict cannot remain internal, however, and it ends up touching Jude and, in a devastating stroke, leads to what is possibly the most tragic event in any of Thomas Hardy’s novels. It’s this moment that would keep me from recommending Jude to someone who isn’t already a Hardy convert. It’s an event that is not at all gratuitous, in my opinion, but those who complain of the tragedy in Tess would probably not be able to get past it.

Some accuse Hardy of piling pain upon his characters, which he does, but I think it’s meant, through exaggeration, to show just how wrong certain societal expectations are. What looks to some like piling on looks to me more like distillation. By taking away the hope, Hardy makes us see the barriers that much more clearly. But seeing the barriers clearly is not the same as understanding them. Jude and Sue certainly don’t understand their own struggle, as shown in this moment that occurs late in the book:

They would sit silent, more bodeful of the direct antagonism of things than of their insensate and stolid obstructiveness. Vague and quaint imaginings had haunted Sue in the days when her intellect scintillated like a star, that the world resembled a stanza or melody composed in a dream; it was wonderfully excellent to the half-aroused intelligence, but hopelessly absurd at the full waking; that the First Cause worked automatically like a somnambulist, and not reflectively like a sage; that at the framing of the terrestrial conditions there seemed never to have been contemplated such a development of emotional perceptiveness among the creatures subject to those conditions as that reached by thinking and educated humanity. But affliction makes opposing forces loom anthropomorphous; and those ideas were now exchanged for a sense of Jude and herself fleeing from a persecutor.

‘We must conform!’ she said mournfully. ‘All the ancient wrath of the Power above has been vented upon us, His poor creatures, and we must submit. There is no choice. We must. It is no use fighting against God!’

‘It is only against man and senseless circumstance,’ said Jude.

‘True!’ she murmured. ‘What have I been thinking of! I am getting as superstitious as a savage! … But whoever or whatever our foe may be, I am cowed into submission. I have no more fighting or strength left; no more enterprise. I am beaten, beaten! … “We are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men!” I am always saying that now.’

Jude the Obscure was Hardy’s last novel. The controversy about it, stemming largely from the perception that it was a critique of marriage, led Hardy to devote the rest of his career to poetry. Reading the novel today, when attitudes toward marriage have changed so dramatically, I was surprised at how relevant some of the questions raised still are. One of the central questions asked is about the purpose of marriage. Is it about love? Sex? Companionship? The raising of children? What makes a marriage a marriage? Does a piece of paper matter? Hardy ably points out the flaws of the Victorian view, but he doesn’t answer the questions he raises. I like this about Hardy.

Of course, I can’t write about Hardy without mentioning that his writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever come across. He can conjure an image so perfectly that I feel I’ve been to his fictional Wessex. And he’s just as precise in detailing the landscapes of his characters’ minds and hearts. In doing so, he touches my heart, and for that reason, I’m sure I’ll keep returning to his books again and again.

See other reviews (they all loved it): Bibliolatry, Other Stories, Harriet Devine’s Blog, and Stuck in a Book.

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18 Responses to Jude the Obscure (reread)

  1. Study Window says:

    I wonder what it is about Hardy? Whatever your feelings you definitely don’t sit on the shelf where he’s concerned. I’m afraid I’m in the opposite corner. I really can’t cope with him. Nevertheless I have a soft spot on another account. When my Mom had to spend two weeks in hospital some years ago, I took her ‘Tess’ in to see how she would like his work. She really enjoyed it, but the best bit was that everyone had an opinion about him, so her bed became a focal point where readers would stop by, staff and visitors alike, to see how she was getting on and talk about their views. It changed her entire stay, so I can’t be completely anti-Hardy after that.

  2. Steph says:

    I’ve never read any Thomas Hardy, but I did find your affection and enthusiasm in this post really contagious! You’ve really made me excited to give him a try, although I’m not sure I’m in the mood for dark and depressing right now.

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, I’ll be interested to see what you think if you do try him—although, seriously, don’t start here. Go with Tess, or Far from the Madding Crowd. This is Hardy at this darkest and most strange.

  3. I’m with you that the tragedy in Jude – the big one – is not gratuitous. The problem is that it is so bizarre – unrealistic is the unfortunate word I want, I guess.

    It’s a symbolically logical event in this novel, but not a realistically logical event. Like Hardy has lifted the skin off the novel and showed us the internal clockwork.

    If that makes any sense. I’m unusual, I guess, in that I neither love nor hate Hardy. I Appreciate him.

    • Teresa says:

      You know, I think I agree that the big event isn’t realistic. In fact, hardly anything related to Little Father Time seems realistic (right down to his name, which I do think is over- the-top strange). But I’m not sure Hardy is ever all that realistic because his world is so relentlessly negative. It’s like his books are meant not to show the real world but to show the consequences of all the world’s worst tendencies.

  4. Deb says:

    I think readers who dislike Hardy see him as an unrelenting pessimist; readers who like Hardy see him as a realist or a naturalist. I am firmly in the “like” (actually, “love”) camp. I agree that JUDE is not the place to begin reading Hardy. I would recommend FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD which has one of the “happier” endings in Hardy’s work.

    My favorite Hardy novel is THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE, which has some of the same themes as JUDE, although perhaps a little less darkly expressed.

    • Teresa says:

      Deb, As I just told Amateur Reader, I don’t see Hardy as realistic necessarily–the world just isn’t *that* bad. But I don’t think he’s an unrelenting pessimist or cruel to his characters. It’s more like he’s creating a construct to reveal another truth, which I guess is a characteristic of Naturalism, in light of Zola’s intro to Therese Raquin (which I just read this year).

      And I do love Return of the Native and agree that the themes are similar.

  5. Jenny says:

    I didn’t dislike Tess because I found it depressing, I disliked it because I found it BORING. But I wasn’t as good a reader then as I am now (when I am loving Proust.) I loved, really loved Far From the Madding Crowd. I’m thinking I should try Tess again.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Depressingness seems to be the most common complaint I hear about Hardy, but yeah, I’ve heard some people say he’s boring. I just love Hardy’s prose so much that I’ll happily read pages of nothing happening.

      You quit Tess pretty close to the end, didn’t you? Because I have a feeling you were a hair’s breadth away from the big cataclysmic event that occurs after pages of what even I admit is a tedious section.

      If you don’t want to try Tess again, maybe Return of the Native. I think you’d like that.

  6. Emily says:

    I’m a lover of Hardy, too, less for the drama & tragedy than for his meticulous & loving depiction of working-class Wessex life. I just love spending time in the atmosphere he creates, listening to the speech of the Wessex inhabitants. Sometimes I think I would almost prefer a plotless Hardy.

    • Teresa says:

      Emily, Oh gosh, his descriptions are amazing! Have you read his Wessex Tales? Or his poetry? I haven’t read the stories, but I wonder how if they would be more of the plotless Hardy that you’re thinking of. And of course his poetry is plotless, but it’s not necessarily about Wessex. I like it, though, and read several of his poems just to prolong my joy in his language after finishing Jude.

  7. rebeccareid says:

    I have never yet read Hardy but I am very afraid to do so because I worry I’ll be in the hate it column! Silly reason. Maybe I’ll give him a try later this year. But I’ll start with a different one since you say this might not be a good start. (I see your suggestion to Steph to start with TESS or FAR FROM THE MADDENING CROWD)

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca, I understand the hesitation. Many of the haters are very strong in their dislike. I have no idea which column you’re likely to fall into, but the only way to know is to try.

  8. cbjames says:

    I’m glad to see Jude holds up to re-reading after so many years. I do think the first section, his marraige to
    Arabella is wonderful. Finding that picture in the box of discarded, unsold items, broke my heart. But I’m not a fan of the Sue Bridehead section at all.

    I do plan on rereading Hardy some day, but I think I’ll go with Mayor of Castorbridge or Tess, myself.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, you’re right about that scene with the discarded items. Just heart-breaking. As for the rest of the book, I just so fascinated by Sue as a character that I was fully drawn into her part of the story.

  9. Mae says:

    I’ve just finished this and I’m devastated – for Jude and Sue and for Hardy who was vilified for daring to explore the ideas of sex, love and marriage.

    I’m still digesting this but I’m quite glad to see there’s been recent readings and re-reads of this recently.

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