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.