Title: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
No. of Pages: 438
First Released: 1895
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “Jude Fawley, poor and working-class, longs to study at the University of Christminster, but his ambitions to go to university are thwarted by class prejudice and his entrapment in a loveless marriage. He falls in love with his unconventional cousin, Sue Bridehead, and their refusal to marry when free to do so confirms their rejection of and by the world around them. The shocking fate that overtakes them is an indictment of a rigid and uncaring society.”
Comments and Critique: I thought I loved Thomas Hardy. He has a way with words that places the reader at the scene and brings those scenes to life for any modern reader. However, after careful reflection, I am not too certain I stand by my conviction that I like Thomas Hardy. See, he’s too depressing. Most of his characters are put into unfortunate situations, find their way out for a bit and then end up worse than when the reader is first introduced to them. This holds true with Tess of the D’Urbervilles and holds true with Jude the Obscure as well.
With Jude, Hardy presents the dreamer beset by reality. This is a clear sign that not all will bode well for dear Jude. As this is a general theme in Hardy’s works, one has to wonder that Hardy just did not like those who dreamt of a better life and sought ways to improve themselves. It is such a negative attitude as well as the exact opposite of the American dream.
One cannot mention Jude the Obscure without mentioning marriage, as this is where the novel gets all of its tension, which drives the plot forward. As it is believed that Jude the Obscure is relatively autobiographical, make no mistake that Hardy does not have a very positive view of the status of marriage. His is rather a very modern point of view in a Victorian era that is not ready for such ideas. The idea of marriage is a continual issue for Sue, which is where the reader can see the biggest conflict. In Sue, Hardy presents the dichotomy between individual values (no marriage) and society’s values (marriage required). According to Hardy, one cannot coexist with the other, and a person must choose between either set of values. However, to choose against society requires a thick skin and a level of patience and/or ignorance of society’s scorn – neither of which could be used to describe Sue. As for the institution itself, Hardy still is rather pessimistic. At one point in time, the narrator mentions that a truly married couple did not act affectionate but rather should yell and argue and throw furniture at each other. Both Sue and Jude marry people that repulse them, yet their love for each other is not allowed to flourish because it is not contained within the institution of marriage. The message the reader cannot help but take away from these occurrences is that love has no place in marriage. Interesting, no?
Hardy’s discussion of children is just as depressing. There is much talk about whether children would be better off never having been born if they are to be born into a poor family.
“‘I think that whenever children be born that are not wanted they should be killed directly, before their souls come to ’em, and not allowed to grow big and walk about!'” (pg. 355)
This begs the question whether Hardy is trying to tell us that Jude was essentially doomed to a life of suffering from the moment he was born. Either way, it is a powerful statement, about an issue that has been an ongoing, and passionate debate for years.
All of these issues leads to a very dark, morose novel. I struggled to get behind the characters, as Sue drove me insane with her waffling and inability to make a decision and stick with it, and Jude was not forceful enough. I kept waiting for the moment for Jude to stand up for his beliefs and his happiness. Rather, he sits back and accepts everything that happens to him, without making an effort to change it for his own benefit. It wasn’t that Jude lacked backbone; he just lacked a desire to stand and fight. I remained disappointed with Jude and distracted by Sue throughout the novel, even while I kept hoping that either character would change. Neither one did.
Overall, I cannot say that I truly enjoyed Jude the Obscure, but I did glean a bit more about life in Victorian England for the desolate and downtrodden. Having to leave one town for another when the work ran out, having to past muster with a potential landlord just to rent a room, living in such small towns that were geographically close together so that gossip easily spread from one village to another – it was a rough life, one that requires spirit, drive, and an unwillingness to succumb to the pressures of life. Unfortunately, neither Sue nor Jude had any one of those characteristics, and therein lies my issue. I would have appreciated more character growth from both main characters. I feel like I should not have supported the two minor characters more than I did the two main ones, but as they showed the most gumption, they earned my admiration. Hardy is a must-read for any classic lover only because he portrays various milieu of English life with precision. It isn’t the happiest of pictures most times, but as a learning experience for an understanding of English life outside what is taught in history books, he is one of the best.
Mr. FTC, I purchased this with my own money!