Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy [A Review]

Jude the Obscure was Thomas Hardy’s final novel. In it you will find all of Hardy’s trademarks – an intelligent, frustrated heroine; encroaching modernity and tragedy in love. Jude, though, is a far darker and more provocative novel from Hardy, inviting scandal for its attacks on social and religious conventions.

Jude Fawley, a young boy living in the English countryside, is heartbroken to see his beloved schoolmaster leave. Mr Phillotson is leaving for Christminster – an Oxford-like town – where he hopes to obtain his degree and enter the church. Before leaving, Mr Phillotson urges Jude to be good, to read all that he can and to call on him if he is ever near Christminster.

Jude has been an orphan for less than a year. He lives with his great aunt who makes it clear how little she wants him around. A sensitive, romantic and precocious boy, his head is soon filled with dreams of escaping the material and cultural poverty of the small, sleepy village, to gain a university education and become a gentleman in the church.

With no one to teach him, Jude takes on the near impossible task of teaching himself Latin and Greek. Despite bouts of depression and resignation at the futility of his dream, Jude persists in educating himself while making meagre earnings. Now a young man, he realises he needs a real career if he is to fund further education and decides to become an apprentice stonemason.

Just when Jude seems to be making slow progress in his life, and may be only a year or two away from his Christminster dream, he meets Arabella. A country girl who is fond of a beer and not afraid to get her hands dirty slaughtering pigs, Arabella is soon plotting a way to make Jude hers. Perhaps naïve, Jude is an easy target for Arabella and he is soon neglecting his studies for her.

Their marriage is doomed from the start as they soon realise how wrong they were about each other.

Their lives were ruined, he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connection with affinities that alone render a life-long comradeship tolerable.

A practical woman, Arabella has no regard for Jude’s foolish dreams or his expensive time-consuming books. Jude finds Arabella to be crude and rough. They fight frequently until eventually Arabella leaves him. With her parents emigrating to Australia, she believes it would be best to go with them. Jude is only too happy to see her leave and to resume his former life.

A few years pass and Jude’s apprenticeship is over. He enters Christminster and stares in awe at the college buildings, thinking of all the great scientists, philosophers and theologians that have passed through there. He needs to find work soon, build up some savings and then he too can enter the hallowed world of academia. Jude has something else on his mind though. His cousin, Sue Bridehead also lives in Christminster. Jude saw her once at his great aunt’s house. He has been carrying around a photograph of her and slowly finds himself becoming obsessed with her. He tries to tell himself not to aspire to anything beyond friendship with her seeing as, firstly, he is still married, and secondly, she is his first cousin!

Jude, though, can’t seem to stop himself from thinking of his cousin in immoral ways. They soon meet and become acquainted. Their conversation leads to the subject of Mr Phillotson, Jude’s old schoolmaster. Sue knows of him and they decide to call on him together. Mr Phillotson, it turns out, is still a schoolmaster, though not much like his former self. His own dream of becoming a university man and entering the church proved as futile as Jude’s sometimes seems to him.

When Sue loses her job and may have to leave Christminster, Jude can’t bear the thought of being without her.

‘I want to tell you something – two things,’ he said hurriedly as the train came up. ‘One is a warm one, the other a cold one!’

‘Jude,’ she said. ‘I know one of them. And you mustn’t!’

‘What?’

‘You mustn’t love me. You are to like me – that’s all!’

Jude’s face became so full of complicated glooms that hers was agitated in sympathy as she bade him adieu through the carriage window. And then the train moved on, and waving her pretty hand to him she vanished away.

Jude plots to get Phillotson to offer Sue a position as an apprentice schoolteacher and to get Sue to accept, which she does. Meanwhile the hopelessness of Jude’s dream is becoming abundantly clear to him as it did to Phillotson. Christminster may not in fact be a place where dreams are made, but where only the wealthy can better themselves. Scholarships are available but Jude has no chance competing against those who have had the benefit of a proper education. And he has no money to buy his way in. Jude feels he has duped himself with an impossible dream when, had he instead focused on getting the best career he could, he might have been much better off by now.

The obstacles to Jude’s happiness only continue to mount. His attempt to keep Sue near him has only brought her close to Phillotson. Jude soon hears that Phillotson has proposed and Sue has accepted. Driven by his impulses, Jude pursues Sue even after she has married Phillotson, even though this may mean destroying a marriage, and Phillotson’s career, to get what he desires; when he has no career of his own and nothing to offer Sue except his affection; though this would mean ending his own ambitions and turning his back on all he believed in; when he himself is still married to another woman and even though Sue is his cousin and they will be ostracised for living together unmarried.

Jude is prepared to risk all this to be near the one he can’t help loving, bringing scandal, disgrace and tragedy on all including himself.

Jude the Obscure is the sixth (and possibly the last) Thomas Hardy novel I have read. It was also the last he wrote, deciding after the controversy that followed its publication to focus on writing the poetry for which he has at least equal acclaim. Although, as Dennis Taylor suggests in his introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, Hardy may have already decided to end his novel writing career and the controversy gave him a convenient excuse to do so.

A consistent theme in Hardy’s novels is the tragedy that follows when people make bad choices in love and marriage. In Jude, that aspect is taken to the extreme as we see tragic consequences in not just one but several marriages and relationships. Consequences that not only affect the marriage, but that last long after it has ended, for both the leaver and those left behind, for both those who acted in good faith and those who did not.

Another motif in common with other Hardy novels is the sense of rural way of life in decline and disappearing. Again, in Jude it is extended even further by technology that has become so common it barely invites comment. In Jude, as opposed to earlier Hardy novels, characters frequently use the railways. Instead of carrying keepsakes or mementos of their lover, they carry photographs.

Hardy, along with George Eliot, is often cited as a key example of Victorian Realism. While Eliot was long dead by the time Jude the Obscure was published in 1895, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be published just four years later. With a narrator you are not sure to trust and a narrative that almost slides into stream of consciousness, Heart of Darkness is an early sign of approaching Modernism. In reading Jude you sense not just the end of Hardy’s career as a novelist but the end of a literary era as well.

Another theme in Jude, also in common with previous novels, is the lack of social mobility. No amount of intelligence, hard work or determination can ever make up for the fact that Jude was born poor or allow him to fulfil his potential. While much of the tragedy in Jude can be placed on the actions of the characters, Jude’s inability to pursue his dream is a systemic fault of the time and society he lives in.

Jude is sometimes described as bleak. Some might retort that that is no different to other Hardy’s! I would disagree. The earlier novels have drama, they have a lot of tragedy, but they don’t slip into being bleak. Jude, though, goes that step further and does. Jude’s life is a hard one, full of disappointment, bad luck and heartbreak with little respite or reward. It is an experience that would undermine his religious beliefs.

‘Your worldly failure, if you have failed, is to your credit rather than to your blame. Remember that the best and greatest among mankind are those who do themselves no worldly good. Every successful man is more or less a selfish man. The devoted fail… “Charity seeketh not her own.”’

The criticism of religious belief and tradition was one of the controversial aspects of Jude. There are hints of this theme in earlier Hardy novels but in Jude it becomes overt. Though Jude aspires to be a man of the church, Sue is more of a free thinker and a sceptic who sees nothing unique or superior in Christianity compared to other faiths or philosophies.

‘I fancy we have had enough of Jerusalem,’ she said, ‘considering we are not descended from the Jews. There was nothing first-rate about the place, or people, after all – as there was about Athens, Rome, Alexandria, and other old cities.’

The development of their relationship coincides with Jude turning his back on his religious ambitions. The title ‘Jude the Obscure’ is apparently a reference to the Roman Emperor Julian, called ‘Julian the Apostate’ by the early church for his rejection and hostility towards Christianity.

He might go on believing as before, but he professed nothing, and no longer owned and exhibited engines of faith which, as their proprietor, he might naturally be supposed to exercise on himself first of all. In his passion for Sue he could now stand as an ordinary sinner, and not as a whited sepulchre.

The problem of evil is the source of the novel’s bleakness. Again, earlier Hardy novels also diminish the link between goodness and material success, but in Jude it is made more explicit and more extreme. In Jude, good deeds and good intentions go unrewarded, even punished. While those who do ill sometimes escape a bad fate.

‘Because of a cloud that has gathered over us; though “we have wronged no man, corrupted no man, defrauded no man!” Though perhaps we have “done that which was right in our own eyes.”’

Yet, Sue has the opposite reaction to Jude and her suffering pushes her to abandon her scepticism and grow towards faith. Faith seems to offer Sue an explanation for her misfortune – as a punishment for her faults – and comfort in submission to an omnipotent power.

Jude and Sue’s relationship is quite complex. Despite their attraction for her, both Jude and Phillotson find her intelligence challenging and her religious scepticism disturbing. She is also somewhat frigid; struggling to requite the passion the men in her life have for her.

I cannot bear it – I cannot! I can’t answer her arguments – she has read ten times as much as I. Her intellect sparkles like diamonds, while mine smoulders like brown paper… She’s one too many for me!

I had some difficulty at times with the dialogue between Jude and Sue. They might say things to each other that seemed deliberately insincere, some of it may be teasing, maybe not flirtation, some of it deflecting, some of it challenging, deliberately antagonistic, even cutting. But usually their conversations end amicably for despite all their differences they do care for each other.

The main controversy surrounding Jude was the charge of indecency. In Jude, marriages end in separations and divorces – a still rare and controversial convention at the time. There’s also bigamy, couples living together without getting married, couples having children without getting married and an incestuous relationship.

Both the novel’s critique of religion and its immersion with what people at the time found indecent, are two sides of a larger theme at work in Jude – a conflict between social convention and the pursuit of happiness.

‘I have been thinking,’ she continues, still in the tone of one brimful of feeling, ‘that the social moulds civilisation fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to the real star-patterns.’

Though the novel attacks several social conventions, marriage is the centrepiece of this conflict in Jude, being a powerful religious, legal and social convention. Yet, marriage is ultimately a human invention, a point which everything that is associated with it must come back to.

‘But if people did as you want to do, there’d be a general domestic disintegration. The family would no longer be the social unit.’

’Yes – I am all aboard I suppose!’ said Phillotson sadly. ‘I was never a very bright reasoner, you remember… And yet, I don’t see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man.’

‘By the Lord Harry! – Matriarchy!’

The novel questions the worth of all the rituals, traditions and bureaucracy of marriage when it is not an absolute requirement for two people who want to be together and be happy. Worse, what is its worth if those who make an honest mistake in marriage must live unhappy lives for the sake of maintaining a mere convention or must live with the burden of being judged immoral for having failed at marriage? What is its worth if those who don’t wish to conform to the convention are ostracised to the point where they are faced with poverty.

‘[…] before I married him I had never thought out fully what marriage meant, even though I knew. It was idiotic of me – there is no excuse. I was old enough, and I thought I was very experienced. So I rushed on […] I am certain one ought to be allowed to undo what one has done so ignorantly! I daresay it happens to lots of women; only they submit, and I kick… When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say!’

In Jude, religious tradition, social convention and even the law is at odds with personal freedom, the pursuit of happiness and moral instinct.

‘I can’t bear that they, and everybody, should think people wicked because they may have chosen to live their own way! It is really these opinions that make the best intentioned people reckless, and actually become immoral!’

The parallels between the plot of Jude and Hardy’s own personal life are multiple. To begin with, there is the working-class man whose academic ambitions are thwarted and an unhappy relationship with a woman who went from sceptical to religious while he moved in the opposite direction. There are plenty more, but Hardy seems to have strenuously denied the links to his own life, despite it being quite clear to see. There are also several other allusions at work in the novel – to Macbeth and to several Biblical stories such as Samson and Delilah, for instance.

The thesis of Dennis Taylor’s introductory essay to this edition is the difficulty of nailing down a consistent theory about what Jude is about. For every idea – the problems of the secular marriage law, problems with religious marriage law, problems with social convention, social exclusion, social mobility, religious belief, etc – there is always an event from the plot that would seem to discredit each idea. Taylor instead looks to the Biblical allusions made in the novel, particularly to Job, and a message of suffering, mercy and charity.

I’m not entirely convinced. I think he has made some interesting points about the plot events that contradict the apparent themes, but I’m not sure that is enough to remove those themes from the set of ‘what Jude is about’. They may only add nuance to the themes or prevent any one of them from becoming dominant over the others.

While it is possible I may read another Hardy novel, now that I have read Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, I am most likely done with Hardy. Did I enjoy him? Overall, yes. Though I am not sure he or his books would be feature prominently among my favourites, I would not have treated him any differently if I had to start over. He was always someone I was going to have to try and drink deeply from.

Far From the Madding Crowd would be the novel I enjoyed the most. I feel that Far From the Madding Crowd is to Hardy what Pride and Prejudice is to Austen – a fan favourite, especially so in more recent decades, though not necessarily the critics favourite. I think The Return of the Native relies heavily on its compelling heroine – Eustacia Vye – an element common to most Hardy novels. The Return of the Native would not have very much without her. Something like that was needed in The Woodlanders. The Mayor of Casterbridge offers a point of difference, with an older main character whose mistakes in love lie in the past at the beginning of the novel, while the consequences of it lie in wait.

Overall, my favourite would be Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I may not have found it as pleasurable as Far From the Madding Crowd, but to me it represents the peak of Hardy’s novel writing and has the best qualities of the other novels being a good story, well told, with memorable characters, great drama, great tragedy and unforgettable scenes and is unmistakably Hardy. Jude, to a certain extent, felt like a step too far – a little too bleak, a little too overt, a little too severe. But it is also possibly one of the more complex, giving readers much to mull over with themes of enduring relevance to modern readers. Maybe with time and an eventual re-read, I will give Jude more credit.

I want to end my journey through six Hardy novels with a quote by Michael Rabiger, remarking on Hardy’s fiction as a whole. The quote comes from a book called Alternative Hardy and was quoted in an appendix to my edition of The Return of the Native:

That Hardy was a man of powerful feelings in undeniable, for all his lifelong stance of neutrality. Yet nowhere can one read of him acting upon his passions… This type of imprisoning silence and passivity so often causes excruciating pain in his best-loved characters that one must surely discard the conventional labelling of it as a dramatic device. Rather, it attests to a lifelong emotional straightjacket confining Hardy himself, one that made writing… a daily necessity. Hardy’s writing is not just a place where, like other sincere artists, he confronts and organises the dominant forces in his life; it is the only place.

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4 comments

    • That’s understandable, his obsession is probably not for everyone. I think it may be relatable for those who lived in times when higher education was exclusive and unattainable. While, once he reflects that he might have been better off putting his effort on gaining trade skills, might be relatable to those of us who found higher education accessible, though still expensive, and its value consequently diminished!

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      • I’m probably in the latter group, I went to uni and studied whatever I found interesting, and later wondered if I would have been better off with something I found less interesting but improved my employability! I think a lot of my friends were the same. My advice to my children about higher education may reflect that!

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