Jude the Obscure

Devastating.

Shattering.

Wrenching.

Soul-crushing.

And ultimately brilliant.

book imageIn his final novel, Mr. Hardy packs quite the punch.  Jude the Obscure encapsulates his most blatant criticisms of class, marriage, and religion.  It is also perhaps his most devastating portrayal of idealism shattered by the harsh hand of fate.

Having said that, I wasn’t personally as heartbroken by Jude as I was by Tess, even though Jude is the most achingly tragic story that I have ever read (or probably ever will read).  I was reading Tess of D’Urbervilles exactly one year ago and it was my very first experience with Hardy, who I knew nothing about at the time.  So I was completely unprepared for what was to come.  I think that Tess might be the only literary character that I’ve truly mourned in my adult life.

I began Jude as a much more informed woman.  With 6 other Hardy novels under my belt, I was more prepared for the inevitably harsh blow that was to come with Jude.

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Jude the Obscure is the story of Jude Fawley, a lowly orphan boy with mighty dreams.  Though he has a lowly upbringing, a childhood experience awakens in him the desire to become a scholar.

While I never forgot that I was reading Hardy, I was really rooting for Jude.  I was smitten by his sensitive nature (one who is careful not to step on earthworms), his longing for knowledge and books, and his desire to broaden his physical and mental horizons.  I so wanted him to succeed.  I felt angry at those who didn’t see his worth, acknowledge his gifts, or want to give him a second glance, much less a chance in life.  I hurt for him when he was let down by people or faced disappointment.  I became frustrated when he deviated (more than once!) off course.

One of the themes that stands out to me in Jude the Obscure is confinement.  Jude Fawley’s life is a demonstration of the things that confine us, hold us back, and eventually take us down.

Geographic Confinement

Jude experiences geographic confinement as he longs for the university town of Christminster.  Christminster is a town that is close enough to see from a nearby rooftop but might as well be a thousand miles away.  We feel the magnitude of his isolation as well as his longing, with this depiction of him travelling to a rooftop from where he could get a glimpse of the town that he longed for:

“Whenever he could get away from the confines of the hamlet for an hour or two, which was not often, he would steal off to the Brown House on the hill and strain his eyes persistently; sometimes to be rewarded by the sight of a dome or spire, at other times by a little smoke, which in his estimate had some of the mysticism of incense. . . Then the day came when it suddenly occurred to him that if he ascended to the point of view after dark, or possibly went a mile or two further, he would see the night lights of the city. . .The project was duly executed. . . He was rewarded; but what he saw was not the lamps in rows, as he had half expected.  No individual light was visible, only a halo or glow-fog over-arching the place against the black heavens behind it. . . “

I can just imagine young Jude straining to see from a distant rooftop, imagining all that was taking place, the interaction, the learning, the life of the city . . . but to him, it was just a hazy glow – vague, indistinct, and unattainable.

Social and Economic Confinement

Jude is confined by social conventions, more specifically by the institution of marriage.  His intellectual ambitions are first thwarted when he meets, and eventually marries, the intoxicating Arabella.  He is love-struck by her and almost immediately abandons his studies in favor of spending time with her.  The following happens on the very first night of their marriage:

“A little chill overspread him at her first unrobing.  A long tail of hair, which Arabella wore twisted up in an enormous knob at the back of her head, was deliberately unfastened, stroked out, and hung upon the looking-glass which he had bought her.

‘What – it wasn’t your own?’ he said, with a sudden distaste for her.

‘O no – it never is nowadays with the better class.’”

This is one of the first hints that marriage and life with Arabella are not going to be what they were cracked up to be.  Hardy seems to be demonstrating that things are not always as they appear.

__________

Eventually Jude breaks down the geographic barrier and moves to Christminster, finding work as a stonemason while trying to get back on track with his educational ambitions.  He has an epiphany one day, suddenly feeling that what he needs is a scholarly mentor.  He sends requests to five professors at the university – and gets a response from only one, who tells Jude essentially that he is part of the working class, and part of the working class he should remain.

During this time, Jude is beckoned to recite a bit of Latin in a pub attended by the lower classes.  He does so, much to their amusement.  Here, we see Jude reduced to nothing more than an amusing sideshow.  He’s neither wealthy nor educated enough to gain respect among the university crowd, yet he also stands out among the lower class.  Jude is an outsider.  Try as he might, he doesn’t fit anywhere.

Having no voice among the educated community that he so longs to belong to, he scribes a message on a public wall:

“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you; yea, who knoweth not such things as these?” – Job xii 3.

Even that desperate declaration is fleeting, impermanent, and may very well go unnoticed — It is written with chalk.

Fate and Self-Confinement

Jude is also confined by the cruel hand of fate which, as Hardy says in A Pair of Blue Eyes, doles out its cruelties with “lawless caprice.”  Yet, it is not just matters of the external world that detain Jude.  He is also limited by himself, his essential nature – his own flawed, human, messy, untimely desires and inclinations lure him off his path and lead him astray over and over again.

Poor Jude.  Jude was an idealist in a time that was not ripe with idealism.  It reminds me of a quote from Amelie, one of my favorite French films,

“Times are hard for dreamers.”

Times were definitely hard for the dreamer, Jude.  Part of what adds to the sadness of his plight, is that Jude realizes this very early on.  In Chapter 2, he reflects, “Growing up brought responsibilities,” and “Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought.”  Jude sees, experiences, and reflects on the disparities of life, and yet he does not give up.  He has such hope!

What truly amplifies the ache of this novel is that the things that Jude desires are always within his line of vision, but just beyond his reach.

. . .sigh . . .

image of thomas hardy

Thomas Hardy

I always feel a little frustrated when I sit down and try to put forth and preserve my thoughts about one of Hardy’s novels, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more frustrated than I have with this one.  There are so many things that can be cited and discussed.  I’ve only cracked the surface.  I feel as though I have said both too little and too much all at the same time.  I’ve written what amounts to 2½ pages and yet I feel like something’s missing.  There’s so much more.  I never quite feel as though I do Hardy justice.   So it’s frustrating – but it’s also what I love about reading his work.  It’s complex, and deep, layered and insightful.

Jude the Obscure marks the completion of my reading of Hardy’s major works.  I now look forward to moving on to some of the minor ones as well as his poetry.  I feel relieved that there’s more to come and I’m not at the end of his body of work.  But when I do get there, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.  I’ll just start again. . .

*****

Published: 1895

My Rating: ***** 5/5

*****

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Published: 1887

My Rating: ****1/2, 4.5/5

book imageThomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, is a nearly perfectly balanced novel.  It’s not so melodramatic as The Mayor of Casterbridge, nor is it as tragic as Tess of D’Urbervilles.  The plot revolves around a group of woodlanders living in a village called Little Hintock.  Grace Melbury is a frontrunner among the protagonists along with her two love interests Giles Winterborne and Edred Fitzpiers.  When the novel opens Grace has just returned home after a long absence at school.  Though she has been promised to the rustic Giles, her newfound education and eloquence make the match seem less suitable.  Her well-intentioned, though often unwise, father eventually sets his sights on the new and more refined village doctor, Fitzpiers, as a better match for Grace.

As is usual with Hardy, the ill effects of fate wreak havoc on the lives of these characters.  What is most prevalent in The Woodlanders is the fatalistic force of the past upon the present.  Some additional themes and questions explored by Hardy concern marriage, the effects of the class system, and whether or not the rustic can harmoniously coexist with the modern.  As always, what keeps Hardy’s novels from being unbearably grim is his expressive and powerful prose coupled with his exceptional characterization.   Hardy also doesn’t fail to deliver a healthy dose of suspense.  Towards the end of the novel I thought I was sure what the outcome would be and then Hardy surprised me with yet another twist in the plot.

While reading Woodlanders, what stood out most to me was the isolation.  The seclusion throughout this novel is both physical and emotional.  The manner in which Hardy conveys that sense of isolation is nothing short of incredible.  This is the sixth novel that I have read by him and I never cease to be amazed at how eloquently, stylishly, and profoundly he can convey an image, a thought, or an idea.  For instance, consider this passage from the first page:

“The physiognomy of a deserted highway expressed solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools.  The contrast of what is with what might be, probably accounts for this.  To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the edge of the plantation into the adjoining thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.”

Almost every time I read that I get goose bumps.  Hardy’s manner of communicating solitude here evokes so much emotion and encapsulates so much more power than merely saying, “An empty highway is a lonely place.”  The feeling builds up like a crescendo, much like the novel as a whole.

Hardy suggests that the vacant highway is lonelier than the dale or the pool because the highway is suggestive of civilization but doesn’t deliver.  A man may not have ever thought to be lonely if he remained gazing into a pool, but by stepping over onto the highway, he suddenly realizes that he’s alone.  Likewise, this image and the thought that follows it correlates with the isolated existence of several characters in The Woodlanders, but the character who stands out to me in this regard is Grace Melbury.  Having been educated and having experienced the finer things in life, when she returns home to the woodland, she realizes what she’s missing in a way that would have never occurred to her if she had not left home.

The more I read Hardy, the more acutely aware I become of his painterly prose.  The introduction in my 1986 Penguin Classics edition points to the effect of Impressionism on Hardy.  I love this thought that was related from his journal:

“I don’t want to see landscapes, i.e. scenic paintings of them, because I don’t want to see the original realities – as optical effects that is.  I want to see the deeper reality underlying the scenic, the expression of what are sometimes called abstract imaginings.  The ‘simply natural’ is interesting no longer.”

I am grateful that Hardy was so astute at communicating his inspiration and intention as I often feel the brilliance of Hardy much more than I am able to articulate it.  What he expresses above speaks to one of his most amazing abilities as a writer.  Experiencing his work is often very much like looking at a painting.  Not just a pretty picture of mountains and stream – but the kind of painting that incites an emotional reaction.  That’s why Hardy’s lengthy descriptions of the landscape don’t become boring or exhaustive.  He’s not just laying out the details of the landscape; he’s letting you know what it feels like to be there.  What sets Hardy’s descriptions of the natural world apart can perhaps be illustrated by comparing two distinct landscape paintings.

The first is from American painter Bob Ross:

ross painting

You might say that this painting is “pretty,” you might comment on the nice colors, or relate that the composition works well – but looking at this painting does not give you any real sense of what it feels like to be there.  Though precise in its detail, it’s emotionally flat.  Were I asked to describe it I might say, “It’s a nice mountain, a still stream, and some evergreen trees.”  Accurate, but not particularly gripping.

Compare that with this next painting by J.M.W. Turner (of whom Hardy was apparently a fan):

turner painting

Instantly, upon gazing at this painting we can feel the power, the grandeur, and the turbulence of the scene.  It almost feels dangerous.   You certainly don’t walk away from this painting just saying, “It’s a mountain.”  What the first painting merely states, the second communicates.  There is the transference of emotion and thought.  The Turner painting is infinitely more visually interesting.  I could look at it 10 times longer than the former without getting bored with it.  The fact that the image is less distinct only serves to add to the interest.  I can leave this painting, come back to it later, and see something different in it.  Though you might say that the Ross painting is more realistic, the Turner, in its obscurity, feels truer.

And so it is with Hardy.  He thought that what was left in obscurity was just as important and powerful as what was described in detail.  He does not just paint flat pictures that are bogged down with rigid and unimportant details.  He describes the natural world in such a way that you don’t just see it, you feel it.    The scenes, natural and otherwise, that he constructs are specific and intentional in their composition, detail, and emotion.  He is truly an artist with words.

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Agnes Grey

book imageby Anne Bronte

Published: 1847

My Rating: ****, 4/5

The intent of Agnes Grey is perhaps expressed best by its opening line, which says:

 

“All true histories contain instruction.”

 

It is quite apparent that Anne Bronte intended with this novel to instruct and inform her audience.  At the most basic level Agnes Grey is a portrayal of the struggles and realities of life as a governess.  However, there’s no mistaking that Bronte also hoped to inculcate in her readers further lessons of empathy and human decency while also illuminating the superficial, petty, and small-minded natures of the wealthy.

 

When the book was first published in 1847, it was released in a volume along with two other novels, including Wuthering Heights, written by Anne’s sister, Emily.  After its release, many literary critics ignored Agnes Grey altogether, while others criticized Anne for her stark realism.  Literary critics apparently had more reverence for idealism and romanticism than for harsh pragmatism.

 

Anne Bronte confronted this criticism head on, and (in my opinion) with a great deal of wisdom and poignancy.  She responded saying:

 

“To represent a bad thing in its least offensive light is doubtless, the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest or the safest?  Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveler, or to cover them with branches and flowers?”

 

At the beginning of the novel, Agnes Grey was just such a “young and thoughtless traveler” with many blossom-covered pitfalls ahead of her.  When she first decides to embark on the life of a governess, she has a very idealistic view of what such a life will entail.  She predicts:

 

“How delightful it would be to be a governess! . . .and then how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children . . .”

 

She further over-simplifies and idealizes the task ahead of her when she envisions;

 

“I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age and I should know at once how to win their confidence and affections; how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid, and console the afflicted;”

 

Her naive notions are shattered almost at once when the least of her endeavors proves to be much harder than she anticipated.  In this way, Agnes falls into her own flower-covered hazard of reality.  The fall is quick, for she makes the following assertion in Chapter 4, not even 50 pages into the novel;

 

“ – a more arduous task than anyone can imagine, who has not felt something like the misery of being charged with the care and direction of a set of mischievous, turbulent rebels, whom his utmost exertions cannot bind to their duty,”

 

19th century governesses were quite isolated socially and Agnes’ loneliness reflects this.   Their superiors kept them at a condescending distance, while their inferiors, the lower servants of the house, often regarded them with either a respectful distance or an indifferent/scornful distance.  There was no other person in the household that held an equal rank to the governess who could serve as a confidant.   To this effect, a common complaint of Agnes’ was her lack of friends and companions.

In her two positions as a governess, Agnes must also contend with pupils who are unruly, lack fellow feeling, believe that everything should be arranged for their amusement, are unremorseful, and are cruel to animals.*

*Note: Cruelty to animals comes up again and again in Agnes Grey.  While Bronte believed in treating animals compassionately and as companions, it was not uncommon in her day to view animals as lesser beings that are merely on earth for the convenience and amusement of humans.  Therefore, Agnes’ compassion in contrast to the irreverence of others serves as a criticism of the view that animals could be treated harshly without consequence.

While Agnes is not very sympathetic towards the children, she does recognize that they are corrupted by their environment and the adult influences in their lives.  The upper class parents and other adults in the novel are depicted as cold, callous, and uninvolved.  They possess a bloated sense of entitlement, which they pass along to their children.

The only characters who are presented sympathetically in this novel are Agnes and others of the lower classes.  All of the upper class characters are deplorable and have little, if any, common decency.  They never do or say anything that is redeemable in the slightest.  I found myself loathing all of them just as Agnes did and I believe that this was intentional; we are not meant to like certain characters.

I will admit that when I first finished the novel, before I’d given it much thought, it irked me that Bronte’s characters were not more transformative.  While the characters are well-depicted, all of them, including Agnes, are rather one-dimensional.  At the novel’s beginning, Agnes’ downfall is her lack of life experience.  At the novel’s end, she has gained a great deal of life experience, but what has she learned from it?

Though none of the characters are very evolutionary or introspective, I hesitate to dwell on this too heavily.  It occurs to me that perhaps transformative characters are not the point; perhaps Bronte intentionally left her characters flat in order to keep attention on her social critique. Agnes Grey is meant to represent the path of goodness, contrasting with the upper class families with which she is forced to contend, who are meant to reverberate the immorality of decadence.  Maybe any transformation on either side would have softened the contrast she meant to render in her depiction.

My final thoughts: Bronte does not hide her intention with this novel.  Her purpose is quite clear from the beginning, and she addresses you, the reader, directly many times throughout the novel just in case you’ve forgotten that she’s talking to you, trying to tell you something.  Agnes is at times preachy and at times self-righteous; (if I knew her in real life her piety would no doubt annoy and exasperate me) however, this aspect does not overshadow the talent of Anne Bronte in crafting a simple, elegant, and yes, moralistic story.  I didn’t find Agnes Grey to be as captivating as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but Anne’s writing is fluid, her story is engaging, and it was well worth the short time that it took to read it.

 

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The Victorian Challenge: A List of Possibilities

victorian challenge buttonAs I mentioned last week, one of the challenges that I’m really excited about for 2011 is The Victorian Challenge hosted by Bethany at words, words, words.  I had already planned to concentrate on Victorian literature in 2011 and hopefully this challenge will help me stick to that goal.  Now I know better than to post a rigid list of books that I intend to read so I’m going to post some possibilities below and commit to reading at least 5 – 9 of them.  This is the “Great Expectations” level of the four-level challenge.  I *hope* for an actual count of at least 15 but (sigh)I know myself too well and how easily I can get sidetracked or carried off in another direction.

 

Here are a few selections that I’m considering:

Thomas Hardy

I hope to complete my reading of Hardy’s novels in 2011.  These few will not finish that task but they are some of the more popular selections that I have left.

  • The Woodlanders
  • Jude the Obscure
  • Under the Greenwood Tree

The Brontes

  • Jane Eyre (a re-read) by Charlotte
  • Shirley by Charlotte
  • Wuthering Heights (a re-read) by Emily
  • Agnes Grey by Anne

George Eliot

  • Silas Marner
  • The Mill on the Floss
  • Adam Bede

Elizabeth Gaskell

  • North and South
  • Mary Barton
  • Cranford

Anthony Trollope

  • Barchester Towers
  • The Way We Live Now
  • Phineas Finn

Charles Dickens

  • Bleak House
  • David Copperfield

Oscar Wilde

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray

As with the Classics Challenge, you can see from this list that I have a little trouble with pinning myself down to specific reading commitments.  At least I am settled into my reading habits well enough now that I know to keep my parameters wide!