And ultimately brilliant.
In 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.
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.
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 . . .
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. . .
My Rating: ***** 5/5