Desperate Remedies : Thomas Hardy’s First Novel

Desperate Remedies was Hardy’s first foray into novel writing, and while it isn’t nearly as good as his later work, I don’t think it was a “false start” as some suggest.  Hardy wrote his first novel to please publishers who wanted a story of sensation – and he delivered.  Desperate Remedies is full of mystery, murder, and romance.  I found myself working to unravel plot threads and thinking that I had it all figured out, only to have Hardy surprise me with some missing piece of the puzzle.

Beyond a work of sensation, Desperate Remedies contains traces of what would become Hardy’s signature elements such as fate, coincidence, class struggle, and naturalism.  While the characterizations are not as strong, the pastoral imagery not as vivid, and the writing not as lyrical as his later work, there are hints of all of those things that would become so fundamental to Hardy’s style.

Cytherea Graye pales in comparison to Tess Durbeyfield or Bathsheba Everdene, but she combines two seemingly opposing traits for which Hardy’s heroines are known – intelligence and naivety.  Like Bathsheba, Cytherea represents the height of womanhood.  She’s idealized – intelligent, innocent, graceful, and beautiful – but not flawless.

Rather than a false start, I see Desperate Remedies as a glimpse of the Hardy that was to come.  The aforementioned elements would later expand and evolve in his work, his rustic characterizations would deepen, the importance of setting would intensify, and he would learn to weasel his way around pesky publishers in order to stay true to his vision.

I wouldn’t recommend beginning an exploration of Hardy’s work with Desperate Remedies, but for the Hardy enthusiast, it’s an essential piece.



Published : 1871

O Captain! My Captain! – OR – How Walt Whitman Saved Me

When I was in 11th grade, I took a drama class as one of my electives.  As I was a rather reserved kid, this really threw me out of my comfort zone.  I mostly loved drama class, though I probably approached it with a bit more seriousness than it required – as I did with most things in those days.  Early in the year, we had a public speaking unit during which we recited short pieces revolving around different themes, such as prose, poetry, humor, etc.  I typically chose my pieces well in advance and practiced the hell out of them – to the point of over-rehearsing every pause, every inflection (hence the seriousness, spontaneous I was not).

There was, however, one exception . . .

On the eve of my poetry piece, I had selected no poem and didn’t have so much as a single book of poetry in my possession. This was before the “internet in every home” phenomenon, so with no other options, I stood in front of my father’s library of moldy books and began to pull volumes off the shelf.  One by one I would flip through them and one by one I would despairingly return them to their spot on the shelf. Eventually I realized that I was starting to pull the same books off the shelf over and over again.  I started to panic; and then I started to sneeze.  Most of these books hadn’t been touched since they were bought so I had stirred up quite a bit of dust in my search.  My dad had a sizable collection, but as I soon learned, these were mostly decorative antique volumes by obscure authors, none of them poets!

It was hopeless; but I kept yanking books off the shelf anyway.  What else was I going to do?  It was getting late and I started to plot how I could arrive at school early and beg to be let into the library.  I was just about to give up and go to bed when I found a tattered book of short stories for young boys.  As I flipped through the pages, I discovered that between every story there was a POEM!!  And where there was a poem, there was HOPE!!  A glimmer of beautiful, glorious hope!  Until I started to read the poems anyway.  Most of them were ridiculously simple verses with even simpler rhymes about things like balls and bikes and fishing lures.  Ugh.

Towards the end of the book, I reached a poem entitled O Captain! My Captain! My heart started to race.   As my red, allergen-infested eyes glanced over the words, I could feel hope welling up within me again.  After the first reading, I knew this was a poem I could respectably perform without being laughed out of the room.  After the second reading, I could feel the emotion, the expression, the sheer power behind the words.

At the time, I had no idea that the author of that poem was a well known poet.  I had never heard of Walt Whitman.  My drama instructor must have assumed that I knew because she made no mention of it.  I didn’t realize it until years later, when I studied Whitman in a college poetry class.  What I had thought was just an obscure verse in a yellowed and tattered book for boys was actually a famous poem by a great American bard!

And that is how Walt Whitman saved me.


The poem is actually a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with the “Captain” representing Lincoln.  The “ship” refers to the United States and the “fearful trip” alludes to the Civil War.


O Captain! My Captain!


O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is


The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.


O Captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores


For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.


My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and


From feartul trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.


Excerpt: Leaves of Grass – A Glimpse –

A glimpse through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the

. . . . . stove late of a winter night, and I unre-

. . . . .mark’d seated in a corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approach-

. . . . .ing and seating himself near, that he may

. . . . .hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drink-

. . . . .ing and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking lit-

. . . . .tle, perhaps not a word.

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances


OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations 
         after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful 
         fable only,
May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men,
         hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms— 
         May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only 
         apparitions, and the real something has yet to be 
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
         found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
         aught of them;)
May-be seeming to me what they are, (as doubtless 
         they indeed but seem,) as from my present point 
         of view—And might prove, (as of course they 
         would,) naught of what they appear, or naught 
         anyhow, from entirely changed points of view; 
—To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously 
         answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends; 
When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long 
         while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that 
         words and reason hold not, surround us and 
         pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom 
         —I am silent—I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that 
         of identity beyond the grave; 
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.


-Walt Whitman


Whitman logo

A Birthday Tribute to My Beloved Thomas Hardy

I happened to visit the blog, Subtle Melodrama, today and discovered there that today is Thomas Hardy’s birthday.

As regular readers of my blog know, Mr. Hardy is a beloved favorite author.

I read my first novel by him, Tess of D’Urbervilles in March of 2010 – just over one year ago.  I was charmed, dazzled, and enthralled.  I remember reading in bed at night and turning to my husband saying, “Man, this guy can write.  Listen to this . . . ”

But I’ll be honest, the story of Tess was so achingly tragic that I didn’t return to Hardy for many months.  I think I’ve said as much on this blog before but Tess is the only literary character that I’ve truly mourned in my adult life.

In August, Far From the Madding Crowd was the selection for a Goodreads reading group.  Had it not been for that, who knows how long it would have taken me to pick up one of Hardy’s novels again; but while reading that book, I knew I had landed on something really special.  While reading Far From the Madding Crowd, I became aware that I was reading way more than just a story.

Unread though I was (and by all accounts still am), I knew enough about Victorian literature to know that Bathsheba Everdene was an unconventional, if not revolutionary character.  She was independent, daring, and courageous.  She owned property.  She performed tasks and dealings typically limited to men.  In her own words she said,

I hate to be thought men’s property.”

Yet, she was still a woman – with all the desires of a woman.  And like any human being, male or female, she had desires that threatened to ruin her.

Over the course of the next year I would read five more of Hardy’s novels, more than 100 of his poems, and a small sampling of his short stories.  I soon learned that Bathsheba Everdene was not alone.  Hardy had more.  Character after character reflected the complexity of the human experience in a powerful way.  Hardy handled his characters and the landscapes that they inhabited with gorgeous depth and power.

My reading of Claire Tomalin’s biography this past March sealed my bond with Mr. Hardy.  Through her, I learned of Hardy’s personal and professional pursuits and tribulations.  I learned all sorts of interesting little tidbits like how Hardy wrote most of Far From the Madding Crowd outside, sometimes etching notes onto stones or even dead leaves!  That novel contains the most aptly written account of a thunderstorm that I’ve ever read, and rightfully so.  While Hardy penned those words, a storm was raging outside his window.  Perhaps these anecdotes seem inconsequential to the scope of his work, but those little insights strengthened the bond that I felt with his books.

hardy with his bikeTomalin’s biography also served to strengthen my affection for Hardy, the man, not just the novelist and poet.   Hardy was a tortured soul and suffered from bouts of despondency.  He deeply felt regret.  While he scarcely wrote a phrase about Emma, his first wife, while she was alive, he wrote poem after poem about her when she died – and all while he was married to someone else!  He was just as critical of the society that he inhabited as his novels reveal him to be.  Yet, he was also social.  He enjoyed parties and laughing with friends.  As an older man, he learned to ride a bicycle and became an enthusiast, riding as much as forty miles in a single day.  He was flirtatious and fell in love rather easily.  I also believe that in his later years he may have been a bit of a geezer.

My journey with Thomas Hardy has brought with it a strong sense of familiarity.  I feel like I know him.  If he were alive today, and chance and coincidence allowed, I think he’d be a friend.  And in a strange way, I see him as a friend now – through the life he left behind in his writing.  As friends do, I laugh with him.  I laugh at him.  We engage in profound “conversations” about life.  And yes, if you’ve ever read anything by him then you know I have also shed more than a few tears with him.

An unnamed critic once said that Hardy, “permanently enlarged the boundaries of one’s intellectual and emotional experience.”  This is precisely how I feel.  Reading Hardy has opened up something in my soul, in my being, that I didn’t know existed.  This is a hard thing to explain – but I do feel changed by reading Hardy.

If I still have this blog 10 years from now, I think you’ll still find me talking about him here.  He’s not a man whose life and work are easily exhausted.

Thomas Hardy

Happy 171st Birthday, Mr. Hardy.

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,

To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing

 . . . . . . flesh is enough,

To pass among them or touch anyone, or rest my arm ever

. . . . . . so lightly round his or her neck for a mo-

. . . . . .ment, what is this then?

I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.


There is something in staying close to men and women and

. . . . . . looking on them, and in the contact and

. . . . . . odor of them, that pleases the soul well,

All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.”

-Walt Whitman –  from  “I Sing the Body Electric”

Meandering: Whitman, Art, and a Question

image of bookI recently completed the brief biography simply titled, Walt Whitman, written by David Reynolds.  Reynolds puts forth concise biography that retains  a broad scope.  He touches on the logistics of Whitman’s life, his family, and the economic, cultural, and societal climate in which Whitman lived.  Beyond the logistics, Reynolds delivers a succinct explanation of the various things that inspired Whitman in writing his poetry – from politics, theater, and art,  to science, sex, and religion.  All of this serves as a good foundation and provides a springboard for delving deeper into the life and times of one of America’s greatest poets.

Regarding theater, in his own words, Whitman said that he spent his youth “absorbing theaters at every pore.”  As he grew older he became very theatrical in his day-to-day interactions, often “spouting” portions of Shakespeare with all manner of dramatics while walking the streets or riding the ferry.  Whitman also admired noteworthy lecturers and orators.  He confessed to a friend that he once desired to be a great orator, saying;

. . . I was to be an orator–to go about the country spouting my pieces, proclaiming my faith. . . I thought I had something to say–I was afraid I would get no chance to say it through books: so I was to lecture and get myself delivered that way.”

Apparently Whitman’s voice projection did not lend itself to being a great orator, but of course, Whitman  found his “voice” with poetry, which interestingly does have an oratorical quality to it.  Whitman remained passionate about oratory and his admiration for it is reflected in this excerpt:

O the orator’s joys!

To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the

ribs and throat,

To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,

To lead America–to quell America with a great tongue”

Whitman’s poetry contains numerous references to the philosophic, the spiritual, and the scientific. Reading about the sciences and pseudo-sciences that appealed to Whitman was intriguing!  For Whitman, the mystical and the scientific sat well together, as is implied by the inclusion of both in his poetry.  He looked to philosophy and religion to fill in the gaps left by science.  He did not believe in the exclusivity of any religion but embraced and celebrated them all.

All of those topics made for fascinating reading but I was perhaps most captivated by the chapter on the visual arts, in which Reynolds points to specific paintings and sculptures  that may have influenced his poetry.

The following are a few examples along with parallel excerpts from Whitman’s poems:

The Trapper’s Bride

image of painting

1850 - Alfred Jacob Miller

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was the red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was dressed mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.


Shooting for the Beef

image of painting

1850 - George Caleb Bingham

The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their
rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;



1862 - Frederic Edwin Church

Whitman expounded on the effects of light in poems like the one below, A Prairie Sunset.  So it is not unreasonable that he may have also felt an affinity with certain luminist painters such as Fredric Edwin Church.

Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;
The light, the general air possess’d by them-colors till now unknown,
No limit, confine- not the Western sky alone- the high meridian- North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.


I enjoy learning what artists think and believe about their own work in addition to the intention of art in general.  The artists that Whitman admired were the ones who, like him, depicted and elevated the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace.  Yet, he felt that there was something lacking in American art during his time.  While paintings such as these were picturesque and relevant to the common people, they were also complacent. He felt that art should include “heroic actions, especially revolutionary or subversive ones. (Reynolds, p.72)”  As Reynolds relates, Whitman “regarded art as a means of refining and elevating the masses.”  His dream was that society could be reformed by art.


I admire both Whitman’s idealism and ambition with this idea.   My own thoughts about what art should embody and project are somewhat pliant.  I do not have a background in art and my approach is very much learn as you go. I also appreciate George Eliot’s perspective, when she expressed, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

My inclination is to view the visual arts in the same way that I do literature.  It should be enjoyable on some level, yes, but I don’t look to literature for a diversion or to be entertained.  I want something with substance.  I want something that makes me feel awake and alive, alters my perspective, shakes my perceptions, and makes me ask questions, or do more research.  I want to read literature that is an expression of humanity, history, and ideas.

I want to read literature that has a pulse.

Of course, all of that is highly individualistic.  Though I admire Whitman for his stance, I’m not so sure that societies on a grand scale can be reformed or elevated through art.

What do you think?

The Brittanica Online Encyclopedia defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.”  Is it okay if art is merely aesthetically pleasing, or demonstrates a beyond-proficient use of a certain technique or skill — or should art communicate something more?

Any thoughts?


Thomas Hardy: a Biography by Claire Tomalin

book imageSimply put, I LOVED this book!

I will admit that I do not write from a place of objectivity here. I am totally enraptured by Mr. Hardy.  I recently finished and reviewed Jude the Obscure which marks the completion of my reading of his major works.  I have now read seven of his novels, and with each reading my love for him grew by leaps and bounds.  He is one of the most prolifically deep and soulful writers that I have yet encountered.

As for the biography, Tomalin manages to be detailed but not tedious – which in my view is no small feat.  Her writing is fluid, simple, and unpretentious.  She does not make too many assumptions.  I imagine that when compiling a biography, particularly for an enigmatic character like Hardy, it would be easy to infer too much.  Tomalin mostly sticks to what she can corroborate with  journals, letters, news articles and the like.  And her volume is well annotated.  Nearly every chapter (of which there are 24) lists no less than 40 citations.  Some notes simply supply the source while others expound with additional information to back up whatever claim is being made.  All in all, Tomalin puts forth an informed while also sensitive and poignant portrayal without being overly biased.

In line with the chronological happenings of Hardy’s life, Tomalin offers a synopsis and brief assessment of each of his major novels as well as a few of the minor ones.  More often, she incorporates timely excerpts from his poetry.  I was reading a volume of Hardy’s poems alongside this book so I appreciated Tomalin’s insights into the inspiration and events surrounding the writing of certain poems and her anecdotes also served to enhance both my enjoyment and understanding of specific poems.

There are also ruminations of Hardy’s boyhood, his adolescent flirtations, his carving out of a life in London, the literary transgressions on his way to becoming a writer, his lamentations through not one, but two, unfulfilling marriages, in addition to numerous accounts of literary figures that he rubbed elbows with.  I, for one, did my best to absorb every word of it.

image of emma hardy

Emma Gifford - Hardy's 1st wife -You can just look at this picture and tell that she is one who might have a flair for ridiculous tenacity.

I also ached for Hardy.  I know that he was by no means faultless in his relationships, but I sort of yearned for him to find true love the way I yearned for Jude to experience success.  Although by all accounts it doesn’t sound like he was the easiest person to live with, particularly in his old age.  I had to laugh at this little account of Hardy’s obstinacy whenever Florence (his second wife) tried to go anywhere:

He announced that he felt ill just as she was about to leave.  {Florence says,} ‘He began to put his papers in order and told me he was doing it lest he should die suddenly . . . By this time I began to think it would be wrong to leave him and so I . . . cancelled all my engagements . . . whereupon he suddenly became quite well.’”

I was enamored by all the seemingly insignificant little glimpses into Hardy’s daily life and idiosyncrasies.   Am I romanticizing him?  Sure I am.  I’m pretty sure that Florence didn’t find this behavior at all charming; but as a snippet in the life of a man I have so come to revere, I’ll admit, to me it’s endearing.  As I’m a bit phone-phobic myself, he totally won me over with his neuroses when I learned that he also apparently refused to answer the telephone when they had one installed.

If anything, this book has also served to increase my protectiveness of Hardy.  I respect everyone’s reading preferences and tastes but I will admit to feeling a twinge defensive when I hear people write off his work as “too tragic” or “overly depressing.”  To see Hardy’s work as merely tragic is to miss the point.  Of course, to overlook or downplay the tragedy would also be equally false.  As Tomalin relates specifically about the characters in Hardy’s novel, The Woodlanders;

To deny that their fate is tragic is to deny them their dignity and truth, and to miss Hardy’s gloomy point of the vulnerability of the poor.”

Hardy’s novels ARE tragic, but tragedy is not the essence of any of them.  Unfortunate events speak to larger issues – things like poverty, fate, the human condition, and societal constraints.  The tragic elements are more than mere sensationalism.

Tomalin also shares an appraisal of The Woodlanders in which the reviewer says that the book was “written with an indifference to the moral effect it conveys . . . {that} lowers the art of his works quite as it lowers the moral tone.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

It’s true that it’s easy to “miss the point,” as I said earlier, because the essence and substance of Hardy’s work is often subtle, but it IS there brimming below the surface, waiting to be unearthed with a little extra time and contemplation.  The fact that most of his novels lack an overtly stated moral message or a didactic tone infinitely ADDS to the artistry of his work, rather than the opposite.  I am no writer but I imagine that it’s easier to write with a heavy hand than it is to image of magic eyeconstruct an elusive mosaic of ideas that only comes into view with some reflection and scrutiny.  I liken it to looking at one of those “Magic Eye” pictures that were popular when I was a kid in the 90s.  At first glance they appear to be just an obscure and convoluted swirl of colors – with the embedded image only coming into view with special focus and attention.

It was no secret that the book would end with Hardy’s death, obviously I was aware of the inevitability of that – but I won’t lie, I shed a tiny tear.  That tear was indicative of mixed emotion – I felt the natural remorse of death that comes with witnessing the course of a great man’s life from boyhood through old age.  I felt sad for him in a way, seeing what a tortured soul he was.  Mostly, I felt the bittersweet triumph of his accomplishments blended with the impermanence of life.  It might seem like an odd reaction.  But somehow it feels strangely appropriate that a major theme of his work should well up upon beholding the events of his life.


Published: 2007

My Rating:  ***** 5/5


P.S. I have NO idea what the Magic Eye image is supposed to be.

Listen to Whitman!

And I mean that literally!

Imagine my excitement when I was perusing the internet last night and came across at The Walt Whitman Archive a sound recording from 1890 of what is very likely Walt Whitman’s actual voice!

The recording is a bit muddled and raspy but how many times do you get to hear the voice of an author, poet, or anyone for that matter, who died before the turn of the 20th century?!?

It seems almost too good to be true.

In fact, many skeptics thought as much when the recording was first released in 1992 at the Whitman Centennial Conference held at the University of Iowa.  An article by Ed Folsom entitled The Whitman Recording (published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review) reveals that the recording was part of the Roscoe Haley Collection.  Roscoe Haley was a New York City elevator operator whose apartment was found to be chock full of recordings, books, and papers when he died in 1982.  When the find was unearthed, it generated some skepticism.  In an NPR report, Sam Brylawski of the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress asserted that the recording “has either been exceptionally well equalized or it’s a fake.”  He expounds further,

. . . recording  in  the  1890s  was  crude  at  best.  . . .  All recordings were  enormously  noisy.  What you  have  here on this  recording is  a voice  that  comes  through  really  loud  and  clear.  The  surface  noise  on  the cylinder is  pretty much in the  background.”

However, not everyone agreed with Brylawski.

You see, there is a letter from the Edison Institute dated from 1889 and signed by Thomas Edison himself in which he expresses a desire to get a recording of the great American poet’s voice.  Experts who have knowledge of Edison’s wax-cylinder method believe that the recording could be authentic.  One such expert, Dave Beauvais asserts,

{R}ecordings  of  pre-World War  I  vintage,  exhibit this  superlative  richness,  balance,  and freedom from distortion in the lower and middle portions of the audible spectrum. They sound  like  they’ve  been  perfectly  equalized- but that’s  just  the  way  they  were  cut, acoustically . . . .  The  near-perfect equalization was inherent in the Edison process.”

Beauvais also comments on the authenticity of the voice in the recording, revealing that the accent within it would have been very difficult to emulate.

It  exhibits a quaint and subtle regional inflection – a  soft mix of  Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of  the contemporary New York accent -which has  quite literally  disappeared in  our age.  No one  speaks this  way  any  more. The  notion  that  someone  might  have  set  out  to  imitate  such  a  subtle  and nuanced  archaic  inflection  strains  credibility  just  a  bit . “

You can listen to the recording for yourself by clicking the link below or visit The Walt Whitman Archive and click on “Pictures and Sound.”

It amounts to 36 seconds and 4 lines of the 6-line poem entitled, America. I’ve included the text of the poem below as it’s somewhat difficult to understand in the recording.

Hear Whitman Speak!


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.




Jude the Obscure





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.


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