Jude the Obscure is significant for two reasons – one, being Thomas Hardy’s last novel and two, the topics the novel covers. The criticisms Hardy received for Jude caused Hardy to become disillusioned with novel writing which is such a shame because it’s a remarkable book and Hardy is a very talented, if a little bleak, writer.
The story follows Jude Fawley from childhood where he is inspired by a leaving teacher to study and hope to one day become a university student at the collegial town of Christminster, dubbed the most religious town in England. Sadly, it seems that from the beginning, Jude is doomed to a life of poverty and bleakness. When he is older, Jude is apprenticed to a stonemason and as he learns his trade by day, he studies biblical texts in ancient Greek and Latin by night using old and superseeded copies of the texts. At 19, Jude is seduced by Arabella Donn, the local pig farmer’s daughter, and after a quick courtship and one drunken night, the two are quickly married which also kills any hope of Jude ever attending university.
The marriage fails after a few months and Arabella leaves Jude to go to Australia with her family. Jude also leaves his hometown of Marygreen and finally travels to Christminster, finding work as a stonemason. At Christminster, Jude is disappointed by how its students and academics treats him, looking down at him and unable to see past his poverty. As Jude works his way around Christminster, doing numerous restoration work, it only serves to hammer in Jude’s longing to attend the university and to satiate his hunger for learning.
The Christminster ‘sentiment’, as it has been called, ate further and further into him; till he probably knew more about those buildings materially, artistically, and historically, than any one of their inmates. – p. 102
Jude’s dreams are finally crushed when he writes to the master of one of the colleges who replies with a condescending letter advising Jude to stick to his way of life and trade. After a drunken night out, Jude retaliates by writing on the walls of the college:
I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these? Job xii. 3. – p. 142
Quitting his job and returning home, a bitter Jude confesses to a clergyman
Well, here I am, just come home; a fellow gone to the bad; though I had the best intentions in the world at one time. Now I am melancholy mad, what with drinking and one thing and another. – p. 150
While in Christminster, Jude also meets and falls in love with his headstrong, intelligent and seemingly emancipated cousin, Sue Bridehead. Having been alone ever since her father disowned her for living with a man, with the two sharing a platonic relationship, in London for two years, Jude manages to find teaching work for her with his old teacher, Mr. Phillotson, who was the original inspiration for Jude’s academic dream. To Jude’s dismay, Mr. Phillotson proposes to Sue who accepts on the condition of a two year engagement while she attends a teaching school. After spending a night out with Jude, Sue is expelled from the school and she marries Mr. Phillotson to clear both Jude’s and her name.
Like Jude’s, Sue’s marriage soon begins to fail when she discovers that she can’t let go of Jude. The two share a passionate and fiery bond and who believes that their beliefs are far too advanced for the times of their day. Sue asks Phillotson to let her go live with Jude and he eventually agrees, later giving her a divorce.
‘And do you mean, by living away from me, living by yourself?’
‘Well, if you insisted, yes. But I meant living with Jude.’
‘As his wife?’
‘As I choose.’
Sue continued: ‘She, or he, “who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” J. S. Mill’s words, those are. I have been reading it up. Why can’t you act upon them? I wish to, always.’ – p. 267
Jude and Sue live happily together for several years and overcoming various obstacles including the return of Arabella. The only problem is Jude and Sue’s reluctance at marrying, preferring to only live together on their own free will.
‘I just have the same dread lest an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, as it did between our unfortunate parents.’ – p. 307
This becomes increasingly problematic when the children come and they are continuously shunned by their community, causing them to move to different towns every so often. Their time together comes to an end after an incident to their three children causing deep distress in Sue who believes she is being punished for choosing to lead the life she wanted. She leaves Jude and returns to Phillotson leaving Jude stricken and lost.
Jude is a sad read, a tale of a man and woman who are eventually beaten down by social constructs and unable to rise despite their intellect and enthusiasm. Jude’s inability to enter university is crushing especially when it is clear Jude has the intelligence and diligence to deserve a place in the ancient university halls that were theoretically designed for people like him:
‘You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’ – p. 181
Sue and Jude’s dismay of the idea of marriage is probably the most controversial aspect in the novel, with the two preferring to live together as unbound partners. The fact that all their union was missing was a piece of paper is irrational particularly since the two have demonstrated that the sanctity of marriage license has not saved their first marriages. The book is quite racy, in comparison with the other Victorian novels. Copious amounts of alcohol and obvious sexual relations take place and proven when there are children.
It’s a pretty devastating novel, particularly since it was Hardy’s last. The poor man was crucified for daring to explore the ideas of sex, marriage and relationships. Ironically enough, I thought it was a quite religious read too with many references to the bible going over my head. A very bleak read but very rewarding. It has also made me highly appreciative of having attended university!
If you are still reading this very long review, this is a great trailer for the book. This was really what made me want to read the book because I didn’t know anything about it.
Beware: there are spoilers in it.