Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is another novel that I’ve heard referenced from time to time but knew absolutely nothing about. I literally mean nothing; I had always thought the title referred to a woman. Big hint: it doesn’t.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Thomas Mallon.)

To the contrary, Jude of Jude the Obscure is a young orphan boy at the start of the book. The schoolmaster he has recently taken some lessons from leaves for Christminster to hopefully attend college, and Jude dreams of following him. Jude teaches himself Greek and Latin from books and learns stone masonry so that he can one day travel to Christminster himself and hopefully find a way to go to college.

However, Jude lusts after a young girl name Arabella who has been taught to get herself in a family way so that she can snag a husband through his sense of honor:

“As he is a romancing, straightfor’ard, honest chap, he’s to be had, and as a husband, if you set about catching him in the right way.” 

Arabella remained thinking awhile.  “What med be the right way?” she asked. 

“Oh you don’t know–you don’t!” said Sarah, the third girl. 

“On my word I don’t!–No further, that is, than by plain courting, and taking care he don’t go too far!” 

The third girl looked at the second.  “She DON’T know!” 

“‘Tis clear she don’t!” said Anny. 

“And having lived in a town, too, as one may say!  Well, we can teach ‘ee som’at then, as well as you us.” 

“Yes.  And how do you mean–a sure way to gain a man?  Take me for an innocent, and have done wi’ it!” 

“As a husband.” 

“As a husband.” 

“A countryman that’s honourable and serious-minded such as he; God forbid that I should say a sojer, or sailor, or commercial gent from the towns, or any of them that be slippery with poor women!  I’d do no friend that harm!” 

“Well, such as he, of course!” 

Arabella’s companions looked at each other, and turning up their eyes in drollery began smirking.  Then one went up close to Arabella, and, although nobody was near, imparted some information in a low tone, the other observing curiously the effect upon Arabella. 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well, though Jude does marry her. Eventually she takes off for Australia without him and Jude travels to Chrisminster where he falls in love with his cousin, Sue. Of course, before his cousin knows of his love, or his previous marriage, she promises to marry Jude’s old schoolmaster. After learning of both Jude’s secrets, she goes ahead with the marriage even though the schoolmaster repulses her.

But, Sue soon leaves the schoolmaster for Jude. Still, things never go well. The judgment of a highly moralistic, church-based society follows them.  Sometimes this is through other people, causing a life of poverty and wandering, and sometimes this is through Jude and Sue themselves. As I’m sure everyone is aware, this is a pretty tragic novel.

I’ve heard that Hardy got lambasted pretty thoroughly over Jude the Obscure. There’s a lot that works together to keep everyone miserable in this book: church proscriptions against divorce, conventions about marriage, traditional senses of family duty, and all that. Even when freed, these things are so ingrained into at least some of the characters that they are never free enough to not be ruined. I’m not sure if the book is really anti any of those things, but it certainly presents the idea that these particular characters could not be happy in the face of such. As one might expect of a novel from 1895, Hardy got some negative attention. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the reception of Jude the Obscure is why he gave up writing fiction.

Would these characters still have been as unhappy if they had really been free (and felt so) to correct their unwise marriages and join together? Would they have been happier if marriage didn’t exist? I’m not sure that even that would have enabled these characters to not be miserable. They seemed kind of doomed to me. Still, being forced into expected roles without full knowledge of what they were doing and then being unable to do anything when it turned out to be the wrong thing sure didn’t help.

In any event, though these characters kind of seemed doomed regardless of anything anyone did, I enjoyed reading and did find Jude the Obscure to be well written. It sure isn’t cozy Saturday reading, but there’s a lot to wonder about in here about how we live with each other as human beings. At least, I suppose that’s my take away.

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