August 1, 2010

Review: "Jude the Obscure" By Thomas Hardy

A few days ago I finished Thomas Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure.  I was completely overwhelmed and truly needed a few days to reflect upon the experience and collect my thoughts before attempting a review.  Bear in mind too, that this is the first time that I have read Jude, and I sincerely believe that this novel may require a lifetime of reading and study in order to fully tease out and understand the import of Hardy's message.

First, a little background about the novel.  This novel took Hardy sometime to write.  He started with an outline in 1890, and did not complete the book until 1894.  It was first published serially in Harper's New Monthly Magazine from December 1894 to November 1895, and then it was published in book form.  Hardy took a lot of heat for the novel from reviewers and critics, other authors, as well as the general public.  It developed a reputation as Jude the Obscene.  The relentlessness and vitriol of the negative criticism caused Hardy to forsake ever writing another novel of fiction; and he spent the remaining thirty some odd years of his life concentrating on his poetry.

I also want to include, at this point, a strong 'Spoiler Warning.'  In crafting this review, and discussing Hardy's authorial intent, I am finding it quite impossible not to discuss some relatively important plot points and elements.  Therefore, continue reading at your own peril.  All I can observe is that regardless of what I can say, or what you may have heard about this novel, it is a monumentally huge novel that simply must be read by any and all students of great literature.  Okay, consider yourself forewarned.

In some respects, Jude the Obscure can be looked upon as the coming of age story of Jude Fawley.  Others have postulated that it is also an anti-bildungsroman as it documents, as we shall see, the slow and torturous destruction of Jude and his ideals.  Interestingly, this is the only Hardy novel, that I am aware of, that starts with the protagonist as a child and follows him through his life.

In Jude the Obscure, Hardy addresses the prevailing Victorian attitudes associated with social class and standing, educational opportunities, religion, the institution of marriage, and the influence of Darwinism on modern thought.  Throughout the novel, Jude, Sue Bridehead, and Arabella Donn are used by Hardy to explore and develop the all-encompassing portrait; and to some degree, indictment; of the society and time that Jude and Hardy reside in.  It seems that the novel sets up an examination of the contrasts between the idealistic romanticism of the second generation poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom Hardy truly admired), and the more modern cultural movement of social Darwinism.

First and foremost, this is a novel of ideas and ideals.  Jude is a sensitive young fellow, always concerned with the lot of the animals and people around him.  As a child he is even dismayed at seeing trees cut down, and can't bring himself to scare away the 'rooks' (crows) that are eating the seed from a newly planted field that he's been paid to protect.  Later, as an adult he is compelled to leave his bed late at night and find the rabbit, screaming with pain, that has been caught in a trap and dispatch it as an act of mercy.  These are some of the first signs of Jude-the-romantic, and Jude-the-dreamer.  The ideals he has formed are something really quite different from that of the world around him, and this can't bode well for him.

The first third of the novel focuses on Jude's desire to become an educated man and become admitted to the great colleges of 'Christminster' (loosely modeled on Oxford) in Hardy's 'Wessex' countryside.  Jude, like Hardy, is an autodidact and teaches himself Greek and Latin, and views Christminster as the "city of lights" and "where the tree of knowledge grows."  Jude's romantic visions and ideals suffer a terrible blow when he is denied admittance to the colleges and is advised that "remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade..." is his best course of action.  Idealism aside, Jude now begins to understand that his social class and standing will continue to strongly influence his future.

Issues associated with Love and Marriage also dominate much of the novel's landscape, and can be quite painful to read and consider.  Early on, Jude is essentially trapped into a truly disastrous marriage with the attractive, but coarse young woman, Arabella Donn, the daughter of a pig-farmer.  Trust me, she can slaughter the animals that Jude cannot.  Arabella's 'unique' method of introducing herself to Jude is to throw a bloody pig's penis at him as he walks by while she is cleaning and sorting the offal of a slaughtered hog!  Simply put, Arabella is the 'Delilah' to Jude's 'Samson.'

Jude's young cousin, Sue Bridehead, on the other hand, is at times, one of the most erudite and intellectual women of the fiction of the late-Victorian.  Ethereal and fairy-like, Sue is an idealist too, but her idealism tends towards a more modern view; even though some its roots reflect that of the second generation Romantics too.  For example, Sue quotes to Jude, several lines from Shelley's great poem, Epipsychidion (Three Sermons on Free Love).  At first blush, it seems easy to assume that Sue endorses the Shelleyan view of 'Free Love' and not binding oneself contractually and exclusively to only one other.  While Shelley meant this from the perspective of sexual gratification, Sue has developed her own brand of romantic idealism that leads her to believe that it is only the iron-clad contract (marriage) that dooms the relationship.

I had to spend some time thinking about Sue and her beliefs, but I have come to the preliminary conclusion that neither she, nor Hardy, are anti-marriage, but that it is the nature of the contract of marriage in the Victorian age (i.e., with all of its trappings of submission, subjugation, and so forth) that doom its likelihood of long-term success in her view.  In fact, in support of this notion, Hardy made a notebook entry in 1889, in which he writes, "Love lives on propinquity, but dies of contact."

It seems that Hardy's development of the character of Sue Bridehead and the novel's storyline may reflect a portion of his own troubled relationship with his wife Emma and her increasing religious beliefs through the years of their own marriage.  Also, it may well be that Sue's character reflects a bit of Hardy's cousin, Tryphena Sparks, a woman that he is rumored to have had an affair with in 1868, and who later died in 1890.  Hardy, in the Preface to the 1895 edition of  Jude, stated that the novel was partly inspired "by the death of a woman" in 1890.

Even though Sue Bridehead bears children with Jude, sexual relations and intimacy remains a very difficult proposition for her.  For example, when married to her first husband, Richard Phillotson, she is startled awake by him entering her bedroom absentmindedly (they slept in separate rooms), and she leaps from a second story window into the night rather than sleep with him!  Again, much of the time she is with Jude, they also sleep in separate bedrooms, which has the effect of keeping Jude's passions for her quite 'hot'.  This is not, however, the romantic ideal of the loving wife and life-mate that Jude has envisioned for his dear Sue though.  It is also not the picture of romantic idealism for Sue either, as she is truly looking for a partner through which she can fully experience Love's spiritual and intellectual bonds, and not just the contractual or the sexual.

Toward the end of the novel there occurs such a shocking event that finally and irrevocably alters the lives of Jude and Sue, and largely severs their tenuous emotional and spiritual bonds to one another.  The romantic ideals of both are smashed hopelessly and simply cannot be reassembled.  Modernization has come and displaced the old world romanticism of Jude Fawley and Thomas Hardy.  Jude-the-Dreamer and Jude-the-Idealist have no place in this new order, because to transcend to his ideals means that he must die as Keats and Shelley so eloquently discovered.  Unfortunately for Jude, even Arabella is present to witness his final suffering and agony.  Jude's story has become, in a very real sense Hardy's modern retelling of the 'Book of Job.'  [Note the word play too -- the "J" from 'Jude' and the "Ob" from 'Obscure']

As I said above, I have a sense that I have probably only just scratched the surface of this titanic novel, and that there is much, much more to glean.  It is full of allusion and metaphor, and rife with biblical references and nods to Hardy's literary ancestors, Milton, Wordsworth, and Shelley.  Before I tackle Jude again, or re-read any of his other novels for that matter, I want to first read Claire Tomalin's recent biography, Thomas Hardy (2006); Rosemarie Morgan's Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (1988); and also delve into Thomas Hardy: The Complete Poems (1981), edited by James Gibson.

Read this novel!  When you are through, let me know; for I'd love to discuss it with you and see what you think too.  Five out of five stars for me.

[My review is based upon the Everyman's Library hardcover edition (No. 115), published by Alfred A. Knopf , 1992, 519 pages.  The book-jacket was created as a tie-in for the 1996 film adaptation entitled, Jude, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslett.  By the way, I am having an absolute devil of a time finding a DVD of this adaptation.  Any ideas?]


  1. Ive only ever watched the film of Jude and I had no idea what it was about when I started watching it but boy was I in for a shock. Ive always therefore meant to read the book eventually but have never got around to it (the only of his books I have read is far from the madding crowd)

  2. Lone Bear, this has been sitting on my bookshelf, like, forever. I think you just nudged it to the top of the pile. Thanks for the very thoughtful review.

  3. Wonderful review. I just reread Jude a couple of months ago and whole-heartedly agree that it could stand up to a lifetime of study. And I also agree that it's not marriage per se that Hardy is critiquing, but the trappings of marriage in Victorian England.

    I've just gotten a copy of the Tomalin bio, and I'm holding off on reading it for now, but I'm eager to get to it.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Jessica, Patrick, and Teresa! This was just an awesome book for me, and I find that I am still running it through my brain and thinking about it. I definitely plan to do some research reading to prep for my second round with "Jude." Cheers! Chris

  5. This was a book that I had always intended to read, but only recently started to do so – I am currently two thirds of the way through (although like most, I do know what is to come!)

    In short, I think this has to be one of the greatest books I have read; it has had quite an amazing effect on me; it captures so much about humankind (love, tragedy and yes - hypocrisy) - it just saddens you even more when you think about the completely underserving backlash Hardy received from it (but then again, that almost concretes the hypocrisy of the Victorian society he was describing – quite ironic!)

    I also happen live in the “real” geographic area that Hardy based his “Wessex” on, and I find for me, this just adds even more surrealism to the story – I literally do walk some of those paths, he so perfectly describes!

    It is a wonderful part of the world, told in a wonderfully thought provoking, albeit sad book – yet with occasional glimpses of pure Heaven during some of the more optimistic scenes.

  6. hiiiiiiii i am from morocco and i need ur help plz i've this year research paper about the use of feminism in jude the obscure and i need some references plz if ur intersted contact me this is my phone number 0654078651

  7. If you can share something more on the biblical reference on the book of Job especially on modern retelling of the 'Book of Job'. I will be greatly indebted to you. Thank you..