Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

When I finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, one of my first thoughts was that this novel must be approaching the high end of what can be achieved by the art form. This is the second novel I have read by Hardy, the first being Tess of the d'Urbervilles which I read as a teenager, and remember being very moved by the plight of Tess. 

It is of course quite difficult to review these esteemed classics as I am sure there are numerous literary scholars who can, and have, done a better job at dissecting all of the authors intentions and contexts etc.  So I will limit this review to a very sketchy description of the plot and my general impressions, and of course what I liked about it.

Jude the Obscure is Hardy's last novel and was  published in 1896.  My understanding is that there was quite a furore after the publication, because of Hardy's frank treatment of issues around sex, marriage and religious themes in the novel.  The novel also slams the exclusivity of the higher learning institutions of England at the time.

The story begins with Jude as a young boy who is reluctantly taken in by his great aunt, who is a baker in a small town in west England, after both his parents die from illness.  Jude works hard, and becomes a stone mason, but his real passion is for classic learning and he teaches himself as much as he can get his hands on, forever hoping that if he just saves enough money, he will be able to attend one of the illustrious universities of a nearby town.  Jude marries early in the novel to the sensual and pragmatic Arabella, but quickly comes to regret this decision after falling in love with his cousin Susanna, who is quite the opposite to Arabella, being ethereal and intellectual.  Jude and Susanna's disastrous efforts to be together drive the rest of the narrative.

There are numerous themes and layers to the novel.  A few immediately jump out and the other really juicy ones, crept up on me, and aren't fully realised until the final conclusion.  From the outset it is very clear that Hardy is making a statement about the barriers to a man of humble means bettering himself with a higher education, if that is his passion.  One of the moments of most poignancy for me in the novel was a scene towards the end, when the reader learns that throughout his whole blighted life, Jude has carried around with him, his much loved texts, even after his dream of being admitted to university has long faded. 

Then there are the unusually frank themes of marriage and sex, both inside and outside of marriage.  Hardy goes where I am sure no one had gone before in laying bare what marriage meant for the various characters, including from the religious and sexual perspective.  All very extraordinary I am sure for a novel of that era.

And then, there are of course the characters themselves, and the amazingly self-destructive nature of Jude and Susanna's relationship.  I do wonder if other readers of this novel grew to be genuinely irritated by Sue (the ethereal, and intellectual one)?  My take on her is that she is self absorbed to the point of narcissism and that the strongest point in the whole novel is really Jude's unwillingness to tear himself from her, even when the scales are removed from his eyes and he acknowledges to himself, that she is awful and his pursuit of her has caused him nothing but frustration and loneliness.

Arabella, Jude's early wife on the other hand, was a far more likable character, even though Hardy goes to great lengths to paint her as a wanton woman of very dubious morals.  Unlike Jude and his cousin Sue, Arabella demonstrates far more common sense, and even wisdom, when it comes to matters of human relations, than Jude and Sue combined.

The novel is a sweeping and gorgeously realised portrait of a man who is indeed thwarted by the social conventions and limitations of the time, but ultimately, it is his own inner conflicts and self delusion that undoes him.  All of the characters in the novel represent something about him, it is very clever.

Hardy is an expert in exploring the inner workings of his characters, much more so than his use of spoken dialogue.  About half way through the novel I noticed that the characters, especially Jude, were forever walking around, and between, the villages and towns where the story takes place, in every sort of weather.  The walking not only allows for the characters to reflect on what is happening, but of itself, creates this amazing sense of restlessness: the pacing and exertion and not being able to settle and relax.  Jane Austen and her genteel parlours, this is not.

I guess what I am saying is that I became involved with the characters, especially Jude, more than I expected, to the extent that in the last couple of days, when life kept me from finishing the final chapters, I found myself thinking of the novel often and wanted to sneak away to find out what happened.  I don't know about you but, but nineteenth century literature normally does not grip me like that.  So of course, I would recommend this to all; it is one of those books that feels like a priviledge to read, and I also thoroughly enjoyed it.


  1. Superb review! I read Jude a year or so ago, and was blown away. It really is a profoundly powerful novel on so many levels, as you point out. Jude's experiences continually reminded me of the biblical Job. Hardy certainly explores many of the themes raised in Jude in many of his poems. I encourage you to find yourself a copy of his Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (Palgrave, 2001). It'll provide endless hours of enjoyment. Cheers! Chris

  2. Sigh, this book always received great reviews and yet all I can think about is Tess of the DÚrbervilles which I really couldn't stand. It leaves me confused - to read or not to read?

  3. A marvelous post-I have recently read a number of the short stories of Hardy and really enjoyed them a lot-I thing my next Hardy novel will be the Mayor of Casterbridge for the simple reason that I have a copy-I hardily (OK sorry) endorse his short stories

  4. Wonderful review Mel!

    I loved Tess, and liked The Mayor of Casterbridge; I have not read Jude, but after your review I am anxious to pull it off the library shelves. Books that call to you to pick them up again when you are not reading them are to be sought out at all costs I think :)

  5. Chris - thank you for the recommendation re his poems, I will get this.

    Becky - not standing a book is a powerful disincentive for sure, and I loved Tess, so can not help. I will say this, from memory, it is a long time since I read Tess, there is some similarity in the tone of the novels, that sense of longing and regret, and lots of walking, but the plot is very different. And I think Jude is the stronger novel, it is a beautiful whole, nothing wasted.

    Mel U - I can hardy(ha) wait to read them!

    TheBookGirl - Many thanks and yes, it is definitely a good sign when a novel is bubbling away in our heart and mind after we have put it down :)


Comments are very welcome.