Earlier this week, someone asked me if I was reading anything good. I had to pause before I answered, because I was still in the middle of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. It’s a classic, sure. It’s well written. But good? It’s not a feelgood read. It also turns out that the contemporary reaction to Jude was such that Hardy gave up writing novels for the rest of his life.
Jude the Obscure has a (deserved) reputation as a difficult, anti-marriage novel. Like all of the other Hardy novels I’ve read, lives spin out of control and no one finds happiness. Jude’s sin, as I saw it, was that he wanted what he couldn’t have. As a child, Jude built up a dream to be a scholar in Christminster, a city based on Oxford and Cambridge. Jude taught himself Latin and Greek and read the classics. But his dream is almost immediately derailed. Then Jude falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead. He will not rest until he’s won her love—even though both of them are married to other people when they fall in love with each other. But let me start at the beginning.
Jude is raised by his Aunt Drusilla, who doesn’t like him. She constantly tells him about his parents’ tragic relationship and informs him that it would have been better if he had followed them into their graves. Jude develops a one-sided love affair with scholarship. He begs used books off of travelers. He carves his wish to attend Christminster into a mile marker on the road to the city from his village. He works and saves for years until, in his late teen years, he meets Arabella Donn. Arbella catches his eye and inspires deep lust in Jude. She even tricks him into marrying her by faking a pregnancy. Jude spends his little spare cash to set up a household with Arabella and gives up his dream to be a scholar. Within months, Arabella gets fed up with Jude and emigrates with her family to Australia.
Jude does eventually move to Christminster, where he gets work as a stone mason. He sends letters to various dons at the colleges, but they either ignore him to tell him to stick to stoneworking. Jude finds his dream crushed and turns his back on the college. He then plans to teach himself to be a minister, but he meets Sue at this point and, once again, falls in deep lust. His attraction deepens for her, but Sue keeps him at arms’ length. Everyone around them can see that they’re in love with each other, though they both pretend (to themselves and others) that they just have a deep, Platonic friendship. Sue even marries another man, Mr. Phillotson, who gave her a job as a teacher and encouraged her to go to a training school.
Sue—who I found more interesting than Jude—soon develops an aversion to her husband. She can’t bear for him to touch her. After only a few years, Sue asks Phillotson to release her to go live with Jude. When Phillotson divorces her, and Arabella divorces Jude, Jude presses her to marry him. But Sue has come to view marriage as “a sordid contract, based on material convenience in householding, rating, and taxing, and the inheritance of land and money by children, making it necessary that the male parent should be known” (Part IV, Chapter II*). Sue systematically argues Jude away from marriage. She also refuses to tell Jude that she loves him. For the longest time, she refuses to sleep with him, though Jude pressures her repeatedly. (This really bothered me about Jude.) Sue only gives in when Arabella shows up.
Hardy starts to skip ahead in the story at this point. Jude has a hard time keeping a job. A few times, he is fired when his employers find out that Jude and Sue aren’t married. They’re also taking care of Jude and Arabella’s son, a disturbingly somber child everyone calls Little Father Time. Each time we rejoin the couple, they’re a little worse off. And they have more children. Then Hardy twists the screws even more when Little Time kills his siblings and himself “because we are too menny” (Part VI, Chapter II). This is too much, for the reader and Sue. Sue decides to punish herself by remarrying Phillotson and forcing herself to be “a good wife” to him in spite of her aversion. Jude ends up being tricked into remarrying Arabella before deliberately catching a fatal illness.
Jude the Obscure is going to haunt me for a long time. It’s a bold work for 1895. (It’s still a bold work.) Sue and Jude deliberately turn their backs on marriage for so long. Yet everything was against them. The more I read of Hardy, the more I view him as an anti-Victorian. He is constantly pointing out how people naturally fail to live up to the moral standards they set for themselves. Instead of modifying the rules, they punish themselves and others for infractions. Sue fascinated me. She’s anything but a typical Victorian woman. At times, even Jude accuses her of being “sexlesss,” unwomanly, cold, satirical, even blasphemous. She’s a feminist before we had the term. When Sue goes off the rails at the end, I truly felt for her—more than I did for Jude.
Jude is not a strong person. Except for Sue, Jude turns away from his goals when barriers spring up. He has no follow through. When he does follow through on his pursuit of Sue, he comes across as a man who’s read too much advice from pick up artists. He won’t take Sue’s no for an answer. He sulks and broods and needs women to nurse him because he can’t (or won’t) take care of himself. It would have been amazing if Hardy had made Sue his primary protagonist. That book would have been mind-blowing.
* All quotes from the Project Gutenberg edition.