Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jude the Obscure | Thomas Hardy

It's been more than a month since I finished reading "Jude the Obscure", and I'm a little frightened that I won't do this book justice with my review.  Thomas Hardy, as always, is best reviewed in layers... and there are so many layers it is impossible to do the book proper justice without writing a 20 page disertation.  I've likened Hardy to a master chess player, as noted in previous reviews of "Tess of D'Urbervilles" and "The Mayor of Casterbridge," as he seems to always be thinking a few steps ahead and in the end, all you can do is look at your fallen king with horror and a strange feeling of awe and wonderment at what has transpired.  There are so many themes present, so many jabs at english society and cautions for the future.  As such, "Jude the Obscure" was set in prototypical Hardy style.

The theme of the novel is primarily an assessment of societal constructs, and how these norms influence people in society.  Most critics of this work at the time, felt that the attack on the church (and the sanctity of marriage) was disgraceful.  In addition, "the book caused further strain on Hardy's already difficult marriage because Emma Hardy was concerned that Jude the Obscure would be read as autobiographical" [from Wikipedia].  Hardy never wrote another work of fiction again, after the reception this novel received.  Little did he know that his thoughts would become more accepted over time amongst the majority in english society, and that divorce would become so prevalent in society that more than half of the people in North America have experienced it.

The character development was something you would expect from a Hardy work.  Fringe characters were microcosms for the evil inherent in society and human beings in general, and women were portrayed in the extreme - stereotypically and one-dimensional.  The main protagonist, Jude Fawley was a flawed man with a good heart... and he was a dreamer.  His upbringing, like characters in Dicken's english works, was a difficult and lonely one... Jude being left to his aunt who put him to work and treated him harshly.  As such, Jude never grew up with other children or with an authority figure to steer him in the right direction.  His extremist nature caused him to lose track of his dreams to become a scholar, and he was entrapped into a marriage with the first girl he had feelings for.

After becoming estranged from his conniving wife, Jude falls in love with his cousin Sue who eventually weds out of obligation to Jude's old school teacher.  However, Sue is in love with Jude, and eventually leaves her husband to be with him.  Things go well for a time, and both become divorced from their spouses.  Sue is relectant to wed, and the two live 'in sin', moving from town to town as their welcome is worn out.  They have a few children together and tragedy eventually strikes the couple soon after little "Father Time" arrives, a child from Jude's first marriage. Sue believes that God is punishing her for her sins, and attempts to rectify them at the sake of her happiness.  I will leave Hardy to tell the rest.

The work was typically Hardy in its inevitable tragedy, a point Hardy defends by stating that authors should write what they know, because it produces better literature.  I tend to agree.

Hardy's extensive vocabulary is usually restrictive in the flow of the work.  The two works mentioned above had similar flaws in this regard, but I found no such trouble with the flow in "Jude the Obscure."

It's easy to experience anger at the decisions of both Jude and Sue, the former to abandon his goal to be a scholar and the latter, her constant desire for self-punishment.  Jude's decisions can be chalked up to a naivity about life and a passionate disposition, while Sue seems to enjoy creating her own drama.  Both characters are never fully comfortable in society, either due to society's constructs or due to their own volition. The foreshaddowing of problems with the Fawley's in marriage seems to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and we are left to question whether the problems exist due to the flaws in the characters themselves or due to fate.

As a whole, Hardy has done a remarkable job and risked a great deal with this book.  It is one of his best.  This is one of those novels everyone should have on their bookshelves, because something different can be gleaned from each read.  It's a shame that this novel was Hardy's last work, because it was evident that he still had a lot left in the tank to give us.  Like a lot of great authors, he was not appreciated for this work in his own time.  After reading various reviews and participating in an enthralling book club discussion, I'm glad he's appreciated for this work in our time.


Phil said...

I largely agree with the review, and was particularly impressed with the observation that "we are left to question whether the problems [between Sue and Jude] exist due to the flaws in the characters themselves or due to fate".This is indeed one of the gnawing implications of Jude's and Sue's sad journey together; Their love was true and genuine, evoking a naive hope that it would conquer all; but it is they who are conquered with a misfortune that is shocking and undeserved.

It seems to me that it was a result of both character flaws and the social circumstances over which they had no control (i.e. fate). Jude's academic brilliance was no match for his emotional immaturity and weakness; Sue's intelligence was also impressive but did not prevent her from inventing quacky supernatural explanations for the death of her children, explanations that ultimately compelled her to go back to Philotson; both Sue and Jude lived in a social system that disapproved of their union, which prevented them from settling peacefuly and permanently in one place. Most fatefully was how the social disaproval of their union made it impossible to find lodgings in Christminster, leading to the dispute with Father Time that led to the shocking deaths of the children. In light of this toxic mix of character defects and societal disaproval, one is left with the impression things could not have turned out any other way--that their union was doomed.

And yet things could have turned out different had Philotson been more inflexible and not allowed Sue to go to Jude. When Philotson decided to let her go, I, like most readers, silently applauded this decision, because I, like most readers, wanted Sue to be with her true love. But by the end of the book my impression had changed, and it seemed reasonable to conclude that had Philotson not allowed Sue to leave, it is likely that Jude would still have been alive and perhaps even studying at Oxford; wait, one might say, it would have been unjust for Philotson to force Sue to stay with him! Yes, but consider that in the end, Sue ends up with Philotson anyways. In light of this, and in light of the tragic events, one can legitimately wonder whether it would have been better had Philotson decided to not have let her go in the first place.

Christopher said...

Terrific review! Did you read Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Epipsychidion" whilst you read "Jude the Obscure"? This is one of the keys to the novel. Sue Bridehead is a 'Romantic' but not a believer in the "Epipsychidion" free love. Sue believes in marriage for the sake of the bond between man and woman sharing the emotional and spiritual bonds, not the contractual or sexual bonds.

I have come to the conclusion that both of them are 'Romantics', but that both are out of their age. Jude is still in the age of Keats and Shelley; he is an idealist that can never find his ideal in these times (modernisation is coming); and Sue is Shelleyan too, but too far ahead of her time, and must only fall back on her relationship with Philottson for her redemption.

Oh, Christ this book torments me! I lay awake at night and ponder its meaning; and I think I always shall. As a man who has been through two marriages, this novel means ever so much to me...

I love your blog, my friend! You have read some terrific novels. Cheers! Chris