“Affliction makes opposing forces loom anthropomorphous.”
Photographs of Thomas Hardy give you quite a misleading impression of the author. You see him, this fine old chap with a bushy mustache and a teacup between his two fingers. Why, you must be sitting there musing upon the ditty of a nearby finch, my good fellow! To see you of such serene countenance!
Not even close. Mr. Hardy is lamenting that finch being crushed in a bishop’s yellow teeth, and the pitiful thump the bleeder makes when spat onto a prostitute’s howling baby.
Victorian England as we all know was cut to ribbons by satirists of its own time, mostly for the hypocrisy of its church, the inhumanity of its human values, and the absurdity of its legal system, to name a few targets.
But Hardy’s not a satirist in the traditional sense — tragedian is the better label. I’ve heard people hating on him because he’s humorless, which is a retarded thing to say. It’s like complaining that Miles Davis doesn’t rock hard enough. Hardy has no interest in making his criticisms amusing to soften the blow.
You want funny? Read Oscar Wilde.
But if you want a serious, no-punches-pulled polemic on Victorian society that still rings in our teeth today, this is your man.
Can a Guy Catch a Break?
Jude the Obscure chronicles the struggles of Jude Fawley, a lowborn lad dreaming of a life in academics, or perhaps the clergy — whichever will cultivate his love for literature and thought. But he soon learns that “his existence was an undemanded one.” Neither realm will accept him, and he is miserably trapped between social classes: he’s too poor for the university-types at the brim, and he’s too smart for the pub crawlers at the dregs, where he’s supposed to belong.
Can a guy catch a break in love, at least? Jude meets the voluptuous Arabella in an uncomfortable sequence of courtship, and he marries her when she lies about being pregnant. When Jude learns of her treachery, Arabella employs a sort of “You can’t quit — you’re fired!” tactic, leaving him and taking all his property.
But hope comes in the form of the beautiful and fidgity Sue Bridehead and the central drama ensues, mostly as they struggle for happiness together in a society that seems to thwart them at every turn.
I think we appreciate this novel far more today because we can really get behind Jude and Sue. To us they’re perfectly likable people whose natures, it’s easy to say, would thrive much better in our time than in Hardy’s. If Mr. Fawley existed today, he’d at least have access to scholarships and a less rigid class structure (though his financial success would still be suspect because he’d pursue a degree in Literature). Ms. Bridehead would likewise have more opportunities to support herself, rather than going and marrying some guy who isn’t Jude. Most importantly, our two protagonists wouldn’t risk social ruin by for their views on wedlock. The modern divorce rate being what it is, who would give a damn?
If you’re like me, your natural response to criticisms of Society is, “okay, now how much are the individuals to blame for their own troubles?” There’s some fascinating stuff happening there, in Jude, too. As things play out in the novel, are Jude’s and Sue’s lives get fouled up because of:
B. Their own human frailties.
Here are the results of my analysis.
A lot of that 14% comes about in good ol’ relationship friction that occurs between Sue and Jude in the middle of the book. To say they each behave like a stereotypical man and woman would understate the complexity of their interactions, but it’s kind of true. Jude’s thick: he doesn’t see the problem with taking Sue to the same hotel where he shagged Arabella, and once the former finds out, he basically tells her to chill out.
Sue is repeatedly accused of being “inconsistent” (rightfully so) and is described as employing a “compound logic” at times. This means that things that are logically right before she does them can also be not right after she’s done them.
Oy. The novel started to lose me toward the middle because their relationship drama can be exhausting. These two lovebirds fought so much that I began rejecting the novel’s insistence that they’re truly meant for each other.
But some interesting things start happening. Seeing that their previous marriages were so traumatic, Jude and Sue scoff at the institution of marriage for its meaninglessness. At the same time, they each justify things they’ve done to hurt each other by using their separately married status as an excuse.
As for the book’s overall attack on marriage, it’s so potent that 110 years later, a great deal of the institution still falls under Hardy’s still-relevant assault.
Hardy is Either an English Student’s Dream or Nightmare
Because his symbolism just everywhere. Everything’s a metaphor. Many are obvious, many are not, but you know them when you come to them. Jude first meets Arabella when she playfully throws, of all things, a piece of pig’s flesh at him to get his attention. By contrast, Mr. Fawley later finds the love of his life in a shop that sell religious curios.
Cue the eye-rolls. “I get it. Arabella equals flesh, Sue equals spirit. Try not to make it too hard there, guy.”
Sure. But the dichotomies complicate from there, and they often lead to ideas that are far more complex than the obvious symbols suggest. Unlike many authors, Hardy doesn’t give you answers yet he promises true profundity much farther down the road of a symbol if you keep following it. Your willingness to cut a swath past the deceptive simplicity of its themes, I think, is one of the most important factors determining whether or not you’ll like this book.
Yes, it is a Sad Song
Your enjoying Jude will also hinge on whether you’re on board for a book of its ever-frowning grimness. Since it’s unbuffered by ironic humor, some people find Hardy’s tragedy over the top. I think many of these readers want a book that cynically mocks Victorian life rather than one that rends it with haggard teeth and nails. But the latter approach can be spellbinding when done well.
This probably makes Jude the Obscure sound unbearably depressing. And perhaps it is, but what makes the book work at all is Hardy’s earnestness. I love it as much as I respect it.