Before beginning Jude the Obscure, I engaged in a small amount of pre-emptive research, and was amazed to discover that, in the year of its publication, Jude… was the subject of public hysteria: the streets rang with accusations that Hardy was debauched, perverted: an atheist. Surely Thomas Hardy, the writer of such quaint bucolic idylls as Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd wasn’t responsible for writing the most controversial novel of the 1890s?
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. For back in the heady days of 1895, Victorian England was self-congratulatory and robust: it had enjoyed almost a century of dominant, stable empire: societal criticism, no matter how reasoned, just wasn’t an accepted part of the culture: it hunkered in the margins. Suffice to say, Jude… caused a scandal. Such a damning indictment of social, sexual and religious mores shocked the ecclesiastic establishment into action: they couldn’t let this stand – no young upstart novelist was going to mess with their institution – the Bishop of Wakefield publically burned the book.
But book burning (noun: ‘biblioclasm’) just wasn’t what it used to be. Before the inception of print and press, book burning was serious business. The book as artefact and the book as ideology were inseparable quantities. To burn one tome of hand-inked literature was to eradicate both text and its philosophy in their entirety. Burning the demon was the same as burning the idea of the demon. Biblioclasm was a practical act of ideological censorship.
By the nineteenth Century, however, books could be printed in their thousands, and distributed the world-over within mere weeks of their composition. Clearly if an institution wanted rid of a book, they could no longer hope to just round up all of the copies and have themselves a literary bonfire. Book burning, then, became an act of expression rather than expediency. It moved from the realm of pragmatic application and into the realm of histrionics.
But this doesn’t mean that book burning lost its bite. Far from being a prosaic act of meaningless symbolism, it became a staple of protestation. The Bishop of Wakefield must have been well aware of this: the advent of print may have meant more copies, but this meant bigger bonfires – and Wakefield took great pains to ensure that his beacon burned brightest – he had it reported by both the national and international press. As if this wasn’t coverage enough, he then posted the ashes of Jude the Obscure to the author, complete with a letter lambasting the ‘wickedness’ intrinsic to the novel. And this clearly had an effect: Hardy never wrote a novel again.
And thusly: I was hooked before I’d finished page one. My initial mission plan was simple: to read the book as quickly as possible and to carve the notch of Jude the Obscure into my literary bedpost before moving on to something I’d actually enjoy. But I became determined to uncover what it was about this book that irked people so. Also, and contrary to my expectations: I enjoyed the book immensely.
Jude Fawley is orphaned as a toddler and thrown into poverty to live with his aunt in Marygreen: a tiny hamlet in Hardy’s semi-fictional ‘Wessex’: the English county setting used for the majority of his novels. Every evening Jude climbs the scaffolds of a local chapel to stare at the light-halo given off by a city on the horizon – Christminster: a thinly veiled Oxford analogy.
Jude is immediately established as a contrary and artistic sort: he feeds the crows he’s employed to scare, and spends his little free time (brace yourselves…) reading! He aspires towards social progression (a pipe-dream, viewed as inappropriately audacious for someone of his social standing) and vows to study at one of Christminster’s prestigious colleges, to become either an academic or a priest. Of course, back then the academies were the exclusive realm of the rich; as was, somewhat worryingly, the church: a fact entirely due to the sheer cost of education. Jude’s precociousness of ambition was frowned upon by contemporary commentators – but surely it wasn’t the reasoning behind the novel’s frenetic public reception?
I’m wary of writing a long synopsis here (Jude… is a lengthy and complex novel), and I’ve already self-censored myself to an alarming degree in the above, but allow me a few lines to briefly sum-up the plot. Jude… is in-your-face and aggressive – but so what? Subtlety is overrated. Jude marries Arabella; your archetypal buxom country lass – a marital mismatch if ever there was one. A divorce ensues and Jude moves to his beloved Christminster, where he is, predictably, rejected by the academic institutions he has for so long dreamed about – on the basis of his poverty.
However, he does meet and fall for Sue (the antithesis to Arabella – learned, mannered and devout) and, after she divorces her own husband, they marry and have children. The Fawley family falls into destitute poverty, and the eldest child, believing himself responsible for the family’s demise, murders his siblings before committing suicide. This drives Sue into a kind of religious mania – she becomes adamant that the death of her children is a divine punishment for her disobeying the vows of her first marriage. She returns to her first husband, and Jude dies of ill-health.
It is easy to accuse Hardy of melodrama, or to simply label Jude… as bleak; a novel that pointlessly wallows in a quagmire of self-centred despair. It’s also easy to misrepresent Hardy’s intentions: maybe in an effort to move the reader Hardy just contrived the most shocking and painful scenarios imaginable: a covers-all-bases morbidity? But to think in this way is to miss the point.
Jude the Obscure is essentially a tract of social commentary. There’s a reason why so many contrasts (city-country, ability-means, marriage-divorce, love-duty) are established: – Hardy aims to expose unjust societal workings through the painful and destructive resolution of these conflicts.
Of course, it becomes easy to understand the reaction this book received: extra-marital sex, child suicide, divorce – a catalogue of the novel’s themes reads like a tick-list of ecclesiastical irritants. But the real crux of the novel is marriage. Hardy’s prevailing argument is that couples should be free to marry and divorce as suits. The suggestion that ‘bad’ marriages exist at all was received with shock by contemporaries: a society which espoused the permanent nature of marital virtue with an almost fundamental stringency. Fear of social denunciation, religious excommunication and even damnation is what drives Sue to despair and pushes Jude to ill health and death.
Hardy is saying: when society dogs the victims of bad marriages, this is what happens – tragedy. Even the first husband of Sue has his life destroyed by his willing dissolution of their marriage:
“They have requested that I send in my resignation on account of my scandalous conduct in giving my tortured wife her liberty – or, as they call it, condoning her adultery.”
Love and marriage are cast as separate entities: when Sue abandons her mismatched matrimony for the sake of love, she is deemed a slut and infidel: Hardy, however, elevates her as a paragon of virtue: the virtue of love being ostensibly more significant than the institution of marriage.
But maybe poor Thomas Hardy was just ahead of his time. To our ears, this seemingly rational and liberal argument about marriage is barely an argument at all – it’s just the way things are: yet Hardy had to spend the rest of his life defending the stance his book took. In 1912, Hardy wrote:
My opinion is that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties – being then essentially and morally no marriage. But there was crying in the streets: and the screaming of a lady that there was an unholy antimarriage league afoot.
Unfortunately, the novel’s down-the-irons social agenda often gets in the way of Hardy’s usually swift and moving prose. Many of the book’s most emotionally intense moments are undermined by clunky dialogue and description. Large portions of the writing feel forced as the writer tries to crow-bar his points about marriage and religion into the narrative, such as this laboured metaphor:
[…] an earthly and illegitimate passion had cunningly obtained entrance into his heart through the opening afforded for religion.
It’s as if the characters are aware of Hardy’s narrative schema and are consciously trying their hardest to articulate his message. “Jude[…] don’t you think it [marriage] is destructive to passion?” You can almost feel the protagonists turning towards the camera and winking. When I said that subtlety was overrated this wasn’t what I had in mind.
It creates an unnerving sense that Jude and Sue are somehow ‘other’ to the continuity of the narrative; they exist as vehicles for social commentary rather than convincing, realistic individuals. Whether or not this weakens the force of Hardy’s argument is a matter for debate – but it certainly lessens the emotional impact of the story.
The supporting cast, however, are much stronger personalities: and while some of them are social stereotypes (the aforementioned Arabella, for example) others are exemplars of comic wit – such as Gillingham, the best friend of Sue’s first husband:
“Their supreme desire is to be together – to share each other’s emotions and fancies and dreams.”
“Well no. Shelleyan would be nearer to it.”
Maybe I need to get out more: but I thought that was hilarious.
Many of Hardy’s stylistic idiosyncrasies take some getting used to though: in a society that prescribed the covering up of table legs, lest their sexual indecency become an irresistible turn on, sex-scenes were almost non-existent. Instead, Hardy earnestly describes sex using some unintentionally comic and often baffling euphemisms, the following all being Victorian code for ‘they had sex’:
-It do blow and rain
–Of her own free will she began it quite lately
-Our heroine [changed] thereafter from that previous self who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at the poultry farm.
Jude the Obscure has an ill-deserved and inaccurate reputation as being irreconcilably bleak, a book fascinated with the lowest and most morbid extremes of the human condition. This is unfortunate, because while the narrative is certainly tragic, the book is no mere dalliance in the dark aesthetics of human suffering. Jude the Obscure is a moving, personal story of desperate love beaten down into such dreadful submission that death and self-destruction are more attractive alternatives. But it’s also Big, Social fiction that sticks a middle finger up to cruel and fatuous enforcement of immoral social mores. That Hardy manages such a striking union of the personally tragic with the socially critical is Jude the Obscure‘s greatest achievement.