Friday, November 9, 2018

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy
Published 1895


Jude the Obscure featured Jude, a dreamer type, who aspired to get an education with the big boys; but his unfortunate socio-economic status prevented him from taking part in the elite academic world. Instead, Jude, a very determined and hopeful thinker, educated himself in Latin and the classics, at home.

Poor Jude was also a weak romantic, and the conniving Arabella manipulated him into a compromising situation. They hastily married for society's benefit, though in a short time Arabella abandoned her obligation and escaped far away from the complicated mess she helped create.

Nonetheless, Jude carried on, trying to pick up the pieces, when another woman, Sue, entered his life. She was much like him -- thirsty for knowledge. She was an intelligent woman ahead of her time, and Jude fell in love with her.  Jude introduced her to his old mentor, Phillotson, who conveniently fell in love with Sue, too.

When Sue found out later that Jude was still legally married to Arabella, she reluctantly agreed to marry Phillotson. This was not the end, as it should have been, of their "friendship," and their paths crossed often, which made for a more complicated, messier story.

Hence, the plot becomes tangled, as only Hardy can scheme. The reader may have a good laugh or cry over it, whichever way seems right. For now, let me uncover some of the themes Hardy takes issue with in Jude the Obscure, such as religion, sex, love, and marriage.


Jude at the millstone
Religion was a good idea to Jude, until he realized that it placed moral restrictions on human nature and behavior and interfered with what he wanted to do, as opposed to what he ought to do. Society ostracized him and Sue for their personal choices; therefore, he later shunned religion.

Meanwhile, Sue originally bucked organized religion and traditions. But after a terrible tragedy, of which she pronounced herself responsible, she further punished herself by submitting to religion as payment for her sinful behavior. To Sue, obeying religion was just that: a penalty.

All of Hardy's characters were confused about love, sex and marriage, which compounded their misunderstanding of religion. The truth is: marriage is an institution designed by God for the benefit of children, societies, and His future kingdom; and sex is the gift God gave to married couples. Unfortunately, man-made religion hijacked sex and marriage, and men and women abuse both acts, including Arabella, Jude, Sue, and Phillotson. They were all guilty.

To Arabella, sex was an amusement to tempt acquiescent men, and marriage was a game to play; to Sue, sex and marriage were unjust burdens placed on women by religion and society. Meanwhile, both male characters were completely passive and malleable individuals, fooled by these convoluted and demented women.

Love is not enough to be with whom you endear; marriage is what should keep people together. The characters wanted to be with whom they loved, but not in the way expected of them. Jude and Sue supposedly loved one another, but superstition kept them from legal marriage; and in the other case, Jude did not love Arabella and Sue did not love Phillotson, and neither did any of them honor the marriage covenant.

Sue continued to tear into the linen strips
I do not believe that religion is entirely bad for society, but it must be based on truth, which Hardy does not present or know. Religion, in his stories, is the false and man-made kind. Institutions and traditions, such as marriage, are, to him, of the church and force people to marry or stay with someone they do not love. Hardy does not like what the church teaches about living with someone you are not married or having sex outside of marriage. To him, this is unjust, and he wants you to feel that in Jude the Obscure. He wants you to feel the heavy hand of society and religion on feeble, innocent lives living in oppressive Victorian England. That's why he takes the poorest of characters and puts them in the worst possible circumstances.

Nonetheless, marriage is still God's law, and the church and society only echoed what God's law was from the beginning. The marriage contract (paper or no paper) is a covenant, with God as a witness. Since all characters chose to practice love and sex and marriage in their own way, they made a mess. They made bad choices, and eventually it caught up with them. That's why Jude the Obscure ends on such a tragic note.


One other point: Hardy tried to make a good case for divorce. He wanted the reader to feel empathy for Jude and Sue, who were penalized socially for being separated from their original spouses (among other things). Jude and Sue married their spouses for all the wrong reasons; and in the 1890s, there was no way out of that contract, without ramifications. Hardy made society and the church responsible for such restrictive boundaries. But again, society and the church only echo what God had long ago established. He hates divorce...and for good reason. But I won't get into that now.


Having said all that, I gave Jude the Obscure five stars because I think I must confess: I love reading tragedy. While I can experience all the expected emotional responses, I also see right through the fabricated, outlandish specifics, usually caused by the author's poor and incorrect worldview. So give me your worst case circumstance and all the grief and pity with it, add superb writing, like Hardy's, and I am a sucker.


If you can tolerate an author's argument against Victorian English society and Christian traditions, such as marriage, and you gravitate toward tragedy, suffering, misfortune, or hopelessness, but can come out on the other side unscathed, this may be for you. If you have not read Hardy, you may want to begin with a more positive experience, like Far From the Madding Crowd. If nothing else, you will not be disappointed with his writing style. It's the best.


Cleo @ Classical Carousel said...

I'm so surprised that you like Hardy. I've read two (somewhat) positive books by him and he's just so depressing that I can't find much redeeming in them. But they do make for excellent conversation, I must admit. At least your wonderful reviews influence me to give him another try!

Ruth said...

Hey, Cleo,

After this fourth Hardy, I have found that I am really drawn to tragedy, and what better tragic author than Hardy, right? Sadly, I think I relate to it. So if I wrote, I could see myself writing similarly...which is so sad! Ugh! But I guess I don't relate to unbelievably happy, perfect stories. However, I do LOVE a good ending, when good triumphs over evil. So that is where Hardy and I part company b/c his stories almost always end in defeat. Ridiculously!!!

Sharon Wilfong said...

OK. I already commented on this post on your November reading stack. I'll say again what a wonderful review this is. Your insight is wonderful. Hardy like so many unbelievers that rebel against God, "profess themselves wise but become fools."

But, like you, I really like his writing.

Paula Vince said...

What a great review. It's so sad that such a genius author as Hardy presented man-made religion as the one real thing, and the only type there is. It's a train wreck of a story as far as the events in the plot are concerned, but not the writing quality. It took me ages to get over 'that part' which all readers of Jude instantly know. I'm not really a lover of tragedy at all :(

Ruth said...

I think most well grounded individuals might shun tragedy...there is something really off about us creatures who are drawn to it. Honestly, and sadly, I think it is because our upbringing may have something to do with it; people like me relate to it, much like the author does. But gratefully I feel able to rebuke it as wrong or false, or whatever is not right about it.

I have also found that many authors present the man-made view of religion in their works, and they present the wrong ideas. But it is also important to point out that the man-made view is more widely known and society has adopted it, unfortunately. Maybe that is why it is more prevalent in stories b/c it has been so destructive to people and culture. : (

Joseph said...

An intriguing review...I can't decide if this makes me want to read Hardy more or less. I find it difficult to "like" an author if I am really opposed to their worldview - no that's not quite right. I can tolerate if they have a differing world view, it's when they try to denigrate my own, that I have trouble getting past. I know you and I are of similar worldview, so I find it hopeful you still enjoyed this. I'll get to it eventually.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Hmm... not a promising book. I should have stopped at Far from a Madding Crowd. Tess was depressing, but this looks even more foolish.

Ruth said...

Fanda, personally, I think Tess was more frustrating to read, but no wait...maybe this was equally frustrating. I did find the ending very sad; but Tess' ending was just ridiculous. Honestly, I don't think you as a reader would tolerate Hardy's folly, unlike me: I'm a glutton for punishment. : D

Ruth said...

Joseph, I get what you are saying...and I think I agree. I had this issue with Steinbeck, you know, over Grapes of Wrath. He really upset me, but more for his social and political worldview, and his mockery of religious leaders. Nonetheless, I had to admit his writing was tolerable.

Hardy did the same as Steinbeck, by placing his foolish characters in uncompromising situations. But I think I read Steinbeck during a time when I was extremely annoyed by our political climate, and Steinbeck didn't make his case strong enough for I didn't have compassion for his story. I'm also extremely turned off by the case for socialist responses, which I felt Grapes of Wrath supports.

Maybe that is where the difference lies. Hardy deals more with man's morbid personal and character weaknesses, whereas Steinbeck focuses on society, as a whole.

In addition, I read about Victorian England and the religious fervor during that time, and it had its issues, especially with controlling society. Hardy saw that it was better for one to appear a certain way and live out the prescription in his social life; it is like being clean on the outside of the cup. Yet, correct biblical living is to be right with God in your heart, and follow His statues and precepts in obedience to Him b/c He saved you, not b/c society expects you to.

Hardy obviously didn't know this or live in this way. I guess I didn't find his argument against the Church and society as insulting b/c I don't think discredited Christ or biblical faith. If anything, he made a stronger argument for biblical marriage compared to man's version of shacking up and divorce. And in the end, a man's heart was broken to literal death. Biblical marriage would never produce the results Hardy's ideas did. It's too bad for him he couldn't know that.

Bottom line, make me think. Thanks!

Rachel said...

I love Thomas Hardy, but have not had time to read this book yet. It's been on my shelf for years.

Ruth said...

It's a doozy.

Joseph said...

Yes, if you can get past the author's biases and incomprehension of the rightful boundaries of true and undefiled religion (different than many man-made aberrations)...indeed his writing is superb, and I can enjoy thought provoking tragedy.