Jude the Obscure: Lost in Contrast

I don’t know what to make of Jude the Obscure. The last of Thomas Hardy’s novels, it was published in 1895 and received such rancorous attacks that the author renounced fiction and switched to poetry.

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What is in this book that so scandalized its Victorian audience? There are a lot of things going on—too many, in my opinion, which deprive it of any sense of unity and cohesiveness. What is clear, however, is that the book lays a heavy critique on marriage, Christianity, and England’s class system.

The plot centres on Jude, an eleven-year old orphaned boy living with his aunt in the town of Marygreen, situated in Hardy’s fictional region of Wessex. After he finishes school, Jude gains employment as a stone mason though he dreams of life as a university scholar or, as a back-up plan, a minister. He teaches himself Latin and Greek to be able to read the classics, all the time setting his sights on the radiant city of Christminster, the epicentre of higher learning or the “heavenly Jerusalem”.

Jude is a man with a single-minded purpose, working towards a better life but being thwarted at every attempt. The first obstacle is a woman, Arabella Donn, an equally obscure daughter of a pig farmer who woos the naïve and easily love-struck Jude. She traps him into marriage by pretending she is pregnant. Here is a small example of Hardy’s critique against marriage:

There seemed to [Jude], vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour. . .

It doesn’t take long for Jude and Arabella to both be unhappy in the marriage, so Arabella leaves Jude and marries another man. Jude moves to Christminster, getting work as a stone mason while writing letters to the universities to see if one will let him in based on the merits of his self-erudition. But he can’t compete with the likes of boys who spent their lives under trained teachers, and the only other option is to buy himself in. That really isn’t an option though since he’d have to save 15 years’ worth of his salary to do so. The second obstacle to his dream is his class position. Lonely and despairing, he heads to a tavern and there discovers his weakness for alcohol that will get him in trouble later.

The “bright light” in the midst of Jude’s early sufferings is his cousin Sue Bridehead who lives in Christminster and who Jude gets to know and, against his own better judgment, falls in love with. A free-spirited thinker very much a forerunner of feminism, Sue defies all norms of Victorian society with her inclination for pagan philosophy and her fierce critiques of the Church and marriage. And yet she marries Jude’s former schoolteacher, Richard Phillotson, out of social convention and pressure. Not surprisingly, she’s extremely unhappy and with the eventual permission of her husband, leaves him for Jude. However, she and Jude don’t get married because neither of them want to repeat their mistakes with their first spouses. They look at marriage as nothing more than a contract that robs a relationship of true feeling. So Jude and Sue live together happily, have two kids of their own, as well as look after Jude and Arabella’s young boy nicknamed “Father Time” for his older-than-his-years cynicism towards life.

Once Sue’s and Jude’s divorces go through and their scandal is known throughout the region, it’s hard for Jude to get or keep a job anywhere. They become nomads, thwarting Jude’s dreams even more, although he has largely given up on them anyway. Instead of  studying at Christminster, he and Sue start their own pastry business selling “Christminster cakes”, a poor imitation or mockery of Jude’s life-long aspirations. Sue’s independence also ruins Phillotson, who cannot get a job anywhere because no one has any respect for him.

You can probably see why this is called Hardy’s bleakest novel. But this isn’t even the worst of it. Aware that they are poor and cannot find lodgings anywhere with such a big family and another one on the way, Father Time hangs his two younger siblings and then himself, leaving Jude and Sue childless. Sue loses her third baby in childbirth.

It is after this horrifying tragedy that Jude and Sue switch places. Overcome by grief and convinced the murders are punishment for her illegitimate relationship with Jude, Sue becomes a self-sacrificing, dogma-quoting Christian convinced she needs to return to her first husband. Phillotson takes her back, not because he loves her still, but because it is the “social good” and would somewhat redeem their earlier disaster. On the flip side, Jude loses any last vestiges of his Christian faith and denounces it because of the submissive weakling it has made of Sue. He broadens his views, but the miry ground that leads him to is arguably just as alarming as Sue’s newfound rigidity. He explains his precarious inner compass to the townspeople in Christminster:

I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best.

In the meantime, Arabella has come back into the picture. Her second husband dies, leaving her free to pursue/trap Jude again. And she does by getting him drunk and making him promise to marry her. Shortly after marrying Arabella, Jude contracts a bad illness and dies alone and unmourned. Arabella is already in pursuit of her next husband.

The book has come full circle and as the reader, I felt a little sick, as if I’ve just come off a roller coaster where I’ve been spinning around and upside down for the past 300 pages. I was baffled by this ending. At one point, I thought that maybe Arabella and Phillotson would pair up, but never did I imagine for the first matches to repeat themselves.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jude the Obscure because Hardy presents two extremes through Jude and Sue, neither of which are attractive. It’s common to root for a character or the philosophy they represent in a novel, but Hardy only gives the reader two options, as per his intentions:

Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is!—e.g., Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude’s reading the Greek testament; Christminster academical, Christminster in the slums; Jude the saint, Jude the sinner; Sue the Pagan, Sue the saint; marriage, no marriage; etc. etc.

The character foil is intentional in terms of highlighting Jude’s and Sue’s differences, but it leaves little room for exploring the nuances of being human in our world, even a world that is admittedly unfair. With refreshing honesty, we read above how Jude replaces his black and white opinions for grey ones, but we don’t see that same nuance in Hardy’s novel regarding marriage, Christianity, or society. To attack all three without showing anything redeeming in their portrayals shows an author disillusioned, contemptuous, or depressed.

There is very little hope in this story. Critic Barry Swartz calls it a lament instead of a tragedy because Jude doesn’t create his own defeat, only the mode of his defeat. Fate is against him from the start, the conclusion of which is captured in Father Time’s reflective question, “It would be better to be out o’ the world than in it, wouldn’t it?”

Jude the Obscure explores the existential questions coming into the philosophy of Hardy’s day, making it a bridge between Victorian and Modernist literature. It addresses the loneliness and futility of man, and perhaps the loneliness of Hardy, who, like his two principal characters, experiences a similar backlash from society for the views he presents. Near the end of his life, Jude laments:

As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessnes and ruin on me!

Two weeks later, I am still processing the obscurities in Jude the Obscure would like some company. How do you read this book? Is it a lament or an avoidable tragedy? Are his contrasts helpful? What makes the book obscure or illuminating for you?

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4 thoughts on “Jude the Obscure: Lost in Contrast

  1. Interesting! I want to read it, because the narrative is so raw and different. Rejecting rigidity sounds like the mordern Quebec societies.

  2. Thinking about this book as a lament is helpful. There is an unavoidability throughout the novel; you never get the sense that Jude can escape his fate. Even the stronger characters, like Sue, seem to be pulled into the systems they despise (like religion) by tragedy, by forces outside their control. I was particularly saddened by Sue’s transformation: there was a bright spark of hope when she buys the Greek statues, a hope for freedom beyond what her society offers her. But of course, they get smashed. Maybe Hardy is lamenting the reality (at least to him) that even if Jude never married Arabella, and Sue never married Philliston, they would likely never achieve their own autonomy and would remain obscured by society’s structures: marriage, the church, class.

    I doubt Hardy was looking to inspire anyone with the novel (especially if you look at it as a lament), but I think there is a moral response it might inspire: to mourn the obscure.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Lauren. Yeah, it’s fascinating how tragedy changes Sue and Jude, but especially Sue (another critic said he didn’t think the tragedy warranted such a strong and out-of-character reaction in Sue, but that Hardy used it as a plot device so he could flip his two main characters). Anyway, I like the lens you offer about a moral response to the book: to mourn the obscure, and to add to that, to mourn the systems that make or keep people obscure. This novel hit me over the head with the simple yet sad reality that life isn’t fair.

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