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.


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?

Garbage to Gold

I was on Granville Island the other day and was able to snap some pics in the last stretch of sunny weather before another batch of rain sets in. What I love about Granville Island:

  • how colourful it is

  • its views of False Creek and the iconic glass condos that are a staple of Vancouver’s skyline

  • its juxtaposition of art and industry as seen on buildings’ exposed structural and mechanical elements, representing traces of this man-made island’s industrial past

Malaspina Printmakers


  • the public market. Even though walking through the narrow aisles feels as packed as the sardines they have for sale in the fresh seafood section, there are some yummy eats and unique artsy gems you can find when browsing through the hundreds of vendor stalls

  • there’s a store for literally everything under the sun, which you can get a sense of by reading these names: “Umbrella Shop,” “The Postcard Place,” “Rhinoceros,” “The Granville Island Soap Gallery” and “The Granville Island Broom Company.” Yes, there is actually a store that just sells brooms. No joke. I should have taken a picture of that one.

In the words of Paul Delany in Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City,

The success of Granville Island has been based on its mixture of uses and its (post)modernisation of existing buildings. Post-industrial society can afford to feel nostalgic about factories: abandoned machines and structures are not experienced as mere junk, but rather as relics of an heroic age when goods were hammered out, with toil and skill, from recalcitrant materials.”

In other words, the success of Granville Island revolves around repackaging what was formerly an industrial “junk” or “garbage” site into an attractive and desirable site of high cultural and economic capital. To read about a future dystopian Granville Island that plays with the idea of art and commodity, check out William Gibson’s short story, “The Winter Market.”

Dockside Brewery – active remnants of an industrial past

Indeed, yesterday’s garbage is tomorrow’s gold. And how golden it is.

A New Face on Terry

In between visiting some friends from out-of-town in Vancouver this weekend, I hopped over to BC Place to see the new Terry Fox monument (new as in September 2011).

New Terry Fox memorial designed by Douglas Coupland. 2011.

“Monument” seems like the wrong word to describe these Terry Fox statues. Yes, there are statues plural — four of them actually, each showing a separate stage of Terry’s distinct step-hop gait. The figures become progressively larger as he runs westward (his final destination was to be Stanley Park), indicating Terry’s growing legacy since 1980, when he started his Marathon of Hope run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.

The old Vancouver monument for Terry Fox more accurately reflects the characteristics I associate with a monument: weighty, grand, symbolic, a structure of heroic proportions. The old classical triumphal arch designed by Franklin Allen surely is all that. I never saw this monument in real life (I tried once but it was covered up with a big white tarp while construction was being done on BC Place’s new roof), but apparently it received a lot of criticism and many people considered it an eyesore, which is not hard to see why.

Old Terry Fox monument designed by Franklin Allen. 1984.

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy marks the old Terry Fox monument as the beginning of the postmodern era in Vancouver architecture in his essay “Plastic Lion’s Gate: A Short History of the Post Modern in Vancouver Architecture.”

Franklin Allen’s 1980s postmodern monument has all the signature moves of its time – a polychromed structure in the latest colours as well as a poly-textured structure with tile, brick, and steel. Four fibreglass lions sit atop the arch, symbolizing Terry’s heroism. All these elements combine to make this modern pastiche of a classical triumphal arch.

Pastiche is one characteristic of the postmodern architectural style — another is the irony of attempting to set in stone and make permanent something that is not permanent. How do you monumentalize a fleeting, short life such as Terry’s?

Trevor Boddy writes, “This sense of monumentalising the pungently ephemeral, of reconciling emotions with visuals, of rendering permanent a patter in the social electron flow of a few months duration, was crucial to the winning scheme’s selection by a jury not otherwise committed to postmodernism as theory or style” (Allen’s monument was the winner of a design competition).

How do we attempt to remember a significant person or event in history? Monuments surely are one way. Yet why did the old statue get so much criticism? Boddy explains because it didn’t include any visual representation of Terry, the person it attempted to remember. Boddy goes on to say that in order to appease the public outcry over this monument, etched steel plates bearing larger-than-lifesize photographs of Terry were placed inside the arch, much to the architect’s chagrin. I guess the symbolic fibreglass lions weren’t enough — we like to see images that resemble the person we are remembering.

Coupland's memorial from the back

So it’s interesting that over two decades later, a new memorial (I hesitate to say “monument” for the above reasons) of Terry Fox has replaced the old one, and the differences couldn’t be more obvious. In Douglas Coupland’s Terry Fox sculptures, the public doesn’t just get one, but four images or motions of Terry, broken down into a four-frame cycle. They are open, life-like. You can walk around them. You might not even notice them from a distance because on a busy day around BC Place, Terry blends right into the crowd.

Can you see the statues?

Allen’s arch was ostentatious, noticeable, built to match a national hero; Coupland’s statues are subtle, built to commemorate a national hero but also to remember an individual whose single act of determination inspired hope, rallied the country, and changed lives — a determination meant to inspire and challenge us us on a personal level. It is this humanness and point of connection between Terry and ourselves that I come away with from the new memorial.

Coupland leaves us with these words: