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Jude the Obscure ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

English writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) is known for a handful of novels including Tess of the D’UrbervillesThe Return of the NativeFar from the Madding Crowd, and the Mayor of Casterbridge. His novel Jude the Obscure was released in book form in 1895 after appearing in serialized form in a magazine.

Jude the Obscure is a fascinating study of class distinction, conscience, and morality in the Victorian era. Young Jude Fawley is a country lad without family or connections, raised by an elderly aunt who cares little for him. He longs to become an educated man, or even a minister, but, because of who he is and where he lives, he has little chance of ever being more than a stonemason, a trade he has chosen to provide enough money to support himself. He views the college town of Christminster (Oxford), twenty miles away, as a center of learning and all that is fine in life. Jude’s old schoolmaster, Richard Philottson, whom he admires and looks up to, has gone to Christminster. (Mr. Philottson will play a significant role in Jude’s future life, and not in a good way, either.)

While Jude is saving his money to eventually go to Christminster and enroll in school, his way is made more difficult by one Arabella Donn, an unrefined country girl who, because she is has nothing else to do, “sets her cap” for Jude. (He would have been better off if he had never met her.) After he is “intimate” with her, she tells him she is going to have his baby, so he marries her, to discover sometime later that there is no baby; the pregnancy was just a ruse to trap him into marriage.

The marriage is an unhappy one, so Jude and Arabella eventually go their separate ways, although they remain married. When Arabella immigrates to Australia with her family, Jude believes (wrongly, as it turns out) that he has seen the last of her. He eventually makes his way to Christminster, several years later than he intended, and finds that the doors to higher learning are mostly closed to him. He is advised to stick to his trade and not try to rise above his station. (Thanks for the encouragement!)

While in Christminster, Jude finds his old schoolmaster, Mr. Philottson (who doesn’t remember him from all the boys he taught), but, more importantly, he finds his cousin Sue Bridehead and is instantly drawn to her in a way he knows he shouldn’t be. Sue is attractive but, we discover later, emotionally unstable and volatile, with an overly developed sense of right and wrong in the world.

Jude falls in love with Sue Bridehead, in spite of his better judgment. Sue also loves Jude in her strange, on-again, off-again way. Mr. Philottson aids Sue in finding a teaching position and becomes romantically interested in her himself, even though he is eighteen years older than she is. Jude and Mr. Philottson, in effect, become rivals for Sue.

Jude wants to marry Sue (even though they are first cousins) but can’t because he is still married to Arabella, who he believes he will never see again because she has gone to Australia. Sue would marry Jude, but, when he tells her in a moment of candor that he is already married, her sense of morality is outraged and she agrees to marry Mr. Philottson instead, even though she finds him physically repugnant.

As expected, Sue and Mr. Philottson’s marriage is not a happy one. Mr. Philottson knows that Sue really loves Jude, so he agrees to magnanimously “release” her from her marriage vows and grants her a divorce. This act will essentially ruin his teaching career and his standing in the community.

In the meantime, Arabella has turned up again unexpectedly in England. She seeks Jude out and asks him for a divorce because there is someone else she wants to marry. Jude will finally be free, he believes, to marry his one true love, Sue Bridehead.

But, wait a minute! There’s something else. In the final stages of her marriage to Jude, Arabella became pregnant, which she didn’t know about until she had left for Australia. She brings the child back to England and expects Jude to take him off her hands because, she says, he is the boy’s father.

Jude takes the boy (who is called Father Time because he seems old beyond his years), believing that he and Sue will get married and raise the boy as their own. This would have been a happy conclusion to the novel, but, of course, it wasn’t meant to be.

Jude and Sue are both free of their original marriages and are free to marry again, but Sue prevents it. She views marriage as a trap and believes that marriage between her and Jude will spoil their love. They live together as man and wife, giving the outward appearance they are married when in fact they are not. (We know this kind of arrangement will not go over well in Victorian England.) When they are discovered to be “living in sin,” Jude has trouble finding work or a place for them to stay.

They eventually have two children (with a third on the way) that are “bastards” in the eyes of the world. When tragedy strikes the children, Sue believes that she and Jude are “cursed” because of the way they chose to live. She believes the only way she will ever be redeemed in the eyes of God and society is for her to return to her original husband, Richard Philottson (even though her heart tells her otherwise), and for Jude to return to his first wife, Arabella.

Jude Fawley is a flawed, tragic character in that he is never able to find true happiness or fulfillment of his dreams. He is undone, not by one woman, but by two. He is a victim of his own weakness and humanness. He dies believing he should never have been born in the first place.

Sue Bridehead is too flighty and “moral” for this world. She seems uncertain of what she wants out of life. She prates on and on about doing one thing and another, only to end doing nothing. (She doesn’t seem to know how to help herself or anyone around her.) She wants to be Jude’s wife and then she decides against it. She wants to marry Richard Philottson and then she wants out of the marriage, only to return to him in the end. She’s a dizzy dame that any man with any sense should stay away from. (She says toward the end of the book that her attractiveness to men has been her undoing in life.)

The only character who seems to find happiness is the amoral Arabella, who uses people to suit her purposes. She’s the only person who seems unscathed by the tragic events that take place. At the end of the novel, she’s flirting with a doctor. We get the impression that she will be all right no matter what and will not be bothered too much by anything that happens.

Jude the Obscure is highly readable classic of English literature, a nearly perfect novel with plenty of heartbreak. At 320 pages, it moves along at a fairly fast clip. Of course, it contains some language and syntax that seem archaic to us today, but that’s to be expected for the time in which it was written. Reading it does not require a tremendous expenditure of time and effort. A lot of writers of Thomas Hardy’s time said a lot less in a lot more pages.

Copyright 2014 by Allen Kopp 

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