A few hours ago I finished Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, the final novel Hardy wrote (though he did re-write The Well-Beloved a few years later), and the final novel I have on my Hardy's Major Works list. It's hard to know where to begin with this novel: it is one of the most impressive novels I've ever read, one of the most darkest and complex, and I do believe this is Hardy at his absolute peak. Jude the Obscure was actually one of the first Hardy novel I read about 12 years ago and I always had in mind when reading his other novels. I had a sense, which may well have been a false sense, that everything he wrote was building up to this crescendo. It embodies most if not all of the common themes and motifs in Hardy's other works before it: marriage, love, gender, and fate.
We first meet Jude Fawley as a young boy at Marygreen (in Hardy's Wessex) who has dreams of going to Christminster (modelled on Oxford) to become a scholar, inspired by his schoolmaster Richard Phillotson who has left to do the same. He works very hard for it, learning Greek and Latin, but one day Jude makes a decision, innocent enough, but it will prove his downfall. Jude meets a young woman, Arabella Donn, who is very pretty but very rough around the edges. One Sunday he wonders: should he get on with his Greek, or should he go and meet her again?
He would not go out to meet her, after all. He sat down, opened the book, and with his elbows firmly planted on the table, and his hands to his temples, began at the beginning:
Η ΚΑΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ. [The New Testament]
Had he promised to call for her? Surely he had! She would wait indoors, poor girl, and waste all her afternoon on account of him. There was a something in her, too, which was very winning, apart from promises. He ought not to break faith with her. Even though he had only Sundays and week-day evenings for reading he could afford one afternoon, seeing that other young men afforded so many. After to-day he would never probably see her again. Indeed, it would be impossible, considering what his plans were.
In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him—something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality.
Η ΚΑΙΝΗ ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ was no more heeded, and the predestinate Jude sprang up and across the room. Foreseeing such an event he had already arrayed himself in his best clothes. In three minutes he was out of the house and descending by the path across the wide vacant hollow of corn-ground which lay between the village and the isolated house of Arabella in the dip beyond the upland.
|Oxford in the 1890s.|
Jude falls for her, and, to trick him into marrying her, she pretends to be pregnant, telling him after their marriage she was mistaken. The marriage, unsurprisingly, is not a success and very swiftly falls apart (at this point we're not even a fifth of the way through the book) and one day Jude finds a brief note: "Have gone to my friends. Shall not return." Thus, Jude's dreams of Christminster are once again a possibility and, in the second part of the book, he attempts to enrol.
It is there he meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who he quickly falls in love with. Sue is his equal: highly intelligent, educated, very beautiful, an atheist, and thoroughly modern. Jude, however, is still married to Arabella, and so she marries none other than Phillotson. Like Jude's, Sue's marriage falls apart quite quickly and, no longer able to stand being apart, they live together unmarried.
I could very happily continue describing the plot, it's so compelling and fascinating, but I'll stop there so as not to spoil it. But what a story! It's absolutely devastating, a true (in the Greek sense) tragedy of a poor man trying to better himself, an attempt that, because of the circumstances, would ruin him beyond repair. I can't speak highly enough of Jude the Obscure. The overall theme is that of love and marriage, which dominates the novel, but class and education, the snobbery of those at Christminster, is also important. There is no good and evil in Jude, even Arabella, who did a terrible thing, isn't herself bad, and Phillotson is remarkable in his ability to forgive and show kindness, and Jude: Jude is a dreamer, and Sue almost other worldly. They were too advanced for their time and society, their own and the readers of this novel, were not kind. It is truly a great novel.
As I mentioned, this was my last novel on my Hardy list: I'm left with two short story collection, two plays, and eight volumes of poetry (as well as two biographies). Here's the novels I've read and my ratings:
Desperate Remedies (1871) ✯✯✯✯
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) ✯✯✯✯
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) ✯✯✯✯✯
Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) ✯✯
The Return of the Native (1878) ✯✯✯✯
The Trumpet-Major (1880) ✯✯
A Laodicean (1881) ✯
Two on a Tower (1882) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) ✯✯✯✯
The Woodlanders (1887) ✯✯✯
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved (1892) ✯✯
Jude the Obscure (1895) ✯✯✯✯✯
The Well-Beloved (1897) ✯✯