I have never read a sadder novel than Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy’s radical attack on elitist education and Victorian marriage. Condemned by critics and readers who considered this 1895 masterpiece sexually scandalous, immoral, and anti-religious, Hardy gave up writing novels and turned to poetry. Yet every sentence in Jude the Obscure is so subtle, polished and poetic that the reader is spellbound.
Like his characters Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, who are driven out of an elite university town because they are unmarried lovers living together, Hardy, a married man who wrote about flouting marital conventions, had no refuge – except in poetry. It is no surprise that he influenced D. H. Lawrence, surely one of the most banned writers of the 20th century, who considered Hardy the greatest – possibly the only great – 19th-century English writer, and whose cadences echo Hardy’s, especially in Women in Love.
And Jude is one of Hardy’s most sympathetic heroes. From the beginning, the reader empathizes with Jude’s longing for a classical education. In the opening sentence, Hardy marks the difficulty of 11-year-old Jude’s task: “The schoolmaster was leaving the village and everybody seemed sorry.”
The schoolmaster, Mr. Phillotson, will have a pivotal role in Jude’s life: his decision to leave the village and move to Christminster in the hope of getting a university education inspires Jude with the same hope. Jude struggles alone over the Greek and Latin grammars and texts, without the teaching that would facilitate the task. An autodidact, Jude plans carefully: he becomes a stonemason’s apprentice to support his future education. And, as an adult, he is sure that Phillotson has become a famous minister.
And then sex gets in Jude’s way. He is entrapped by a farmer’s daughter, the crude, heartless Arabella, who makes dimples in her face by sucking in her cheeks and feigns pregnancy so Jude will marry her. Jude is furious when he learns that he has been tricked, but insensitive Arabella laughs. Soon she is so bored with him that she immigrates to Australia. The reader is as relieved as Jude.
And so Jude moves to Christminster, where he is dazzled by the architecture, the proximity of scholars, and his charming cousin, Sue Bridehead, a brilliant, irreverent woman who drudges as an artist in an ecclesiastical warehouse. Another autodidact, she is more intellectual than Jude; she lived chastely in London for more than a year with an undergraduate. After the dons reject Jude as a classics student, he is furious and tells Sue he has decided to study divinity.
Sue is not religious but she says, “Jude, won’t you let me make you a new New Testament, like the one I made for myself…?”
She explains, “I altered my old one by cutting up all the Epistles and Gospels into separate brochures, beginning the book with Romans, following on with the early Epistles, and putting the Gospels much further on….. I know that reading it afterwards made it twice as interesting.”
Sue is a misunderstood character: she loves talking to men, because she is better-educated than the women she knows, but men mistake her animation for flirtation. Sue regrets her beauty because it attracts unwanted interest. Only Jude understands her and truly loves their talk: the two are soulmates, though he, too, wants to have sex with her.
Tragically, Sue gets engaged to Phillotson, who is 20 years older than she and physically unattractive. She has worked as his assistant teacher and feels obligated to him, since he sent her to a teaching school from which she was expelled. She marries Phillotson, but finds him physically repulsive, and leaves to live with Jude, whom she loves but also fears sexually.
And Arabella’s return complicates life. Arabella divorces Jude – she has a boyfriend in London she wants to marry – and Phillotson deems it right to divorce Sue so she can marry Jude. But Arabella returns with her son, nicknamed Father Time, whom her parents had been raising in Australia. She says he is Jude’s son, and leaves him with Jude and Sue.
This is the beginning of a tragedy for Sue and Jude, though they do not anticipate the consequences of taking in Father Time. They are doting parents to this sad, depressed boy, and then have children of their own. Jude and Sue do not recover from the ensuing events, nor can I.
Even on a fourth reading I wept and grieved. The episode is shocking and traumatic, even when one knows it is coming. When I was young I defended myself from agony by thinking Hardy was over-the-top.
Now I simply weep.