As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “obscure” has a number of meanings that seem relevant to the life of Jude Fawley, the central character of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. According to the OED, “obscure” is associated with a variety of denotations and connotations, including the following:
- Dark, dim; gloomy, dismal.
- Concealed from sight by darkness.
- Difficult to understand or fathom.
- Enigmatic; ambiguous.
- Hardly perceptible.
- Not illustrious or famous; humble.
Of all these definitions, it is clearly the final one that is most relevant to Jude Fawley. He is, after all, a poor man who lives in very humble circumstances and who never attracts much attention from the rest of the world. He never achieves his dreams of becoming a student in the full sense of that word, and by the end of the book he is largely weak and alone, living a life even more “obscure” than earlier.
Hardy uses the word “obscure” several times in the book when describing Jude. Early in the novel, for instance, the narrator notes, while describing Jude, that
[d]rinking was the regular, stereotyped resource of the despairing worthless. He began to see now why some men boozed at inns. He struck down the hill northwards and came to an obscure public-house.
Versions of the word “obscure” are used more than twenty times in the novel. Surely one of the most significant usages, however, is when Jude himself describes himself and Sue as
poor obscure people like us . . .
Jude lives a life that is dim, dark, gloomy, and dismal. He goes basically unnoticed by the rest of the world. His manner of life is difficult for many people to fathom or understand. And his character and circumstances are enigmatic and ambiguous. In all these ways, then, Jude is “obscure” in almost every sense of the word.