An extraordinary transitional figure who straddled the Victorian and twentieth century literary worlds, Thomas Hardy was initially an undistinguished architect whose novels and poems became his chief profession. Although his rustic characters and some of his poems exhibit a humorous touch, most of his creations are permeated by a brooding irony reflecting life’s disappointments and a pessimistic belief that human beings are victims of an impersonal force that darkly rules the universe. Hardy divided his novels into three groups: novels of ingenuity, such as Desperate Remedies (1871); romances and fantasies, such as A Pair of Blue Eyes (1872-1873); and novels of character and environment. This class includes his best and most famous works, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), The Return of the Native (1878), Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Jude the Obscure.
First published in a modified form as a serial in Harper’s, Jude the Obscure came to be considered by many critics to be Hardy’s best novel. It was the outraged initial reception accorded Jude the Obscure that turned Hardy from the novel to concentrating on his poetry. Reception ranged from moral outrage to indignation that the book was not as spectacularly evil as touted, and Hardy’s disgust with the public was bitter and enduring.
The best explanation of the book was stated by Hardy in his preface, where he declared that the work was intended “to tell, without a mincing of words, of a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit; and to point the tragedy of unfulfilled aims.” To these could be added two other important themes: an attack on convention and society and an examination of human beings’ essential loneliness.
Exhibiting the flesh-spirit division is, of course, Jude’s conflicting nature. His relationship with Arabella represents his strong sexual propensities, while his attraction to intellectual pursuits and his high principles reveal his spiritual side. His obsession with Sue is a reflection of both sides of his personality; for while he is compelled by her mind and emotion, he is also drawn to her physically. At the crucial moments of his life, Jude’s fleshly desires are strong enough temporarily to overwhelm his other hopes. His two major goals are checked by this flaw, for his initial attempt at a university career is halted when he succumbs to Arabella and his plans for the ministry end when he kisses Sue and decides that as long as he loves another man’s wife he cannot be a soldier and servant of a religion that is so suspicious of sexual love.
“The tragedy of unfilled aims” is forcefully present in both Jude and Sue. For years Jude, in a truly dedicated and scholarly fashion, devotes himself to preparing to enter Christminster (Hardy’s name for Oxford)....
(The entire section is 1193 words.)