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). Even after he frees himself from the sexual entanglement with Arabella, his hopes for an education are doomed, for the master of the college who bothers to reply advises him to “remain in your own sphere.” Through no fault of his own and despite his seeming ability, he is continually denied what he so desperately seeks. The fact of his birth as a poor person is unchangeable, and Jude must accept its results.
His second great desire, a spiritual (as well as sexual) union with Sue, is also doomed. When Jude first sees Sue’s picture, he thinks of her as a saint, and he eventually derives many of his maturing intellectual concepts from her. His passion for Sue is true and full; yet Sue’s deeply flawed character necessitates her self-destruction as well as Jude’s destruction. She drains Jude...
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while simultaneously serving as a source of his growth, for she is irresponsible, cold, and cruel. She is an imperfect being, afraid not only of her physical side but also of her very ideas. She tells Jude that she does not have the courage of her convictions, and when he adopts her iconoclastic stance, she abandons it and demonstrates how conventional she really is. Her pagan shouts, her free thought, her brave spirit prove as much a sham as Christminster’s promises. Her tragedy—the gap between what she is and what she might have been—is not hers alone but is shared by Jude and becomes his.
As an attack on convention and society, Jude the Obscure focuses on three major areas: the British university system, marriage, and religion. Jude’s exclusion from Christminster is an indictment of the structure of an institution that allegedly symbolizes the noble part of the human mind yet actually stands only for a closed, tightly knit club. In its criticism of marriage, a union that Hardy said should be dissolvable by either side if it became a burden, the novel reveals how false is the view of marriage as a sacred contract. Marriage, as in Jude’s merger with Arabella, is often the fruit of a temporary urge, but its harvest can be lifelong and ruinous. Sue’s fear of marriage also suggests that the bond can be one of suffocation.
Perhaps most important are the novel’s charges against Christianity. The fundamental hollowness and hypocrisy of Christianity, Hardy asserted, damn it. A farmer thrashes Jude for lovingly letting the birds feed, and the sounds of the beating echo from the church tower that the same farmer had helped finance. Hardy’s scorn for such inconsistencies abounds throughout the book, and he proposes that the only valuable part of Christianity is its idea that love makes life more bearable.
Mirroring the development of these themes is the final impression that the book is also a cry of loneliness. Jude’s hopelessness is in the final analysis a result of his alienation not only from Arabella and Sue but also from his environment. Used in connection with Jude, the word “obscure,” in addition to conveying his association with darkness, his lack of distinction in the eyes of the world, and his humble station, suggests that he is not understood and that he is hidden from others and only faintly perceptible. In Hardy’s world, the happiest people are those who are most in touch with their environment, a condition that usually occurs in the least reflective characters. Jude, however, is always grasping for the ideal and ignoring the unpleasantness around him as much as he can; this inevitably leads to isolation. Hardy hints that such is the price human beings must pay for the refusal unquestionably to accept their status.
All the ills that Hardy ascribes to this world are merely a reflection of the ills of the universe. Human beings ruin society because they are imperfect and caught in the grip of a fatal and deterministic movement of the stars. In defense of his dark outlook, Hardy writes: “If a way to the better there be, it demands a full look at the worst.” In a philosophy that he termed evolutionary meliorism, Hardy further amplifies this concept in both a brighter and a more disastrous vein. That philosophy proposes that not only may human beings improve but they must find the way to that better condition if they are to survive.