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 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...
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