Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
Jude Fawley, a stonecutter’s apprentice, teaches himself Greek and Latin and plans to go to Christminster to become a scholar. His plan is interrupted by Arabella Donn, a vulgar woman who tricks him into marriage. When the marriage fails, he makes his way to Christminster but is again kept from the university when he falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, an intellectual but emotionally cold woman.
When she learns Jude is married, she leaves him and marries the elderly Mr. Phillotson out of spite. Some time later, both Jude and Sue divorce their spouses and live together, unable to face the idea of marriage again. Financially burdened and socially shunned, Jude is unable to attend the university in whose shadow he now lives.
After the death of their children, Sue becomes extremely religious and leaves Jude to return to Phillotson, hoping in that way to atone for her behavior. Jude, deathly ill, is tricked again into marrying Arabella and dies in Christminster while she is out watching the boat races.
Sometimes criticized for its reliance upon coincidence to drive home its fatalistic message, the novel dramatizes Hardy’s belief in the indifference of nature to man, but it also criticizes the Victorian social institutions of marriage and education. Jude’s tragedy is one of missed fulfillment stemming from being denied entrance to the university and from his own natural impulses which lead him into two disastrous sexual relationships.
Hardy’s novel is often regarded as a precursor of the modern novel in its presentation of the theme of failure and frustration. Angered and disillusioned when the book was greeted with severe criticism for its alleged immorality, he turned to poetry, never to write another novel.
Butler, Lance St. John. Thomas Hardy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A short introductory study that deals with the issue of flesh versus spirit in Jude the Obscure. The quality of the novel, Butler claims, lies in its plotting.
Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy and the Proper Study of Mankind. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Discusses the way Hardy treats the theme of the conflict between the sexes and notes that Hardy believes sexual union to be the essence of marriage.
Hardy, Thomas. “Jude the Obscure”: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism. Edited by Norman Page. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Contains, in addition to the text of the novel, six contemporary reviews, comments from Hardy’s letters, and ten twentieth century critical essays. These deal with Jude the Obscure as a distinctively progressive novel and as tragedy; the authors discuss the novel’s poetic power, its pessimism and meliorism, its imagery and symbolism, and Hardy’s portrait of Sue Bridehead.
Hawkins, Desmond. Hardy: Novelist and Poet. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1976. In this bio-critical study, Hawkins maintains that the significance of the changing partnerships in Jude the Obscure is the fact that the two lesser characters, Arabella and Phillotson, represent the more conventional, tolerant, conformist elements in society, while Jude and Sue are unconventional, rebellious, and critical of the social order.
Vigar, Penelope. The Novels of Thomas Hardy: Illusion and Reality. London: Athlone Press, 1974. Emphasizes that Jude the Obscure achieves its intense psychological verisimilitude from its many short scenes and episodes in which the abstractions of feeling are transcribed into observable actions and events.
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