Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy
The following entry presents criticism of Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure (1895). See also Thomas Hardy Criticism (Introduction), Thomas Hardy Short Story Criticism, and Far from the Madding Crowd Criticism.
Hardy's last and by most accounts bleakest novel, Jude the Obscure details the failed life and ignoble death of Jude Fawley, a bright and ambitious, but ultimately inconsequential, man. The central dieme of the work is the inability of individuals to surmount the social and psychological forces that determine their lives. This theme also appears Hardy's earlier novels, notably Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, which likewise dramatize his belief that individuals are powerless to affect their own lives in an attempt to achieve happiness. In Jude the Obscure Hardy further explores this theme in relation to the constricting forces he observed around him in Victorian society: class, religion, and sexuality. Thus, the novel recounts Jude's unrealized dream to enter the university at Christminster (Hardy's fictionalized version of Oxford University), and his powerlessness to remain happily with the woman he loves, Sue Bridehead, outside of the socially accepted institution of marriage.
Plot and Major Characters
Jude the Obscure opens as a young Jude Fawley watches his school teacher, Mr. Richard Phillotson, depart the small town of Marygreen and travel to the university at Christminster. Sharing Phillotson's goal of earning a degree, Jude hopes to one day follow the same path and so studies intently. Meanwhile, he lives with his great-aunt, Drusilla Fawley, and learns the trade of stonemasonry in order to earn money for his future. Several years pass and Jude, now nineteen years old, meets Arabella Donn, the daughter of a local pig farmer. Sensuous and physically attractive, Arabella pursues Jude, and the two become lovers. Eventually Arabella convinces Jude that she has become pregnant by him, and they marry. Quickly growing tired of her new husband, however, she leaves him and emigrates to Australia. Jude than resumes his original plan and journeys to Christminster. There he meets his distant cousin Sue Bridehead, an intelligent, unconventional woman with whom he immediately falls in love. He later learns that Sue has also attracted the attention of Phillotson. Disheartened by this news and his inability to gain acceptance to the university, Jude departs Christminster for Melchester, where he hopes to pursue theological studies instead. Now also in Melchester at a training college, Sue spends time with Jude, but grows cold when he professes his love to her. After a fearful Jude reveals to her that he is married, she responds by proclaiming her own marriage, to Phillotson. However, the marriage is not to Sue's liking, and the return of Arabella, who has since married an Australian man, prompts Sue to change her mind about Jude.
At the funeral for Jude's recently deceased aunt, Sue kisses Jude passionately. Thinking himself no longer suitable for a career in the Church, Jude forsakes his theological studies. Sue, meanwhile, asks Phillotson for his permission to leave. Sue and Jude move in together in the nearby town of Aldbrickham, while Phillotson eventually grants Sue a divorce. After a year Sue still refuses to make love to Jude, until Arabella appears once again, and Sue and Jude, though unmarried, consummate their relationship for the first time. Arabella notifies Jude that they have a son together, a gloomy boy who is called Little Father Time. The boy arrives shortly from Australia to live with Jude and Sue. Meanwhile, public dislike for the couple's unwed lifestyle costs Jude his job, and the two leave Aldbrickham for Kennetbridge. More than two years pass, and Jude and Sue now have two children of their own, while Sue carries another unborn. When Little Father Time hears his adopted mother's unhappy reaction to the pregnancy he mistakenly believes that he and the other children are the source of the family's woes. He responds by hanging his siblings and then himself. He leaves a note nearby that reads "Done because we are to menny." Soon after, Sue delivers her child stillborn. Jude, meanwhile, falls ill and works only irregularly. Arabella then reappears—her Australian husband has since died—with a revived interest in Jude. She contacts Phillotson, who writes to Sue, urging her to return to him. Sue, feeling that she has been wrong to live with Jude unmarried, agrees. Arabella then contrives to get Jude back, and the two remarry. Jude, who has grown more and more ill over time, professes his enduring love for Sue, but both remain, unhappily, with their former spouses. When Jude dies one year later, having never realized his ambitions, he is attended only by Arabella and Mrs. Edlin, a family friend.
Hardy called his final novel "a tragedy of unfulfilled aims," and critics have since interpreted Jude the Obscure as his most thoroughly pessimistic statement on the inability of human beings to escape the deterministic forces of nature, society, and internal compulsion. For Jude such an escape lay in his dream of attaining a degree from the university at Christminster, yet the reality of Christminster proves wholly unlike Jude's fantasy. Because Jude is unable to enter the university, it becomes a source of bitterness and a symbol of defeat. Likewise, Jude's relationship with Sue Bridehead ultimately yields only futility and leads to another of the crucial conflicts critics perceive in the novel, that between the flesh and the spirit. Unable to give herself physically to Jude, Sue is trapped both by Victorian conventions of marriage and by her deeply held fear of sexuality and desire. Ironically, critics observe, Jude's love for Sue forces him to forsake the spiritual path he had set out for himself at Melchester, as he thinks himself unfit for the Church because of his physical longings for her—longings that she avoids for most of the novel. The result is to reinforce Hardy's overall theme of human inconsequentiality in the face of an insurmountable fate.
The first complete appearance of Jude the Obscure in 1895 provoked a considerable uproar among Hardy's contemporaries. Most negative assessments objected to its frank portrayal of a man and woman living together out of wedlock, taking this to be a critique of the institution of marriage and the religious foundations upon which it is based. Hardy objected, contending that his novel was moral, but soon capitulated. He wrote in his postscript to the 1912 edition of Jude the Obscure that these reactions had the effect of "completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing," causing him to devote his literary attentions from that point forward solely to poetic and dramatic works. Still, many during Hardy's lifetime disagreed with this narrow interpretation and hailed the novel as a masterful work of art. Later criticism has generally shared this conclusion. With certain reservations, such as Hardy's occasional lapses into melodrama, critics have acknowledged Jude the Obscure as one of the masterpieces of late Victorian literature and a story that offers a glimpse of the ensuing modern era, an age forced to reckon with the crumbling certainties of the past.