Places Discussed

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*Wessex. Fictional region of England in which Thomas Hardy set most of his major novels. It is situated east of the Cornish coast, between the River Thames and the English Channel. There, Hardy freely constructs a partly real and partly fictional locale to accommodate a series of “local” novels, including Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The countryside in many ways resembles that of southwestern England—rolling hills, babbling brooks, quaint villages, and rustic rural folk.


Marygreen. Jude’s hometown village in Wessex, where he is reared by his aunt. Marygreen’s landscape is idyllic and contrasts with the coarseness of its working-class population, as represented by Arabella’s family. Jude is initiated into adulthood in Marygreen; he learns a work ethic and experiences the temptation of fleshly desires. Here he marries Arabella and gives up his dreams of pursuing an education. This town is set in opposition to the university town of Christminster, which Jude views as an enlightened place of learning. This village is based on Great Fawley, Berkshire, where some of Hardy’s ancestors are buried and where his grandmother lived. Jude’s surname is taken from this place.


Christminster. University city. Christminster represents a typical university institution of the nineteenth century. It professes Christian values of humility and generosity yet excludes applicants based on class and gender. Jude moves to Christminster after his failed marriage to Arabella. However, Christminster will not accept him because he is a stonemason and therefore part of the working class. Even though Jude is intelligent and has studied independently, his application is rejected. Thus the city represents the belittling attitude of the Victorian upper classes toward the lower classes. Here, too, Jude meets his cousin, Sue Bridehead. Sue’s intellectuality is also dismissed at Christminster because she is a woman. At the end of the novel Jude returns to Christminster to die a broken man still enamored of the city’s beautiful spires and colleges. This town is modeled on Oxford with its many colleges and exclusive intellectual atmosphere. Hardy identifies particular places in Christminster as real places in Oxford: The meeting place of Jude and Sue is the cross in the pavement on Broad Street (the cross marks the place where Protestant bishops were burned to death during the reign of Queen Mary); Cardinal College is modeled on Christ Church College; St. Silas is inspired by St. Barnabus.


Melchester. Village to which Jude follows Sue after his failed attempt at Christminster. Here Sue and Jude finally recognize their love for each another and its dangers. When Sue is expelled from the teachers’ college after an innocent, all-night escapade with Jude, she redeems herself in the eyes of Melchester society by marrying Phillotson. Thus Melchester represents Victorian society’s rigid social standards for women, which inhibit Sue from acting independently. Melchester is a city found in several of Hardy’s Wessex novels and represents Salisbury, Wiltshire, with its well-known Salisbury Cathedral and Anglican religious foundation.


Shaston. Village modeled after Shaftesbury in Dorset that Hardy uses as the backdrop for Jude and Sue’s troubled reunion. When Phillotson and Sue settle in this city in southern Wessex, where they teach together, she realizes that she has betrayed herself and can no longer stay with Phillotson. Sue and Jude reunite, and breaking all conventions for marriage standards, Phillotson reluctantly gives his blessing for their future. Because Shaston is a peculiar mixture of permanence in Gothic churches and unpredictability in itinerant workers, it becomes an appropriate symbol for Jude and Sue’s relationship. Always struggling against society’s expectations for marriage, they are unable to preserve their unique relationship.


Aldbrickham. This city symbolizes Jude and Sue’s final downfall. Jude and Sue move to Aldbrickham to escape criticism and pose as a married couple, while Jude works repairing and creating ornamental Gothic architectural works. They further their deception by creating a family-like situation with Little Father Time (presumably Jude and Arabella’s son) and their two children. When the vestry discovers that they are not married, they are ostracized from the community. Again they move to an out-of-the-way area, where Jude’s health fails. In a run-down house, symbolic of their demise, the son kills his younger siblings and himself in what he thinks is an act of mercy. The horror of this act is symbolized in the derelict conditions to which Sue and Jude have been reduced. Fashioned after Reading, Berkshire, Aldbrickham represents a typical Victorian village with its rigid prescriptions for social behavior.

Historical Background

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Thomas Hardy lived at a time of intense and rapid social change in England, and his novels reflect on many of these changes, especially those affecting his native Dorset.

Hardy’s career as a novelist roughly paralleled the late Victorian era, named after Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. The Victorian period was an era of change and paradox which cannot be easily summarized.

Victorians were known for prudishness about sex. Though there has been debate over the veracity of this generalization, certainly Jude the Obscure was written against the backdrop of a somewhat repressive society. Even more than London, rural England was known for its conservative morals. In particular, the Evangelicals, a segment of the Anglican church, advocated self-denial and sobriety. Certainly, however, there were plenty who deviated from this harsh code. Jude’s propensity to drink is not atypical. Women at the time were engaged in the struggle for the right to vote, which did not come until 1918. As early as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft had published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, questioning the restrictions society placed on women. In 1869 John Stuart Mill had published “The Subjection of Women” in which he advocated both suffrage and the opportunity for women to pursue careers. However, changes in laws and social customs were slow in coming. The field of novel-writing had, of course, many female practitioners. Still, in order that she be taken seriously, Mary Ann Evans wrote under the name George Eliot. The first college for women in England had opened in 1847, but educational opportunities for women in Hardy’s time were still far fewer than those available to men.

England in the 1890s was also considering “The Marriage Question”; that is, whether such unions could be legally dissolved. Hardy’s writing on this issue can be seen as being affected by his personal life and the contemporary social debate. An important corollary of this issue was the right of a married woman to hold property. The Married Women’s Property Acts, passed between 1870 and 1908, ended the practice of giving all control of any property inherited or purchased by a woman to her husband.

However, several Victorian issues, such as economic growth and dislocation, religious and moral controversy, and the question of women’s liberation, remind us of contemporary social problems.

In the first six decades of the nineteenth century, England’s gross national product grew by more than four hundred percent. Industrialization, which allowed for increased trade both in England and abroad, was the cause of this vast upsurge in national and in some cases personal wealth. Innovations in communication and travel, particularly railways, facilitated the operations of industry and the flow of money. By the second half of the nineteenth century, England had become a country based on urban industry rather than feudal land-owning.

It is frequently said in economics that a rising tide lifts all boats—that progress and growth benefit every member of society. From personal and historical knowledge, Hardy knew this statement to contain substantial untruth. Victorian society hotly debated the ultimate value of its unprecedented economic expansion. Workers were paid more, many businessmen became rich, and England became the dominant economic power of the world, but some groups of society felt it no longer afforded them a place at all. Agricultural and unskilled rural workers particularly were subject to dislocation and upheaval as farmwork became less profitable than factory work, even though most factory work was degrading and dangerous and entailed living in crowded and unhealthy cities and towns.

The demographic or population statistics tell a staggering story. The 1851 census showed that for the first time more people lived in towns and cities than the countryside, a finding that fascinated the Victorians. Over the 1800s, England’s population grew from 8.9 to 32.5 million. The population of London rose sixfold over the same period, while the number of towns with a population over 50,000 went from 7 to 57. A move from the country to a city frequently meant the loss of a home and the loss of generations’ worth of social traditions. One commentator, indicating the dangers of such population shifts, wrote it was apparent “that the towns are gaining at the expense of the country, whose surplus population they absorb and destroy.”

Another prominent feature of life in Hardy’s England was a widespread loss of religious faith. In large part this was sparked by the writings of Charles Darwin, the naturalist whose discovery of evolution put much of the Bible into serious doubt for many people. Many intellectuals abandoned their religious beliefs, including Hardy, to an extent. Denied the emotional consolation of religion, many Victorians felt that ultimate questions of human existence (Who are we? Where are we going?) were unanswerable, leaving them in confusion, feeling what Hardy calls the “ache of modernism.”

Darwin’s theory of the extinction of species which could not adapt to change was especially important to Hardy. Influenced by Darwin, he saw Nature and the world in unsentimental fashion, as sites of cruelty, struggle, and death. Hardy even felt that classes and groups of people could become extinct if the historical conditions which supported their existence were taken away. He feared that the class his family came from, the rural laborers, might be completely destroyed if its existence was no longer useful to society. Their customs, their way of life, their style of thinking, could be lost forever, shoved aside by a new bourgeois class which made a feudal-based labor system irrelevant. Hardy perceived contemporary events as part of the flow of history and driven by forces beyond individual human control.

Meanwhile, the loss of religious faith sparked general fears about a breakdown in morality. Without a foundation in religion, and without the reference point of a common religious practice, how could morality be enforced or even expected? The redistribution of wealth, power, and population effected by the Industrial Revolution combined with the atmosphere of religious doubt to lead many to conclude that England’s moral fabric was being torn asunder. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy uses the central characters to set up debates on the issues of religion and morality.

Another Victorian controversy of importance was the issue of how women should be viewed and what roles they should play in society. Many felt that women were outfitted only for work in the home, and were not capable of education or professional achievement. Writers described the world as being made up of two spheres, the home and the public world, and tried to prove that woman’s place was only in the home. Victorian women were supposed to be an angel in the house and nothing more. Although this angelic status was primarily a middle-class ideal, it shows the intense Victorian devotion to the idea of female innocence. Many Victorians felt that if a woman lost her honor, or virginity, before marriage, then she was irreparably harmed, and must bear the shame the rest of her life. The plight of the so-called fallen woman was central to Victorian morality. No such prohibition was attached to male sexual behavior.

Jude the Obscure is filled with references to contemporary intellectual figures, and reflects many of the trends in late Victorian English thought. These include the conflict between the religious and the secular and what was known as “The Woman Question.” Hardy held progressive views on these issues.

One of the most important developments of Victorian England was the establishment of schools for the rural working class. Hardy attended such a school and, no doubt, Jude’s opportunity to have the education that he had was a result of this. Other trends to influence Hardy’s youth were chartism, which brought greater rights for the working class, and the railroad, which connected the countryside to London.

The nineteenth century is typically divided between the Romantic Age and the Victorian Age, and while Hardy’s work certainly falls chronologically in the Victorian Age, he has much in common with the Romantics. Like Wordsworth, he preferred to write about the common man and nature rather than upper-class society. Unlike Wordsworth, however, he had actually lived in the milieu about which he wrote. Hardy’s rural characters were not just sentimentalized, but realistic. Certainly, however, the introduction of such topics by Wordsworth paved the way for making Hardy’s work acceptable to the Victorian reader.

While Wordsworth is in the background, the work of another Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, is an integral part of Jude the Obscure. Shelley was far more overtly political than Wordsworth, and he speaks to both the relationship between Jude and Sue and to the conflicts they feel with the world around them. Though Shelley attended University, he was a rebel. Poems quoted in Jude include “The Revolt of Islam” and “Epipsychidion.”

The novel was published at the end of the Victorian Era. Optimism and expansion, hallmarks of Victorianism, were no longer appealing to Hardy and many of his contemporaries. The struggle for Empire which took place throughout the nineteenth century did not, Hardy believed, improve England’s social climate. He was considered by many to be a pessimist, though he denied that this was so. Certainly, his novels were not so optimistic as those of earlier Victorian novelists, such as Dickens and Charlotte Bronte.

In Dickens’ and Bronte’s novels, things had a way of working out. Extraordinary coincidences reunited families, and bad people were punished. Though the novels were critical of society, they also fit in with the notion of progress; the quality of life in general was improving due to the Industrial Age. Hardy, however, rejects this belief in progress, as is evident in the outcome of his novels, particularly that of Jude. Good and evil are not so clearly separated and, certainly, good does not prevail. This aspect of Hardy’s work looks ahead to modernism.

Jude the Obscure was an extraordinarily controversial work, though Hardy was taken aback by this controversy. The novel was seen as a threat to marriage and social order; he denied that it was a treatise on evil, but merely the story of two individuals. Critics were particularly offended by Sue Bridehead, who questioned both the need for marriage and the general subservience of women. That he did not anticipate a negative reaction is surprising, since several of his previous novels, particularly Tess of the D’Urbervilles, met with such a response. It is possible that this adverse reaction to the novel led Hardy to turn to poetry.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Most discussions of Jude the Obscure will undoubtedly center on Hardy's controversial views on marriage and education. Perhaps an ideal starting point for discussion would be, does Hardy create a fair representation of the institutions to support his criticism? All the marriages represented in the novel are perfectly dreadful, but is this true because, as Sue maintains, marriage inevitably leads to a diminished love between partners, or do the marriages in this novel fail because of character defects of one or more of the partners (for example, Arabella's dishonesty, Sue's frigidity)? Another version of the same question might be, are Jude's and Sue's problems the result of the institution of marriage, or of Sue's attitudes toward this social institution? Does her refusal to marry, even after they have become sexually intimate, suggest a critique of marriage or some kind of fastidiousness on her part? Several recent feminist scholars and critics make eloquent cases that Sue's continued refusal manifests Hardy's understanding of the need for freedom in all sexual, or otherwise interpersonal, activities. In this discussion it might be a good idea to consider that, from all indications, the society Hardy describes did not automatically despise "retroactive marriages."

1. Should we heed Aunt Drisilla's advice that the Fawleys are not the marrying kind? Is her statement even true of Jude?

2. Who is responsible for Father Time's murder of his half-brother and half-sister, then his suicide? Jude? Sue for her advice? Arabella for abandoning him? Society?

3. Is Father Time a convincing character? Or do his aged countenance and his morbid disposition indicate Hardy's recognition that this character is more allegorical than socially real?

4. Is it part of Hardy's tragic theme that Phillotson is punished for being a kind person? Or is he as foolish as most of the other characters think he is?

5. After their estrangement, Jude continues to feel an obligation to Arabella, even though he may use this feeling to manipulate Sue. Is there any such obligation? Or do her abandonment and their divorce eliminate any such duty? Does he use the threat of reunion with Arabella to manipulate Sue into agreeing to marry him?

6. Why, after their past has haunted them, does Jude want to return to Christminster? Since Hardy does not give us much motivation for this decision, do we as readers find it credible?

7. Is Sue's acceptance of orthodox religion at the novel's end convincing? Do you think she is any more substantively committed to orthodoxy than she proved to be to paganism and feminism?

8. Do Hardy's portrayals of workplaces, such as the store selling religious objects at which Sue works, the several masons for whom Jude works, even the schools Phillotson heads, provide much hope for the notion of the dignity of work in the emerging industrial society, as opposed to Jude's hopeless dreams for education and advancement in the clergy and for breaking down what Hardy represents as an invincible caste system?

9. To what degree are Jude's sufferings caused by defects in his own character? By his tendency to drunkenness, to idealization of institutions like the university and of persons like Phillotson and later Sue, to his own impulsiveness with individuals like Arabella? Would such impulsiveness in any way qualify Hardy's criticism of public institutions as the primary object of his social criticism?

10. Is Phillotson's agreeing to let Sue go to live with Jude (Phillotson obviously believes they plan to live in an illegitimate cohabitation) credible, in light of the general mores of the society Hardy represents? Of the advice Richard receives from his friend and colleague Gillingham? Of the expectations Richard implied when he asked Sue to be, in effect, his protégé?

11. How would you describe the love Sue expects of Jude? Are terms like "platonic" or, as Phillotson calls it, "Shelleyan," adequate or even accurate? Does Sue's love change after they become intimate? At what point does this character draw the line between spiritual and sexual love?

12. Hardy mentions, but does not really dwell upon, Jude's "lowered ambition" to become a parish priest after he realizes that he will never be permitted to enter the university. In the light of what you know about this character, is this a reasonable goal? Do you think he could have been happy in this role, had he chosen to pursue it rather than to pursue Sue? Why or why not?

Social Concerns

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Poet and critic A. Alvarez, in an afterward for the 1961 edition of Jude the Obscure, comments on its public reception in an effort to articulate what for many readers is a central riddle surrounding this narrative, that it is among the best novels Thomas Hardy ever wrote and one of the indispensable books in late nineteenth century British fiction. Yet with its completion Hardy ceased to regard himself as a novelist and devoted his remaining thirty-two years to poetry and drama. Alvarez writes that the novel "provoked an outcry as noisy as that which recently greeted [D. H. Lawrence's] Lady Chatterly's Lover (1928; see separate entry). The press attacked in a pack, lady reviewers became hysterical, and a bishop solemnly burnt the book." Full-scale biographical and critical studies confirm the hue and cry Hardy's novel raised in both Great Britain and America. Carl Weber mentions that one Mrs. Oliphant (the novelist) claimed Hardy was trying to "establish a wicked 'anti-marriage league'" and that a lecturer charged Hardy with a "curious mania for exploring sewers". An American critic called it one of the "most objectionable books he had ever read." Michael Millgate confirms several of these responses, adding that at one point Hardy was so annoyed by the majority of reviews of Jude the Obscure that he toyed with the notion of writing an article replying to them, the "criticisms being outrageously personal, unfair, and untrue." One reviewer punned on the title as Jude the Obscene while another entitled his review-essay "Hardy the Degenerate."

In his Preface to the bound edition of 1896, Hardy sounded a note of anger as he explained the bowdlerization he had consented to for serial publication and the moral outrage the novel had, even in its modified form, drawn, speaking wryly of "a novel addressed by a man to men and women of full age." In his "Postscript" to the 1912 Wessex edition of his novels, Hardy was more direct. He claimed that the entire critical response to Jude the Obscure, including a few readers who "uncursed me" upon discovering that "Jude was a moral work" was responsible for his decision about his own future work: "the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel writing."

What was it about this novel, in many ways an even more original, if despairing, narrative than masterworks like Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891; see separate entry), The Major of Casterbridge (1886; see separate entry), or The Return of the Native (1878) that aroused so hostile a reaction to a writer whose work had long been controversial but who had gained firm recognition as one of England's greatest novelists? Although we cannot hope to cover in a brief essay all the reasons for the intensity of the public reaction—the public had after all come to accept Hardy's "pure woman," Tess—two more sacred cows were placed squarely in Hardy's fictional cross hairs this time. One was the myth of education as liberation, with its attendant idyllic notion of the university as a welcoming community of scholars.

The novel might have aroused nothing more than moderate indignation by exploring this concern, but it was the other that brought down the wrath of the guardians of establishment taste. Like Milton two centuries earlier, Hardy had the temerity to attack the institution of marriage. But whereas Milton had argued the case in the abstract, in an essay deliberating the potential merits of divorce in the case of a marriage that brings misery to one or both partners, from which essay Hardy quotes in an epigraph to "Part Fourth," Hardy used the device of fiction, with its empathy and character identification, to dramatize the oppression and eventual destruction of a sympathetically-portrayed character trapped into a loveless marriage and denied any legal prospect for happiness because of this trap. In the 1912 "Postscript," Hardy made his theoretical position clear: "a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties—being then essentially and morally no marriage."

As a criticism of the myth of education as liberation, Hardy's novel has clear autobiographical associations, although Hardy himself took pains to deny any such intention. Like the creator, Jude Fawley is inspired with the love of learning in the abstract, and with the goal of entering the ministry. While Hardy became one of the most caustic critics of institutional religion of his era, he did in fact consider throughout his teen years a possible vocation in the clergy, and many of his male protagonists are individuals who, like Jude, cannot enter the university because of poverty, or like Angel Clare of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, because of an inability to swallow church doctrine entire. Even late in his life, Hardy remained fond of religious music, and Jude for a while finds solace as a bass singer in a small church choir. Like his creator, Jude is apprenticed to a mason who specializes in church restoration. But Hardy's character is fired with an almost melodramatic association of the university at Christminster (Hardy's version of Oxford) as a variation on the American Puritan John Winthrop's notion of a shining "city on a hill," an association made explicit when Hardy uses the Calvinistic phrase the "new Jerusalem" to describe Jude's youthful impression of Christminster. It becomes a citadel in Jude's childlike eyes of all that is elevating, liberating, pure. He looks from afar, gazing toward the halo of light that emanates in the night from this sanctuary of wisdom and purity, and undergoes an ironic epiphany: "a message from this place . . . The voice of the city, faint and musical, calling to him, 'We are happy here."'

Jude's efforts to achieve collegiality with the learned dons and scholars is nothing short of heroic. With nothing more than the most elementary educational opportunities, Jude, fired with a zeal for learning, spends his meager earnings on Latin and even Greek grammars, then devotes all his free time to mastering, without the benefit of a tutor, the grammars of these dead languages. When he moves to Christminster, after his disastrous marriage to Arabella, he sets up his tiny rented room to resemble a scholar's, with a partition dividing the sleeping from the study area. Isolated from the eyes of the curious, Jude reads late into the night to learn the vast amount of knowledge and theory that separates him from the life of the mind to which he aspires and which he sees manifested in the university town around him. While other laborers sport or drink after long hours of strenuous effort, Jude reads and imagines himself collegial in his city on the hill.

Hardy introduces a counter-motif to Jude's yearning for the intellectual life. In the early sections, as Millgate has pointed out, Hardy is at pains to indicate the dignity inherent in Jude's humbler vocation as a mason (Hardy's own father was a master-mason). When he applies for a job at Christminster, Jude has a fleeting awareness of the nobility Hardy attaches to a skilled, if laboring, task: "for a moment there fell on Jude a true illumination [emphasis added]; that here in the stone yard was a center of effort as worthy as that dignified by the name of scholarly study." But he cannot sustain this epiphany. The "stress of his old idea," that he must aspire toward a clerical profession through university training undermines this moment, and although he may from time to time feel fulfillment in a job done well, he always subverts that satisfaction by seeing it as diminished in the context of his calling to the life of the mind. Hardy explicitly condemns this aspiration as Jude's "form of the modern vice of unrest." Millgate's assessment of Jude's vocation underscores a subtle nuance in Hardy's treatment of his aspiration: "Hardy places a high value on Jude's skill, and on the dignity of craftsmanship; he also establishes here the ironies implicit in Jude's quest, in his rejection of that valuable possession his craftsmanship for the sake of a false grail."

Jude's aspiration to a life of scholarship, while in some ways the most memorable thing about the novel, actually occupies only one-third of the book. He moves to Christminster and works as mason specializing in church restoration, all the while preparing himself—indeed living for—matriculation in one of the colleges. Upon fully realizing the economic odds against his entering the university by even his thirtieth year, Fawley observes the deans and provosts of the colleges, then on the basis of their physical appearance suggesting that they are "far-seeing," selects five to whom he writes for advice concerning his plight. One eventually writes back, advising him not to rock the boat of caste, to stay in his assigned place as a laborer. The other four do not even answer. Jude gets drunk. Thus the dream of Jude's life, to enter the life of scholars, ends with exclusion based on economic position and caste, not on merit.

Chastened, Fawley decides to pursue the humbler calling of a parish priest. Hardy does not, however, dwell on that vocation as he does on the scholarly one, except to hint that the practice of self mortification, more than the theological or ministerial function, seems to be the basis for Fawley's decision to enter the clergy. He is hopelessly caught up in his frustration over not being able to enter the "paradise of the learned" and in his growing love for Sue Bridehead, a love doomed for many reasons: Jude is still married to Arabella, Sue is his cousin, Sue is flighty and inconsistent, and she is betrothed to his old mentor Richard Phillotson. In this chaos of affections, Jude vacillates between drunkenness and what Hardy implies is a compensating excess, the romantic vision of himself as a humble priest perfecting the habit of self-denial, what Hardy explicitly calls "a purgatorial course worthy of being followed by a remorseful man." In one of the novel's more melodramatic moments, Jude burns all his theological books in a garden when he accepts that the passionate kiss he and Sue have shared eliminates him from his own standard for a humble prophet. Hardy's omniscient narrator notes wryly that both of Jude's dreams are "checked by a woman." As marriage to Arabella derailed his path toward the university life, so his affection for his cousin renders him in his own eyes unworthy of a priest's role.

The real reason for Jude the Obscure's instant vilification by press critics, however, was Hardy's attack on the institution of Victorian marriage, and although he attempted to soften his censure of that institution in letters and prefaces, his denials ring hollow when tested against the passion of the novel. All four of the principal characters are trapped in lifeless or loveless marriages, and each responds in a different way to an institution that Hardy clearly sees as in need of reform to meet real human needs. The common thread, however, is that all compromise legally, spiritually, or emotionally, as the result of a marriage they cannot escape except through divorce, frowned upon by church and state, or death, their own or their partner's. Hardy also makes it clear that all his characters enter marriage for foolish or irresponsible reasons, which lead to later misery.

The most overtly objectionable marriage is Jude's. He is trapped into a loveless relationship by Arabella, who arranges, with her family's consent, opportunities for sexual intimacy that give her an opportunity to trap Jude into marriage, not by becoming pregnant, but by lying to him about it, much as she conceals the shadier side of her past life from him. Her friends admire her cleverness in trapping a husband without the inconvenience of childbearing; one calls Arabella's plan a "real stroke of genius." So most members of the small Marygreen community accept two notions about marriage: that pregnancy is a legitimate way to negotiate an engagement, and that partners need not be terribly honest with one another. After Arabella has made a public scandal concerning Jude's treatment of her, then has left him, common sense would suggest that Jude should now be free from a union that was loveless, and into which he had been entrapped. But common sense and social custom often have little in common, and even when he re-meets Arabella, as a barmaid at a Christminster tavern years later, he feels legally bound to her, and has had to renounce his affection for Sue to another suitor because he is married. Again common sense would suggest that, because Arabella married again in Australia, and is therefore a bigamist, Jude should have legal recourse to escape from the marriage she repudiated by leaving him and by remarrying. Fawley agrees, however, after a brief outing to a nearby hamlet, not to disclose her crime to anyone.

Again and again, Hardy laments the cruelty of the law that binds Jude to such a person, "between whom and himself there was no more unity than that between east and west being in the eye of the Church one person with him." Even after Arabella asks for a civil divorce, so that she may marry Cartlett, she sends Jude the son she claims to have been the product of their marriage, and he accepts the child as his responsibility. Yet after Cartlett dies, Arabella maintains that she has the only true claim on Jude because of the marriage she has twice renounced and which the law has recognized as invalid.

A second marriage, Sue Bridehead's to Richard Phillotson, Jude's former teacher and role model, constitutes another dimension in Hardy's critique of the institution. She marries Richard, who is incidentally several years her senior, out of her own anxiety and her anger with Jude. She has been dismissed from the training school at which she enrolled with Phillotson's assistance, on a charge of sexual misconduct (with Jude) that is not technically true. She is also enraged that Jude has, after getting her confession of love, disclosed his past history with Arabella. She is thus on the rebound when she agrees to go through with the marriage to Phillotson(although the engagement has been long in the works), and she immediately regrets it. In one of the novel's melodramatic moments, she leaps from a bedroom window to avoid what she perceives, incorrectly, as a sexual overture from her husband. She develops from her brief union with Phillotson—she asks to be freed to live with Jude—a notion that marriage as an institution inevitably turns love into loathing. Although Phillotson reluctantly grants her request that she live with Jude, Sue refuses to marry Jude, or to live as his mistress, for several months. She uses her history with Richard and the curse of the Fawley clan to justify continuing to postpone marriage to Jude, claiming that she fears that "an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, just as it did between our unfortunate parents." Her marriage to Richard has left her permanently scarred, terrified that a hateful institution might again rob her of her affections.

Hardy seems to agree with Sue's many statements that weddings transform noble and spiritual love to mendacious and wrangling hatreds, even though Jude clearly suffers from living with his beloved but not sharing her life by cohabiting with her. When, after Jude's child arrives, Sue reluctantly agrees to marry him, for the child's sake, they attempt marriage ceremonies at both a registry and a church. Sue's reaction to both is despair, that their love might come to the lowest common denominator of what Hardy calls in one example involving evidence of both entrapment and physical abuse, "the antipathetic, recriminatory mood of the average husband and wife of Christendom." In the marriages of Phillotson and Sue, as well as Arabella and Jude, both of which have for different reasons been re-solemnized at novel's end, Hardy suggests a very despairing theme about modern marriage: it just does not work. Biographers and critics have noted Mrs. Emma Hardy's extensive efforts to enlist help to persuade her husband to burn the manuscript. Small wonder; in that their own marriage had deteriorated, Emma would justifiably be offended by a portrayal of marriage as the surest way to turn love into its opposite.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Like most of Hardy's novels, this one was written for serialization, but the finished text was much more effectively revised to minimize the sense of anticlimax that comes with serialization than was, for example, The Return of the Native or The Mayor of Casterbridge. A few episodes of that sort remain, such as the melodramatic moment when Sue runs away from her teacher training school, swims a river, and shows up at Jude's bachelor quarters, but in the main this novel indicates how much Hardy's tactic of revising away the compromises he felt to be forced upon him by serial publication improved as he came to the end of his career as a novelist. On the other hand, it is of course possible that the many problems he had with the serialization of Jude strengthened his resolve not to include such compromises as would need to be revised out later, as well as supported his decision to abandon forever the profession of novel-writing. With this advancement comes moderation in Hardy's propensity toward sensational and melodramatic scenes to bring a seeming closure to the serial sections.

As a typical Hardy novel, however more seamless in its final narrative form, his last effort is a triumph of the conservative narrative strategies so prized by Victorian authors and their audiences. Like most Hardy novels it is defiantly omniscient. Hardy positions his narrator in a panoramic position, as he does in most of his novels, with complete freedom to tell the reader the most private thoughts and feelings of any of his characters, and with considerable latitude to pass editorial judgment on his characters' actions and motivations.

Jude is moreover a brilliant manifestation of that unique variation Hardy developed on the foundational novel technique, the picaresque (a comic narrative following sequentially the adventures of one central character). Like the masters of eighteenth and nineteenth century British fiction, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Charles Dickens, Hardy organizes his fiction around the "cradle-to-grave" narrative of his central character. Unlike Fielding and Sterne, whose Tom Jones (1749) and Tristram Sbandy (1759- 1767) invite an essentially comic identification with the main character, whose adventures are viewed with simultaneous compassion and mirth, and therefore with come comic and consequently critical perspective, Hardy follows the picaresque variation of Dickens, whose Oliver Twist (1838) and David Copperfield (1850) are seen from a generally uniform, empathic angle of vision. If anything, Hardy does Dickens one more in minimizing the humor or comic perspective within which we see the hero's struggle. He demands a full, compassionate, and essentially tragic, identification with his hero's plight. There aren't many chuckles in any Hardy novel; there are practically none in Jude. Thus the mirth traditionally associated with the picaresque has been replaced by sorrowful identification.

In one way, however, Jude is unique among Hardy's mature narratives. Each cluster of chapters, roughly corresponding with a serial installment, is titled by the name of a place. Thus "Part First, At Marygreen," consisting of ten chapters, treats events of Jude's childhood and his ill-fated marriage. "Part Second, At Christminster," consists of seven chapters concerning Jude's efforts to matriculate at the University and his discovery that he's unwanted there. What is significant is that, except in the most general ways, location has little to do with the events of the cluster, less so than, say, the relation between location and event in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Many of the important scenes, with the obvious exceptions of the child Jude's gazing across the night sky toward Christminster, or the fair at which Arabella meets the sickly Jude, Sue, and their children, take place within buildings, and one of Hardy's great strengths as a novelist, his poignantly describing landscapes and relating these to his characters' fates, is less in evidence here than in his earlier novels. On the other hand, the architect in Hardy is constantly apparent in the narration of Jude. Small, oppressive spaces—rooms, buildings, walls, partitions—are described in intricate detail, with a suggestion of how these oppressive spaces provide a correlative to the oppressive institutions that fetter his characters' hopes and dreams.


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Although its mood and theme do not lend themselves to pop culture formats, and its lack of a "positive message" seems at odds with many trends in popular media, two interesting adaptations have been released almost one century after the novel was written. Neither was extremely successful commercially, but one offers valid interpretations that can supplement, but not replace, a reading of Hardy's narrative.

A British Broadcasting production of 1971 was liberally "dramatized" by Harry Green and directed by Hugh David. Although Green took considerable liberties with Hardy's novel in adapting it to television, including the omission of several minor characters like Phillotson's confidant Gillingham and Mr. Cartlett, as well as adding substantially to the importance of others, like the Marygreen parish priest, the adaptation is on the whole faithful to the spirit of Hardy's novel. David's direction makes effective use of virtually simultaneous cuts among scenes involving the major characters, and the settings, while clearly rural England and sufficiently old-fashioned to give the impression of Wessex'in the 1890s, are photographed in a softened green that seems to mirror the vagueness of most of the place descriptions in the book.

Under David's direction Robert Powell gives a convincing performance as the angst-filled Jude, but the truly stunning performance of Arabella by Alex Marshall is sassy, sensuous, and manipulative. Marshall's interpretation of the role highlights the impression that, while in obvious areas she and Sue are opposites—Arabella is coarse, Sue ethereal; Arabella is sexual, Sue is frigid; Arabella is voluptuous, Sue thin; Arabella is a hedonist, Sue, despite her professed paganism, a bit of a prude—they are much more alike than different in manipulating Jude. Finally, Green and David pick up magnificently on Hardy's hints that part of the problem of Victorian culture is that individuals are not allowed privacy. In scene after scene, the film fleshes out the suggestion that employers, landladies, and other busybodies invade people's private space to pry into their private morality. One such modest example is Miss Fontover's sneaking into Sue's room to spy on the statuary she has bought. Green picks up Hardy's hint that Miss Fontover broke Sue's pagan statues, to have them discovered only after some serious snooping under Sue's bed. Similar scenes interspersed throughout the film remind us how very hard it is for Jude and Sue to have a private life in the world Hardy describes.

The other adaptation is Jude, a feature film released by Polygram films in 1996. The special strength of director Michael Winterbottom's motion picture is its cinematography, offering spectacular vistas of Wessex scenery, contrasted with stern, stone- and brick-faced images of the excluding Christminster. Moreover, the motion picture conveys powerful images of the brutish, drudge like agricultural world Jude seeks to escape through the life of the mind. But the adaptation by Hossein Amini, while faithful to Hardy's narrative in the early sections, misses completely the spirit of Hardy's text, perhaps owing to accommodations deemed necessary for commercial success. Many serious omissions diminish the subtlety of Hardy's narrative, such as the failure to deal with Jude's second set of aspirations, to a humble cleric, or the re-establishment of both Arabella's marriage to Jude and Sue's to Phillotson. The film also omits Jude's sickness and death, perhaps because such topics are not generally popular with movie audiences. Finally, in the film version the child Father Time (called Juey, a familiar for Jude, in the movie) never really comes to his wretched, morbid little life. This has the unfortunate effect of maximizing the shock, but minimizing the credibility, of the murder-suicide.

The least successful element of Jude (1996), however, is Kate Winslet's portrayal of Sue. While she exaggerates Hardy's defiant feminist ahead of her time—Winslet has Sue smoking in public, going to pubs, and making suggestive remarks—she cannot find the depth to make Sue's terror of sex, whether because of frigidity or on the principle that her sexuality cannot be bought or contracted, complex or real. This shallowness is compounded by her suddenly becoming sexually active with Jude to persuade him not to go to Arabella at Aldbrickham. While Hardy's Sue bargains to keep Jude from going to Arabella, she remains his Platonic, or as Phillotson calls her, "Shelleyean" lover for quite a while thereafter. Christopher Eccleston's Jude is passionate, but his zeal for Christ and knowledge are portrayed with less conviction than his lusts for Arabella and later Sue. By contrast Liam Cunningham's Phillotson is so fine that it makes the viewer regret that so much of Richard's role in Jude the Obscure was deleted in Amini's adaptation.


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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Abrams, M. H., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Baker, Ernest A. The History of the English Novel, Vol. 9. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1936.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Boumehla, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1982.

Carpenter, Richard. Thomas Hardy. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1964.

Drabble, Margaret and Stringer, Jenny. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Hardy, Thomas. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Vol. 2: 1893–1901. R. L. Purdy and M. Millgate, eds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: Penguin, 1978.

Howe, Irving. Thomas Hardy. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Watts, Cedric. Jude the Obscure. New York: Penguin, 1992.

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