Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
Although the key issues of Jude the Obscure involve the hopeless sense Hardy has of modern marriage as an institution desperately in need of reform and of the complicity of Church and state in perpetuating an institution Hardy sees as inimical to human happiness, what is remarkable about this novel in the Hardy canon is its lack of emphasis on determinism. While its most horrid moment, the murder of the children and suicide by Father Time, the wretched son of Jude's and Arabella's marriage, carries the overtone of fatalism, in the main this novel is a narrative of choices. It can of course be argued that our choices are based on our innate dispositions, and that choice is therefore an illusion—that, for example, Jude had no choice except to become intimate with Arabella because of his biological needs and her exploitation of them—but the emphasis throughout Jude the Obscure, and a rare emphasis it is for Hardy, is that the characters' fates are in large measure the product of their deliberate choices. More even than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, this novel presents a central character who struggles to live a moral life and to make correct ethical decisions based on his understanding of the situations he faces. And what sets Jude as a character apart from most of the characters in this and Hardy's other novels is that he generally takes full responsibility for the ethical choices he has made. Two minor examples from Hardy's narrative will have to serve for demonstration.
In the first, Jude, frustrated in his quest to get a university education, has decided to accept the humbler calling of a parish cleric. But try as he may he cannot resist temptation in the person of his cousin Sue, and he feels keenly the inconsistency between an imperfect private morality and a vocation as a minister to others' moral lives. Unable to reconcile his "higher" and "lower" impulses, Jude accepts responsibility for his actions by renouncing his calling. This is clearly a conscious, deliberate decision, one taken in full awareness of its implications for the future. Even if his symbolic gesture, burning his books, is clichéd, it signals the conscious intention in Jude's deliberation. Although it could be argued, in theory, that Jude's fate is the strength of his attraction to Sue, it seems far more consistent with Hardy's tone to suggest that all of us are subject to temptations we cannot control, but that our responsibility is to do the best we can in exercising control over our inclinations and to take responsibility for failing to do so.
Similarly, Jude (and Sue) decide on a rational and ethical basis to bring the child, Father Time, into their lives. Arabella has failed to advise Jude of his paternity, although she has had several opportunities to do so. As readers, we cannot be absolutely certain that the child is Jude's. The important issue is that Jude and Sue accept Arabella's representation as true. She has further neglected her maternal responsibility for the child. Either of these might provide a moral and legal loophole for Jude, strained as his relations with Sue are becoming. They decide to take this action for two compelling, but not fated, reasons: first, legally, the evidence of Jude's paternity is substantial, if not conclusive; second, morally, the child is needful and abandoned. This is the most compelling evidence that Hardy at least approaches the notion that, while we as persons are ultimately under the control of "purblind doomsters," and cannot choose our weaknesses— who would not be moral if we could choose which temptations will be too strong for us?—we are indeed responsible moral creatures in an indifferent universe.
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