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homas Hardy’s last and the bleakest novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), which malicious critics nicknamed 'Jude the Obscene,' prompted more violent debate than did Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This novel marks the most bitter expression of Hardy’s view of human existence and Victorian society. Like in Tess, Hardy presents in Jude a conflict of a lonely individual with society. However, Hardy’s social criticism is much more outspoken in Jude than in his earlier novels. Jude the Obscure has often been interpreted as an indictment of the society that made it impossible for a working man to obtain higher education. In fact, Hardy openly blames the English educational system, which provided no opportunity for an ambitious but impoverished young man who wanted to study at a university. Besides, Hardy violently attacks the Victorian concepts of class division and marriage as a holy institution. Unlike the earlier novels, Jude is mostly set in modern, urban environment; in small drab industrial towns, railway trains, workshops and streets. The story imitates both the pattern of a Bildungsroman, describing the life of the protagonist from boyhood to his tragic death, and that of the New Woman fiction of the 1890s, with an emancipated, androgynous heroine as a central character.

One of the starting inspirations of Jude the Obscure came perhaps from the the Old Testament’s Book of Job, which as Claire Tomalin points out, Hardy ‘retold for a godless world that offers no final consolation or redress’ (254). In fact, Jude’s story rewrites some of ontological dilemmas contained in the ancient Hebrew tale. The Book of Job discusses why God allows pain and suffering in the human world. In a similar way, Hardy recounts in his tragic Bildungsroman the story of Jude and his unfortunate lover Sue Bridehead but wilfully extends his ontological critique to social inequalities in contemporary Victorian society.

Jude Fawley, a poor orphan raised by his great-aunt Drusilla in the the West Country village of Marygreen, was inspired by his schoolmaster Phillotson to learn Greek and Latin. A devout Anglican who avidly reads the Bible, Latin, and Greek authors, he dreams of studying at the University of Christminster (Oxford) and of becoming a priest. Fate, social conditions, and his natural instincts will suppress his idealism and his hopes for ecclesiastic career. At the age of nineteen, when returning home, he meets Arabella Donn, the beautiful but coarse and mediocre daughter of a pig-breeder, who soon succeeds in drawing him into marriage with her on the plea that a child is coming. Soon Jude realises that his marriage is not what he thought it ought to be. Arabella is also disappointed with her husband and deserts him, leaving for Australia, where she remarries. Jude goes to Christminster, where he obtains work as a stonemason, but he still dreams of entering one of the colleges in the future, and when he meets his distant cousin Sue Bridehead, a clever, unorthodox young woman, who attracts his attention, he falls in guilty love with her. Sue is a free-thinking New Woman, who smokes cigarettes, reads modern poetry including Swinburne, and defies Victorian social conventions.

Although Jude and Sue seem mutually attracted, they constantly move away from each other. When they first meet, Jude is a devout Christian, whereas Sue embodies pagan sensuality and a New Woman’s freedom. Sue leaves for Melchester (Salisbury), where she has been admitted to a teachers’ training college. Soon Jude follows her and finds a job there. Jude arranges for Sue to work with Phillotson, his former schoolmaster, as an apprentice teacher and soon he discovers that they plan to marry. One night Sue comes to Jude’s lodgings and spends a night with him although they do not consummate their love. When the college authorities learn that Sue spent a night with a man, she is expelled. Sue marries Phillotson and moves with her husband to Shaston, where they find employment at a local school. Soon Jude finds out that Sue is not happy with her marriage. She feels repugnance towards sexual relationship and deserts her middle-aged husband. Meanwhile Jude seeks admission to various colleges at Christminster, a city he calls reverentially the ‘Heavenly Jerusalem’, in order to become a priest, but is rejected and advised that he should rather stick to his trade. Jude feels frustrated and also guilty of his love for his cousin because he realises that his interest in her is not compatible with Christian norms and social laws.

His passion for Sue troubled his soul; […] Yet he perceived with despondency that, taken all round, he was a man of too many passions to make a good clergyman; the utmost he could hope for was that in a life of constant internal warfare between flesh and spirit the former might not always be victorious. [III.-ix., 185]

When Jude meets Sue at the funeral of aunt Drusilla at Marygreen, she confesses to him her repugnance to Phillotson, saying that she ought not have married him. ‘though I like Mr. Phillotson as a friend, I don’t like him — it is a torture to me to —live with him as a husband!’ (IV.ii., 203) Soon after this meeting with Sue, Jude acknowledges his erotic passion for her, and decides to burn all his theological books.

At dusk that evening he went into the garden and dug a shallow hole, to which he brought out all the theological and ethical works that he possessed, and had stored here. He knew that, in this country of true believers, most of them were not saleable at a much higher price than waste-paper value, and preferred to get rid of them in his own way, even if he should sacrifice, a little money to the sentiment of thus destroying them. Lighting some loose pamphlets to begin with, he cut the volumes into pieces as well as he could, and with a threepronged fork shook them over the flames. They kindled, and lighted up the back of the house, the pigsty, and his own face, till they were more or less consumed. [IV.iii, 209]

Meantime, Sue tells Phillotson that they cannot live together as husband and wife because she does not love him and decides to leave him. Surprisingly, Phillotson does not feel humiliated by his wife’s desertion. He seems to have understood it and respects her decision. Unlike a stereotypical Victorian male, he grants autonomy to his wife’s decisions. Sue wants to free herself from the constraints of marriage with Phillotson, which she finds unbearable, and he decides to free her in an act of natural charity. Subsequently, Jude and Sue decide to live together as lovers. However, their relationship is not satisfactory because of Sue’s sexual reticence and her neurotic personality. In the meantime, they get divorce from their respective spouses and can now be lawfully married, but Sue is hesitant to marry merely for the sake of religious convention. When Jude and Sue consider whether they should get married, Sue firmly opposes the idea and Jude reluctantly agrees with her opinion. In the meantime, Arabella returns from Australia and reveals in a letter to Jude that they have a son. Sue and Jude decide to adopt the little boy, called Little Father Time, who has never been christened. Soon they have two more children of their own. When they settle at Aldbrickham, it seems that they have overcome Victorian moral and social constraints. However, they are forced to leave that town and begin to lead a kind of nomadic existence. They spend two and half years wandering from place to place. Finally, they try to find a shelter again at Christminster, but are unable to rent lodgings because they are not married, and Jude stays in an inn while Sue and the children rent a room.

The novel climaxes with the horrifying death of the children. The eldest, the son of Jude and Arabella who is nicknamed ‘Little Father Time’ because he seemed too mature for a child his age, learns that there is another child on the way. He comes to a conclusion that his parents will not be able to feed such a large family. When Sue goes out to meet her husband for a brief meal, Jude’s son hangs the other two children and himself, as if to demonstrate his disbelief in the sense of existence and the possibility of survival. He left a short suicide note on the floor that said ‘Done because we are too menny’ (VI, ii, 325). Norman Holland suggests that Father Time’s hanging of himself and the two Fawley babies is an atonement like that of Christ, which is futile in a spiritually barren society. In Jude the Obscure Hardy shows much more emphatically than in his other novels, except perhaps for Tess, the helplessness or indifference of an invisible God to man’s aspirations and his fate. Frederick McDowell adds that ‘Hardy not only indicts Christianity, but by inference throughout the novel also condemns modern society for its failure to exemplify Christian ethical values’ (236).

After the death of their children, horror and despair overwhelm Sue and Jude. Sue adopts a morality of guilt and sin, concluding that her children were sacrificed as a result of her sins. Full of remorse, feeling that she has been punished by God for her relationship with Jude, she renounces her freethinking and is determined to repent her ‘sins’ by returning to Phillotson. Eventually, Sue is destroyed by the Victorian social and sexual conventions. In returning to Phillotson, Sue renounces her freedom and accepts sexual submission which she had opposed so emphatically. Jude sees her totally overcome by the literal adoption of the Christian attitude towards sensuality. Rejected by Sue, Jude is again trapped by Arabella into a loveless marriage. Suffering a physical and mental breakdown, Jude drinks heavily and deliberately seeks his own death; he exposes himself to rain and cold weather. Finally, he dies at 30 in an obscure way cursing the day he was born.

In Jude the Obscure, Hardy continues in the form of a tragic Bildungsroman his main existential concern with man’s estrangement in the world. He reveals man’s loss of contact with the physical world. Jude is an existential outcast everywhere: at Marygreen, Christminster and Melchester. As Virginia R. Hyman has observed, ‘Jude’s world, as most readers are immediately aware, is the most repellent of all Hardy’s fictional places’ (151). Hardy is pre-Freudian when he describes the relationships of Jude with Arabella and Sue. At Marygreen Jude acts according to the law of Nature. His senses are conquered by the sight of the seductive Arabella. The episode with Arabella washing a slaughtered pig at a stream, which dismayed many readers and critics, is the most naturalistic scene of the whole novel, reminiscent of Zola’s Germinal. But it is symbolical at the same time, carrying an overt sexual connotation. It should be noted that in Jude Hardy significantly shifts his emphasis onto social circumstances. John Alcorn notes that: ‘The plots of Tess and Jude are no less fatalistic than those of Hardy’s earlier works; he merely shifts his emphasis from determinism of the gods to the determinism of social prejudices’ (73). The socio-economic, moral, and religious constraints of Victorian society curtail the intellectual and emotional aspirations of the two protagonists. Hardy points to a number of social problems including restricted higher education, open class conflicts, social exclusion, poverty, and — last but not least —  the crisis of marriage. As its title suggests, Jude the Obscure can also be read as both a tragic Bildungsroman and also as a New Woman novel that raises such general issues as the woman question and the marriage question, and more specifically, failed marriages, bigamy and adultery, unfair divorce laws, illegitimate children and feminine sexuality. The main target of Hardy’s attack in the novel is rather the decrepit institution of marriage than the socially unjust Victorian educational system. Hardy vitriolically attacks Victorian society for its moral philistinism and sexual hypocrisy.

We can hardly classify Jude the Obscure as a traditional Bildungsroman, which ends on a positive note, like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Hardy’s novel might be rather called a tragic Anti-Bildungsroman, a novel of disenchantment with existence and society, because it pictures the immense disparity between Jude’s imagined world and the real world, which causes his downfall. Jude and Sue live in a world of illusion unable to comprehend the true nature of the external, social world, which is extremely hostile to them. Their behaviour resembles that of Nature children like Adam and Eve after the expulsion from the paradise. Neither is Jude the Obscurea typical New Woman novel in the style of Sarah Grand, Mona Caird, Olive Schreiner and Grant Allen. Hardy was essentially a philosophical novelist and in his fiction he primarily expressed his existential anguish, although he was also keenly interested in the Woman Question and he read with approval controversial New Woman novels. However, he did not explore the New Woman as a socio-economic phenomenon. He was much more interested in the liberated, free-thinking New Woman who rejected traditional gender roles. Unlike many New Woman characters, Sue Bridehead, perhaps Hardy's most complex female character, represents a failed, hypersensitive New Woman, whose rebellious feminism puts her ahead of her time, but is finally destroyed by the oppressive Victorian double standard of morality and religious guilt.

Jude the Obscure is a poignant novel with disquieting moral and social concerns. Its message aims to put into question the very foundations of traditional marriage and class-based elitist education. In his narrative strategy, Hardy makes use of the form of a realistic Bildungsroman and introduces a New Woman character, but he goes far beyond this framework presenting psychological portraits of a modern man and a modern woman in a futile search for their selfhood. As in his previous major fiction, Hardy shows in a series of symbolic images the tragic clash between tradition and modernity in late Victorian society. He also denies the relevance of Christianity to a dehumanised society.

Related material

References and Further Reading

Alcorn, John. The Nature Novel from Hardy to Lawrence. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women. Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Whitstable: The Harvester Press, 1984.

Gerber Helmut E. and W. Eugene Davis. Thomas Hardy. An Annotated Bibliography of Writing About Him. Vol. I. De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Patricia Ingham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Harvey, Geoffrey. The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

Holland, Norman Holland, ‘Jude the Obscure: Hardy’s Symbolic Indictment of Christianity’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, IX June 1954, 50-61.

Jekel, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy: Whitston Publishing Co., 1986.

MacDowell, Frederick P. W. ‘Hardy’s “Seemings or Personal Impressions.” The Symbolic Use of Image and Contrast in Jude the Obscure’, Modern Fiction Studies, VI(3), 1960. Thomas Hardy Issue.

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

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy; The Time-torn Man. London and New York: Penguin Books, 2007.

Created 29 September 2019