Thomas Hardy really seems to be an author people either love or hate and Jude the Obscure must be the book that divides opinion more than any of his others. This is the third Hardy book I’ve read, the first two being Tess of the d’Urbervilles and A Pair of Blue Eyes and although this one didn’t have quite the same emotional impact on me that Tess did, I was still moved to tears in places.
Jude Fawley is eleven years old when he sees his schoolmaster, Mr Phillotson, leave the hamlet of Marygreen to go and study in the great city of Christminster. As a working-class boy it’s unlikely that Jude will ever be able to do the same. His only chance is to spend the next few years teaching himself Greek and Latin from books every night after going out to work through the day. Jude hopes that hard work, determination and a desire for knowledge will be enough to enable him to fulfil his dream of going to university in Christminster.
“It is a city of light,” he said to himself.
“The tree of knowledge grows there,” he added a few steps further on.
“It is a place that teachers of men spring from and go to.”
“It is what you may call a castle, manned by scholarship and religion.”
After this figure he was silent a long while, till he added:
“It would just suit me.”
What makes this so sad is that we, as readers, can see almost from the beginning that Jude is going to be disappointed. The class system in Victorian England meant it was almost impossible for someone in Jude’s position to go to university. The hopelessness of his situation becomes clear when the head of one of the Christminster colleges advises him that as a working man he should ‘remain in his own sphere and stick to his trade’. Jude’s response is to write on the college wall with a piece of chalk: “_I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?_”–Job xii. 3. That scene was one of many that made my heart break for Jude.
But education is not the only problem Jude faces. Following a disastrous marriage to a pig farmer’s daughter, he falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who has also been unhappily married. Disillusioned with marriage, Jude and Sue decide to live together without marrying, but this unconventional arrangement could have tragic consequences.
I can see why this book was so controversial at the time of its publication (1895) as there are a few aspects of the story that must have been quite shocking for Victorian readers, particularly the way it challenges the way we think about Christianity and marriage. Hardy places Jude and Sue into a situation which he could use to explore England’s marriage and divorce laws as well as the problems that faced two unmarried people living together and how they could (or couldn’t) reconcile this with their religious and moral beliefs.
All of this eventually leads to a devastating tragedy which takes place towards the end of the book – anyone who has read it will know what I’m referring to and for those of you who haven’t, I can tell you it’s one of the saddest scenes you’re ever likely to read. A couple of pages before it happened I guessed (knowing Hardy) what was going to occur and yet I still wasn’t really prepared for it. One of the reasons people give for not liking Hardy is that he’s too depressing and while I can’t deny that this book is relentlessly tragic and heartbreaking, I still felt compelled to keep reading, to find out what happened next, to see what further ordeals Jude would have to face.
I can’t recommend Jude the Obscure highly enough, unless you really just don’t like this type of book. Now I need to decide which of his books I should read next…