Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)

Thomas Hardy must have been a little bit of sadist. He spent his life writing books that are fun and easy to read, full of characters that you can’t help caring about. And then he utterly destroys their lives, brutally and completely. Typically they suffer a bellyful of misery and then die. Usually they aren’t even immoral, but good, innocent people who are trying their hardest to get by, until the world destroys them. Jude the Obscure is no exception.

Jude Fawley has big dreams. From a young age, he has looked over at the neighbouring city – Christminster – and fallen in love with its lofty steeples enveloped in mist. Although born in meager circumstances, he dreams of moving there and becoming a scholar in one of its majestic Churches. In this vein, he takes a job as a stonemason, and studies the classics with every free moment he gets. Unfortunately, being a little naive, he falls into the clutches of Arabella – a devious and comely minx – who tricks him into getting married. It’s short-lived though, and they soon separate; prompting Jude to finally move to his beloved Christminster. Unfortunately, in a bitter blow, the city rejects him, and he takes solace at first in booze and then in his cousin Sue. Sue is a breath of fresh air – pretty, moral, intelligent, free-thinking but frigid and slightly eccentric. Soon Jude is fast in love with her, but she is pushed around on every passing zephyr of her moral whim, and that leads her to act rather erratically. At one moment pursuing her heart – and her love for Jude – and the next punishing herself for her own licentiousness. I won’t ruin the ending, but, since it’s a Thomas Hardy, you can be sure that Arabella pops back into the picture, and all the characters’ lives goes to hell in a miserable handbasket.

“You have never loved me as I love you – never – never! Yours is not a passionate heart – your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite – not a woman!” 

My thoughts

Thomas Hardy has shown with this book that he is a fantastic writer. I often find that he writes books that wantonly tug on your heartstrings. His plots can seem quite crudely put together to try and make you cry. However, I found the first three quarters of Jude superbly subtle. The books gives a delicate treatment of the mental structures that people and communities make for themselves – and the damage they can do. Ultimately though, it seems Hardy can’t help himself, and the story descends into the usual quagmire of heartache. It’s a shame, because the suffering seems quite forced. The last chunk relied on an improbable run of bad luck, and a set of seemingly unrealistic actions by a main character, who suddenly acts capricious and cruel. I believed it all, apart from the doom. 

Reading Jude in the 21st century is quite a bizarre experience. The whole of the impetus for the plot – and people’s actions – is something that has so little relevance today. The driving force is the absolute rigidity of the institution of marriage. Marriage was quite different in Hardy’s time: the man was expected to be completely dominant with the women as his property.  Not only that, but the precepts of marriage – no divorce allowed, no sex outside marriage – (which a lot of people still believe in today) were so fixed that to break these covenants wasn’t just wrong, it was deeply evil. And evil to the point that communities would happily shun someone who broke them, driving them out of a job and a town. I was awestruck by just how much power there can be in a dead piece of paper.

So people in Hardy’s time let their mental beliefs about marriage have very large and often negative effects on their lives. People boxed themselves up in a set of very restrictive rules to live by. I think by describing this, Hardy gives a very salient demonstration of just how powerful the internal worlds we create for ourselves can be. Make no mistake, in the lives we live today we all have beliefs that are boxing us up; we just don’t know what they are yet.

I liked it

Jude the Obscure is a vivid hymn to internal struggle, to making the most out of the world, and simply trying your hardest to get by. But it’s more than that. It’s a subversive call to take arms against beliefs – and people – that disempower you. It’s a chronicle of the consequences of living a life based on what other people say. Ultimately, this is Hardy shaking the world by the shoulders and crying ‘for God’s sake, think for yourself’. And that’s deeply relevant today. Of course, the story is depressing. But then life is sometimes...

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