Jude the Obscure may have been written over a hundred years ago, and Thomas Hardy might have changed the place names, but having grown up in the South of England, I nonetheless recognised some of the locations used in this novel. So, for me, this made a brilliant book even better.
Set in the county of Wessex, Jude the Obscure follows the generally unhappy life of Jude Fawley. Intelligent beyond the needs of his working class up -bringing, young Jude sets his sights on one day going to Christminster
(Oxford), where he hopes hard work will be enough to pay his way through
college. Studying by candlelight after a hard day’s labour as a stonemason,
he teaches himself the basics of Latin and Greek. Though he knows his goal
won’t be easy, he perseveres, and for a while it seems as though he might
just do it. But his plans are derailed when he meets two very different
women—Arabella, the scheming, working class lass who sets her marrying eye
on him, and Sue, his waif-like, well-read cousin.
To start with, Jude is a man of genuine faith and consequently a person at
the mercy of his conscience. But he’s tricked into an unhappy marriage,
tormented by a love that can’t be, and eventually driven to question all the
values he once held dear.
As Hardy’s most controversial novel, Jude the Obscure paints a bleak picture of working class life in late nineteenth century England. Through the
sufferings of Jude, Hardy takes broad swipes at the institute of marriage,
organised religion, a class-dominated education system, and society’s
inability to accept what isn’t normal. Upon publication, the book received
harsh criticism for what was considered a frank depiction of sex—though, by
today’s standards, it wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. Its less-than-glowing
portrayal of marriage and religion drove a further wedge between Hardy and
his estranged wife, Emma, as she feared people would see the book as an
autobiographical account of their own relationship. But it’s for these
reasons, and the fact it’s a compelling story, that I found the book such a
worthwhile read. And not only is it a comment on life in the 1890s, but it
also shows how the intolerant attitudes that wore Jude down are still used
as weapons by some people in today’s society.
Thomas Hardy never wrote another novel after Jude the Obscure, instead
spending the rest of his days penning poems. It could be said that his
career ended on a low note, but I think he actually went out on a high note—because it took a brave man to stand up to Victorian attitudes and risk the
self-righteous wrath he must have known this novel would attract.
Ed. Note: Thanks to guest columnist, Simon Woodhouse, for filling in for regular Dust Off a Classic columnist Jeff Sloan, who's currently preparing for the birth of his first child.