Jude the Obscure was panned by critics upon its release towards the end of the nineteenth century. The criticism had such an effect on Hardy that he wasn’t to write another novel before his death. His attack of Britain’s dearest institutions (marriage, the class system and higher education) had people so up in arms that the Bishop of Wakefield even burned his copy and persuaded Smith’s Circulating Library to withdraw it. The story is a simple tale of a simple orphan boy in a rural district who entertains the diea of becoming a scholar in Christminster.
He is tricked into marriage by a local girl, Arabella Donn, thwarting his studies, and the marriage fails. Jude plies his trade as a stonemason in Christminster, hoping that somehow he’ll be accepted there by being near to it. His experience of University however is notably one of exclusion from it: ironically he gets no closer than fixing the masonry of the university he longs so much to be a part of. After a few alcoholic binges to relieve his frustration, Jude eventually accepts his place in the world.
He then falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead and they have children. Society fails to accept their reltionship as legitimate, their children are killed in a shocking murder-suicide and the pair separate. His hopes and passions thwarted, Jude slips into a rapid decline and dies an early death. Cheery stuff! A summary does little to identify the underlying intentions of the novel. All of the characters within it are progressive for their time. Jude has his educational aspirations, Sue scorns moral orthodoxy and Arabella panders to her sexual appetite.
Hardy’s story is set against a world where the common man wasn’t persuaded to question their station in life. All of the characters are defeated in the end, but it is their struggle which is important. Jude’s marriage to Arabella signifies a major theme of the novel – confinement – particularly in relation to marriage. Jude is tricked into it and trapped because of the implications of divorce. He never fully retains his freedom, even when she leaves him, because he is still trapped by the institution of marriage. He is only free in the physical sense.
Hardy later wrote that the novel’s message was simply ‘that marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty so either of the parties – being then essentially and morally no marriage’. This caused uproar at the time but it is difficult to identify with today unless it is applied to certain religions. The section also deals a little with the manner in which a woman should act. Arabella is a sexual being and knows how to get her man. Jude sees in her something tangible and immediate, unlike his education.
Woman of the time didn’t act like Arabella does, neither of them follow social conventions and ultimately their relationship dissolves. This again relates back to the entrapment of marriage, as Arabella liberates herself and moves away to Australia, leaving Jude only a letter. Since the introduction of equal rights and divorce, it is hard as modern readers to identify with these issues. The passages concerning Jude’s education may have a little more relevance today however, particularly his dreams as a young boy, his self-teaching and large volume of work.
He is at a disadvantage because of his social status and access to education. This is just as poignant today as it was then. In an age where only 7% of schools are private yet 50% of Oxford students are from them, what hope can someone on the lower echelons have of getting there? Education quality and access is distorted, poverty still exists and not enough is being done to create equality. Social class and status may largely have diluted but it still resonates. Hardy’s novel speaks of the frustrations at the elitist attitudes of our Oxfords and Cambridges. Life is unfair.
Hardy draws us into it and we do care about the characters, which makes it all the more difficult to accept. His characters have no control over their lives, they are forced into their fates, and while things have largely changed, these issues still exist. Poor areas are now urban instead of rural but the ideas are the same. It isn’t as controversial today as it was at its release, but I would say that the novel has some success in highlighting problems in society. Jude never reassures. It is a very realistic view of our world. It challenges its readers and raises important questions that should be considered.
In 1895 it was ahead of its time. By the time of his death many of the social conventions Hardy criticises had disappeared. He was at the forefront. How does one define success? It certainly wasn’t commercially. Critically it caused uproar and ended Hardy’s novel-writing career. However Hardy had a message and he got it across, elicited response and debate and change. Isn’t that what writers want to achieve? Daniel Gourlay | Q31314 Studying Modern Literature: Semester 2 Portfolio Exercises Daniel Gourlay | Q31314 Studying Modern Literature: Semester 2 Portfolio Exercises.