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on July 19, 2005
Ready for four hundred pages of sparkle and sunshine? "Jude the Obscure" is about a group of people whose every hope and dream is gradually crushed to a fine powder and blown away by the winds of despair. Hardy is his usual unforgiving self in this grim, discomforting tale of educational goals thwarted, marital bliss destroyed, childhood innocence corrupted, and spiritual redemption viciously mocked. Those who might suspect that this is a recent example of the current cultural debasement of family values would be amazed to know that this novel was written not in 1995 but in 1895. Upon its publication, Hardy was criticized for his pessimism when all he was did was herald the arrival of the pessimistic twentieth century.

"Jude the Obscure" is not an indictment of education, marriage, family, or religion, but rather Hardy's bitter commentary on how society misuses these institutions to defend its shaky beliefs and practices. Jude Fawley, the title character and society's puppet, is a young man trying in vain to transcend his environment. A stonemason by trade, he dauntlessly studies Latin and Greek with the rigorous mind of a classical scholar in preparation for entering the ivy-covered Gothic halls of Christminster, a college town supposed to evoke Oxford. Two things stand in his way: He is too poor to afford the tuition, and he marries an ignorant farm girl named Arabella who discourages his academic aspirations.

Separated from Arabella but still legally married, Jude begins a relationship with his pretty cousin, Sue Bridehead, after he moves to Christminster to be nearer his goal, supporting himself with various stonemasonry jobs. Sue marries Jude's former teacher, Richard Phillotson, many years her senior, also rejected by Christminster and now a local schoolmaster. When Phillotson realizes that Sue's heart belongs to Jude, he sorrowfully but graciously cuts her loose, whereupon she goes to live with her lover. The irony that Hardy emphasizes is that the two couples in the novel who were never meant to be--Jude and Arabella, and Phillotson and Sue--were the ones who married, while Jude and Sue, the only mutually happy couple, are unmarriageable to each other.

Sue is the most interesting, and arguably the most tragic, figure in the novel. At first she appears to be a devout Christian, working in a shop that makes religious ornamentation; but she soon reveals herself to be as cynical as Jude is earnest, acknowledging that she and Jude are descendants of a fractured family for whom marriage seems not to be intended. However, towards the end of the novel her character is transformed by a misfortune so violent and sickening that it has the power to convince her that she is being punished for her sinful ways. A pious person would be probably cheered by choosing conventional morality after such an incident, but Sue, fearful of the wrath of a divine force she can't know or control, is only made more miserable by feeling pressured to accept the undesirable situation of living with her lawful husband.

"Jude the Obscure," even more so than Hardy's other famous novels, is swamped in loneliness, frustration, disillusion, anger, and hopelessness, all delivered by the relentless fist of fate, and it is exhausting to imagine the emotional abysses he would have had to plumb had he decided against all critical opposition to continue this avenue of his career. Hardy, like Jude an autodidact but unlike Jude a professional success nonetheless, is plaintive about a social system that prevents talented people of poverty from realizing their potential while requiring them to live holy lives. His response was to write a book that would shock the public, not to shame them, but into seeing what he saw.
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VINE VOICEon March 1, 2000
Supposedly, this book was burned by the Bishop of Wakefield when it was first released, and Hardy's wife was furious at him because people would think it was autobiographical. The response to the book was the final nail in the coffin that caused Hardy to stop writing novels.
Jude Hawley is born into a changing world-- a world that's changed enough that a poor boy can dream about a university eduction and a professional future. However, it hadn't changed enough for that dream to yet be realizable. Hawley instead is entrapped into a hasty marriage and sacrifices his dreams of further education. Even after the marriage is dissolved by the wife removing herself to Australia, Jude continues to be haunted for the rest of his life by his early mistake-- dooming himself and his true love to a lifetime of misery.
The book is bleak. The characters (Jude and Sue, primarily) can't live with the choices that law and religion demands, but they can't live outside them either and their attempts to do so only drive them down deeper. The central thesis of the book, and the one that was so shocking a the time, was that these moral and legal strictures prevented people from fulfilling their dreams and living happy lives. Jude the Obscure challenges the sanctity of marriage by building a tragedy about people trapped by its convention.
An important and challenging book. It continues to be relevant today.
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on August 5, 2000
As are Hardy's other books, Jude the Obscure is not an "easy read." Appreciating Hardy's work requires a little work and the ability to pay attention and to think a little along the way. But the effort pays off. Jude the Obscure is a great book about the human condition, at least as it exists for many people. Like other Hardy characters, Jude Fawley makes a mistake early in his life and continues to pay the price until the day he dies. He commits an act of folly that seals his doom, and nothing he can do can make it right. This would be merely sad or melodramatic were if not for the fact that Jude is a truly good man with truly good intentions. It is this that makes his story truly tragic. Not only is he trapped by the consequences of his early act of foolishness, but he is also trapped and eventually dragged down by the conventions of a society that is more concerned with status and class than with character and ability and more devoted to mindless tradition than to a considered morality. Most of what can be said of Jude also be said of his love, Sue Bridehead, although I found her to be a less believable and sympathetic character. I was surprised by the frankness with which Hardy deals with sexuality in 1895, and I can understand now the furor this book apparently caused in Britain and America upon publication. Hardy is a writer of great power and insight. He also knows how to build a great story. And he is a novelist of ideas. He has his faults, of course. At his worst, he is wordy, obscure, and pedantic. But at his best, he is one of the most emotionally moving of writers. At times his books flash briliantly with passion. At times, he is heartbreaking. Jude the Obscure is a novel that no lover of fine writing and a great story can afford to miss. The novel has haunted me for weeks since I read it, and it probably will for a long time.
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on November 29, 2002
Jude wants to get ahead in the world. Starting at a young age he studies the Classics; learns Latin and Greek, and opens his mind wide to knowledge in general. He is preparing himself for Oxford, but Oxford won't have him, nor undoubtedly will any other university. You see he is poor, and poor people aren't admitted to college in Victorian times.

After exiting a short-lived dismal marriage Jude then meets and falls in love with his cousin who ultimately leaves her husband and moves in with him. There is no "happily ever after" in this novel. Sue, his lover, has sexual problems that need the ministrations of Dr. Ruth, who unfortunately was not available at the time. Sex is repellent to her, and so she and Jude live fairly platonic lives; lives that are not made easier by society's negative reaction to their living in "sin".
Jude and Sue are nice, if not psychologically whole, individuals. You wish them well, but Thomas Hardy has decided to sacrifice them to his philosophical views. He burdens the poor couple with society's repressive attitudes toward women, the lower classes, and marital nonconformity. A novel that begins with the hope of springtime, ends in a winter of despair.
It is a pessimistic, depressing story that examines Victorian sexual and societal mores, and for this it was condemned by many critics. Hardy was so affected by this criticism that he never wrote another novel. Instead he successfully turned to poetry, although his pessimism was again apparent in some of his verses (Read for instance his elegant poem "God's Funeral"). Some of the novel is a bit melodramatic, but that is a common trait of many works of the period. My credulity is strained somewhat by the basically non-sexual relationship of Jude and Sue. Sue is described as an attractive, intelligent and even flirtatious woman. Put simply, I could not fall in love with such a lady, and live with her as brother and sister.
I enjoy many Victorian novels because they combine outstanding literature with an exposition of the society of the times. Hardy is one of England's best. Highly recommended, and I strongly suggest that you buy the Norton Critical Edition of this work. In addition to the novel text you are provided with interesting information about the author, and a collection of contemporary and current reviews of the novel.
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on November 18, 2002
Jude The Obscure goes against the normal strain in its treatment of topics ranging from marriage, ambition, dreams, and class-society. The book takes shocking twists and turns, and even though the subjects are often depressing, the sheer shock of what has just happened makes you want to read more. Hardy's main character is Jude, a poor, parentless boy whose ambitions far exceed the restrictions his class would put on him. Throughout his childhood he pushed himself in the studies of academia, he would always be seen with Latin books while delivering bread to the villagers. Eventually, as Jude grows he decides to move to Chirstminister-Jude's dream starting from his very early days of youth. Christminister is the center of all academic pursuit and home to the greatest colleges of learning. We follow Jude's adventures there, along with all of his attempts to being admitted into one of these institutions. This is not easy for a young man who has no money or family status behind him. One of Jude's great battles is between his burning desire to achieve higher learning, and his weakness towards women which draw him away from this goal. The elements which Jude's eventual children present, make an outlandish story even stranger by their actions. Certainly Hardy intended the children to present us with some additional lessons to consider while contemplating the book.
The book was difficult for me to read, as mentioned in other reviews, the depressing subject matter and gloominess is not inherently an inviting thing. However, by unfolding the story as Hardy did, following the dreams and failures of young Jude, I learned some lessons that I do not think I could have otherwise. I received a strong personal impression in the importance of not giving up on yourself. That even if your opportunities are not optimal, or you environment is not perfect, that you still have the ability to reach for your dreams. And at all costs you should not give up on your dreams, or believe that you are not capable of accomplishing them. I also thought a lot about the acts the society would have us perform, which are not securely right. Having read the book forced me to reflect about the daily choices I make, how many of those are really mine, and how many are artificial restraints institutions would have me believe I must make.
While I have read more entertaining books, I would have to recommend this one because of the unique perspective it presents. Hardy message allows us to think about important issues in a light not often seen through.
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on April 18, 2003
Prior to reading Jude the Obscure, I had a smattering of knowledge about the religious uproar it caused upon publication, which led Hardy to abandon novels and focus merely on poetry. His work being denounced and burned by the churches, Hardy felt that if that was to be the treatment of his work, he would no longer produce the work.
Now that I have read the novel, and having attempted to place myself in the mindset of the later 19th century morals and ideals, I can begin to understand why such an uproar was raised.
First, the story...Jude Fawley, of poor and meager birth, aspires to academic greatness. When it is recommended to him that he stay on the 'blue collar' course he has begun, and not wish for more, he decides to educate himself, one day hoping that it will position him for greater things.
Jude enters into a hasty marriage, which by later standards would be described as a 'shotgun' wedding, which he eventually comes to regret, and ends. Enter his cousin Sue, who becomes the love of his life. Sue also ends an unsatisfactory first marriage, freeing herself to be with Jude, whom she loves as well.
What follows is a descent into tragedy and despair, with numerous twists and turns along the way. Not wanting to spoil them, I will not divulge.
However, the remainder of the novel touches upon many, many themes that amounted to raising of the ire of the church in response. Divorce; childbirth out of wedlock; loss of faith in God; questioning religious ideals and teachings; all these and more are present in the latter half of the novel, and so much more.
Upon finishing the book, I was left to question were these really Hardy's own feelings illustrated in his work, or simply a realization of a course of events for the characters, and not a reflection on the author's beliefs. That, however, bears further reading on the life of Thomas Hardy.
Where I find fault with the novel is in the characters, and it is merely a distaste with their actions. Sue, the heroine, spends far too much time vacillating about her love for Jude and her desire to marry him. When Jude tries to do the right thing by Sue, and respect her wishes, she claims he has 'given up too easily, and doesn't seem at all disappointed'. Jude's first wife, Arabella, displays an utterly selfish, self-absorbed personality, and was, for me, unlikeble, and unsympathetic. Jude, a character capable of learning Latin and Greek and engaging in other scholarly pursuits, seems completely naive in the ways of the world, and further seems blinded by a sense of duty over a sense of the rights and wrongs of others. His actions make him appear to have no regard for himself, until the very end.
Perhaps this is exactly as Hardy meant the characters to be seen, perhaps not. I did enjoy the book more than I expected to, and apparently more than others who have said to me "What on earth are you reading THAT for???". Hardy is not a comedy writer, and one should not expect a glamorous, cheerful, tidy ending, it does not exist here.
While not the greatest of classic novels I have read, I can certainly see why this one has been discussed for over 100 years. While Dickens peppered his stories with levity to break up the gloom, Hardy continues on a downward spiral, leaving his characters in despair within and without. I recommend it to readers who enjoy a good characterization of later 19th century life in England. But if you are looking for something to put a smile on your face, Hardy might not be for you.
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on December 2, 2013
I'm a little obsessed with Hardy novels, having devoted the better part of the past year to reading (and rereading) most of them. But I was reluctant to read Jude the Obscure until I was running out of new titles, and then finally was swayed by certain reviews suggesting it was an "important" work, not to be missed by true fans of Hardy. Foolishly taking the bait, I plunged in, and even reveled in the first 100 or so pages, bewitched by Hardy's sorcery of language. Anyone who's read even a little Hardy knows better than to expect "happily ever after" or any positive spin on the institution of marriage--and I did not. But halfway into the novel it becomes clear that Hardy is covering no new ground in this sordid tale, only old ground in ever more perverse ways, forcing the reader to suffer over one senseless tragedy after another, on and on. And to what end? Any brilliant observation that Hardy may be attempting to make about social mores and society/class in Victorian England, blah blah, is well-overshadowed by the contrived, heavy-handed and twisted melodrama that he relies on as his vehicle. I really wished I'd stopped reading before I got to the last 100 or so pages, long after I was first tempted to, as an already hopeless novel then began its rapid and final descent into the ridiculous. By then, my already over-strained credulity turned to pure disgust. What's sadder to me than Jude's storyline is that Hardy would waste his considerable brilliance and talent on this self-indulgent effort to root out the blackest demons in his psyche, for all the world to gape at. Dark, morbid, facile, and redundant, I wish I'd never read it. When I got to the end, I burned my copy (Jude himself being my inspiration); frankly, that was my most-satisfying encounter with this book. My only regret in burning it is that now I can't quote any of the most soul-numbing passages here. Then again, that's undoubtedly a blessing. Don't waste your time on this unless you're a masochist.
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on April 7, 2010
Jude the Obscure, the last novel written by England's greatest novelist, is often called Thomas Hardy's masterpiece. I do not quite agree, but it is certainly in his top tier, which puts it with the all-time best novels. It is absolutely essential for fans of Hardy, English literature, or tragedy as well as anyone alive to art that is profoundly moving and deeply thought-provoking.

Jude in many ways culminates Hardy's novelistic career, portraying several key themes and facets more clearly and fully than previously. The marriage institution had rarely fared well in Hardy, but this is his most devastating critique - nay, one of the most devastating of all-time. Hardy questions it on all fronts: historical, social, religious, and moral. He also thoroughly explores a wealth of related issues: sexuality, male/female relations, love, etc. Very few writers have written of love so movingly or honestly; Jude shows nearly every aspect - from euphoric first love to cynical bitterness - so vividly and emotionally that everyone will relate to one or more parts. All told, the love depiction is extremely bleak; Hardy has little hope for successful relations and generally portrays love itself as fundamentally destructive and lust even more so. They distract from what are really more important things and can even wreck dreams, which of course does not make it any more resistible - even if one knows it.

This is the novel's most famous aspect, but it has a wealth of other important themes. Keeping its 1895 publication in mind is important, as it deals with many issues central to late Victorian society - mostly ones that few wanted to discuss or even admit existed. Hardy truly had his finger on the contemporary pulse, and his unorthodox views led to near-unbelievable controversy, which gives Jude great historical value. However, it is also universal in the best and truest sense. Many problems dramatized here are unfortunately still very real; even more sadly, most seem inherent to the human condition. Class problems are one of these - always important in Hardy but perhaps never so clearly. Hardy was an autodidact, as are many of his characters; he routinely shows just how hard it was for the poor to become educated, much less use education for advancement, even if they wanted it desperately. Jude explores this with great depth and subtlety, shedding much-needed light on a perennial social failing and many overlooked personal tragedies. The English education system itself is thus taken to task, as are self-proclaimed intellectuals. The novel also more than hints at what Hardy later called the Imminent Will - a blind force governing human fate. The characters seem to have very little or no control over their destiny, being prey to vast forces beyond their control. Hardy is often said to have an almost malevolent attitude toward characters, arranging chance and circumstances so that they do the most possible harm to essentially undeserving victims. This inevitably leads to very elaborate plots and heavy reliance on melodramatic coincidence, which some have always disliked. This is of course one's right, but those who think he could not plot without such things miss the point; he had a very dark view of life, lacked belief in a benevolent force overseeing humanity, and thought change and chance usually affected life for the worse. All this comes across very powerfully; Jude may have faults but is far more sinned against than sinning. Hardy has drawn him too specifically - and, some have always said, too autobiographically - for him to be an Everyman, but we identify with and have great sympathy for him because of his core frail humanity. What happens to him could happen to almost anyone, making his story all the more believable and thus all the more tragically affecting.

As all this suggests, Jude is very modern; most of Hardy's views were very advanced, and the novel was on the very cutting edge of late Victorian ethics, philosophy, and theology. The marriage issue of course takes on a central church issue directly, but the discerning will see more fundamental religious criticism. Though he almost never gets credit, Hardy was a proto-existentialist, consistently dramatizing the intellectual and moral consequences of living in the modern, post-religion world. Jude shows just how black that world can be and vibrantly conveys the profound changes that were even then transforming every aspect of it. Hardy's work is well-known for showing modernity's ache - how rapid advancement in everything from technology to religion was quickly making obsolete a rural agricultural society that had been virtually unchanged for a thousand years. Like much of Hardy's work, Jude is partly set in Wessex - a part-real, part-dream setting based on his native Southwest England. Perhaps no one equals him at making place so important that it is integral to the story, and setting is never mere background with him. The lush, minutely described rural landscapes are as compelling as ever, but Jude is unique in being substantially set in Christminster - a relatively large town, based on Oxford, outside Wessex proper. Oxfordians have long been fascinated by Hardy's depiction; he did much on the spot research to maintain his usual verisimilitude, and it shows. He truly seems to bring the city alive to an extent rarely even approached, much less achieved, with any location. Those who appreciate this Hardy aspect will thus not be disappointed, and those who stereotype him as using only rural agricultural settings will be pleasantly surprised.

Important as all this is, the characters in many ways make the book. Jude is one of Hardy's great creations, and Arabella is one of literature's most intriguing and nuanced female villains. The most interesting character may be Sue Bridehead, a curious and uneasy mix of the Victorian female ideal and the rapidly emerging New Woman. Hardy's Preface notes that an early feminist told him Sue was literature's first real feminist, and so she is in many ways. Hardy himself was almost a proto-feminist and uses her to explore many issues of importance to women at the time and indeed now. In particular, he shows just how hard it was for even the most staunchly independent and freethinking women to stay true to themselves - or even stay alive - in such a drastically oppressive society. We see how marriage was virtually the only method of subsistence and how women were all but forced to marry grossly unsuitable men. For a man of the era, much less of Hardy's age (fifty-five) to have even been aware of such things, much less to dramatize them with discernment and sympathy, is truly remarkable. The feminist was disappointed by what Hardy does with Sue in the end, saying no woman would have written so, and D. H. Lawrence was later fascinated by her for similar but subtly different reasons. It is easy to criticize Hardy for losing nerve and falling back on prevailing stereotypes, but it is important to remember a few things. First, the event that pushes Sue over the proverbial edge is the most harrowing I have ever read; even the darkest Russian literature - nay, even Greek tragedy itself - does not equal it. I will say no more because all should experience it for themselves - and indeed it cannot be reproduced -, but it must be asked what would drive a woman (or anyone) to extremes if this would not. Second, and probably more importantly, Sue's plight and all it leads to epitomize Hardy's dark philosophy. Showing things as they should be was not his goal; he showed them as they are - which is of course not what most want to see. A wide range of ideologies may find this far from palatable, but he wisely noted that there is an obligation higher than any ideology - Truth. Few have equaled Hardy at showing it, especially the dark side so many refuse to see, and Jude is a seminal instance.

Jude may not be the easiest Hardy novel to start with; a work like Far from the Madding Crowd or The Mayor of Casterbridge is probably better. However, this should be one of the first Hardy novels anyone reads, and those who have not read him should start immediately. He is not only one of the world's greatest writers but seemingly more relevant and influential with each passing year, and this is a masterpiece of the highest order - essential Hardy, which means it is simply essential.
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on November 4, 2005
He was a poor boy who felt things those around him couldn't feel. He felt pain and compassion towards helpless animals. He levitated while reading books into a charming world of imagination and fantasy; the words that lifted him were the same words others considered boring and complicated. He saw something more, unseen by others, from floating phantasms and phantoms to vivid dreams. Eventually he joined their obscurity, away from the surrounding idle vision and hollow souls.

Thomas Hardy's last novel "Jude the Obscure", tells the story of Jude, a visionary and intellectual orphan growing up with his aunt in the humble town of Marygreen. As we turn the book's five-hundred pages we witness the formulation and maturation of Jude's character and the successive failures and misfortunate events cast upon him.

The adjective "obscure" is not confined to Jude's character; it is rather used repetitively throughout the novel to describe situations, places, circumstances etc... The obscurity manifested in the actions and thoughts of the characters is not part of them, but rather shed upon them from their society and the positions it entitles them to.

Such obscurity comes to light when we observe the constant confusions and internal struggles suffered by both Jude and Sue, his lover, soul-mate and cousin. Jude is shattered between his dreams, intellect, religious faith and animal instinct. At one point of the novel he says "people go on marrying because they can't resist natural forces, although many of them may know perfectly well that they are possibly buying a month's pleasure with a life's discomfort". Jude is shattered between his religious conviction and aspiration of becoming a priest and his human instinct, until at last he decides he was unfit for such vocation and burns all his theological books. At times he regrets reading and studying, as he knows that he would go on being a stone worker, yet his resting hours were always dedicated to his books.

Though from the beginning of the novel an aesthetic dreamer, Jude soon discovers that reality encompasses all dreams, hopes and fantasies. The society denied him all chances of happiness. He had thought that if he couldn't get the education he had longed sought, the presence of Sue beside him would condole, or even obliterate, his great loss, but even Sue was collared from him like his career and efforts.

Towards the end when Sue threatens to leave him after the significant change in her mentality, Jude wonders in rage "Perhaps the world is not illuminated enough for such experiments as ours! Who were we, to think we could act as pioneers." Even though Jude had determination, he wasn't strong enough to contend the multitudinous problems that confronted him and fight long enough for his beliefs.

The other character almost equally important as that of Jude's is Sue Bridehead, his cousin. At the beginning of the novel Jude's aunt makes a brief reference of her as a girl who shared Jude's passion for reading. Then when Jude decides to move to Christminister, his aunt tells him that she happens to be there at well. He takes her picture, which he finds very pretty, searches for her, but despite that never dares to go and tell her about their relation. It was she who took the initiative after discovering that he was her cousin.

Like Jude, Sue has a distinct character which develops and undergoes significant changes.

We see her first as a reckless intellectual who is charmed by -and encourages-men's love to her "Sometimes a woman's love of being loved gets the better of her conscience, and though she is agonized at the thought of treating a man cruelly , she encourages him to love her while she doesn't love him at all" .However she is repugnant by their sexual desire in her. She sent Jude a letter telling him he can love her if he wants, however even after she went to him she didn't like him kissing her a lot "I think I would rather go on living always as lovers, as we are living now, and only meeting by day. It is so much sweeter for the woman at least, and when she is sure of the man". It was only when faced by the seriousness and likeliness of Jude's returning to Arabella that she finally agrees to "go further" and " intensify" her "liking" of him by marriage. Unlike Jude, however, Sue didn't have any feelings for Philloston except those of respect ad friendly love. Her brief marriage to him was unbearable and once she chose to throw herself from the window than to have him touch her.

Faced by the death of her children ,however, Sue finds herself unable to hold to her convictions and she yields to the religious thought of her society leaving Jude behind.

Christminister is the embodiment of mystery. The mystery of dreams. The mystery of time. The mystery of loss. The obscurity of mystery. It is the place that sums up Jude. The place that built him and turned him to an additional edifice of its ancient and glorious architecture. The core of his heart; his Jerusalem; his "centre of the universe".

Arabella and Philloston can be better described as ghosts than as characters. They are the ghosts of past and convention that haunt the freedom of the rebellious couple, following them like shadows so that they look obscure in the eyes of the society. Whether consciously or unconsciously they act with a determination to normalize or destroy them.

The only winner at the end seems to be Arabella. The story unfolds with her preparation for marriage amidst the tragedy of a dead Jude and a dying Sue. She was the one capable to be cruel and heartless for her carnal desires within the limits of accepted tradition and social conventionalism. She could murder a pig in cold blood to eat, and lawfully- yet immorally-entrap a man to marry her for her own comfort, support and protection using virtue and weakness as a justification.

Jude suffered because he pursued his dreams. In his quest of becoming something more and going out of the gloomy conventional track of his society he lost everything-his children, his love, his life. However a sense of mollification underlies the tragic end of the story, for even though Jude dies after a lifetime of suffering, he dies at an early age, before he could live long enough to witness further humiliation and anguish. It is a romantic ending for someone who searched, someone who tried; someone who was pulled back, and abandoned.
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on August 27, 2015
I often find myself saying I am a fan of Thomas Hardy, but can only talk with great depth about my favorite novel of his, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I have read some of his other novels but none really stuck with me; in fact I can remember reading Jude the Obscure as a teenager and thinking it wasn't that great. Yes, even as a teenager this angsty, self-obsessed novel seemed overwrought to me.

Fearing that I was missing out I decided to revisit the novel. And I have to say on reflection that my initial evaluation of the story was too charitable. This is a simply awful story.

Although one might believe the main character to be Jude (since he is the titular character and the story is told mostly from his perspective), this is really about Sue Bridehead. I would venture to say that her character is the first literary occurrence of what is now called the "manic pixie dream girl". We are supposed to find her fascinating and ribald and challenging and intellectual, when realistically she's a frigid flirty pile of garbage. I honestly can't imagine how anybody would find her an attractive or interesting person. She's entirely self-absorbed, only cares about her own perception or understanding of issues (no matter how shallow) and gives no thought to the impact of her words and actions.

I believe the point of the story was to poke fun at the conventions of Hardy's time: to show how moral codes are vapid and pointless. The ironic thing is that Hardy merely proves the opposite. Everyone who follows the moral codes might have some bad times in their lives, might encounter some difficulties, might have to - horror! - compromise their adolescent beliefs and grow and mature. We are supposed to believe these are the bad people, the stupid people, the people blinded by convention and archaic morality.

Sue, on the other hand, is a modern girl. No man will define her! But she has no problem using men to her advantage: she takes advantage of her connections and makes false promises to a young man in Christminster so she can get a cushy job in the city. She then uses Jude's feelings towards her to make a connection with another man she'll use, the elderly teacher Phillotson. Happy with what this man can give her she consents to be his bride, but even goes so far as to jump out a window to avoid physical contact with him. Then for some reason she decides to pretend to be married to Jude, without actually going through with it, but routinely violates her own cover story by just outright telling people how stupid she thinks marriage is and how horrible society is to women, etc. And then while the men in her life have to deal with the burden of the trouble she's created, she just goes on being her little Zoey Deschanel hippy chick self. I'm so cute and interesting! But no man shall have me! Tee-hee!

When disaster strikes, nobody should be surprised. We are expected to believe that the mores and conventions of her time are wrong and she is right; but the mores and conventions of her time aren't what cause her to end up with four dead children. Her own selfishness and stupidity are what cause this. And when she senses this we are expected to believe an instantaneous complete reversal of character (superficially) which never rings true. She is the most hateful character in the novel and the chief cause of everyone's misery. Yet she's supposed to be the hero? It's quite ridiculous.

Jude the Obscure was Hardy's last novel, and it's a terrible final note for an author. It seems - if one reads the history - that it was more an attempt by Hardy to thumb his nose at "the establishment" than to write a good story. Ironic, then, that the story itself is the best argument against the thesis he is proposing.
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