Negative reviews of Jude the Obscure so jolted Thomas Hardy that he left off writing narrative fiction ever after. For the remaining 33 years of his life, he devoted his literary energies exclusively to poetry.
When this story is usually told, much is made of the supposed squeamishness of Hardy’s Victorian contemporaries. One critic nicknamed the novel, “Jude the Obscene.” We all know who’s side we’re supposed to favor in a fight like that – never the complaining critic, always the daring creative spirit.
Nobody (I hope) will accuse me of lack of enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy’s novels. (Here’s my piece on Far From the Madding Crowd, here on Return of the Native, here on The Mayor of Casterbridge, and here on The Woodlanders.) In the case of Jude, however, set me on the side of the critics.
Hardy’s novels usually open slow, with the written equivalent of a long tracking shot to reveal the larger landscape within which the action will occur. This technique requires some getting used to, but it also carries its rewards, for with Hardy the landscape is as much a protagonist of the story as any of the human characters. The reader can trust that the pace will accelerate as the story moves to a climax and conclusion, all the more powerful for its inescapability.
Jude alas takes a long, long time to accelerate – and then when it finally begins to speed, lurches instantly into overdrive. The especially grisly tragedy to which Jude proceeds feels imposed, unnecessary and over-dramatic, almost hysterical.
Jude tells the story of a young, orphaned country boy, consumed with a desire for learning. Unaided he painfully teaches himself Latin and then Greek, first the pagan authors, then the Christian. He longs to gain admission to one of the great colleges of the imagined city of Christminster, a fictionalized Oxford, and then to make a career in the church. He learns a trade to support himself, stone masonry, and he works repairing damaged medieval buildings while saving to support himself in his future student career. But his hopes are dashed by a personal mistake: he is seduced by the slatternly daughter of a local farmer, who deceives him into thinking her pregnant. He enters into a doomed marriage and sinks his savings into outfitting a little cottage. When the marriage ends, he must make a new way. He applies to one of the colleges for bursary aid and is brutally refused in a letter advising him to continue in his working-class station.
Jude’s conception of knowledge and education is medieval: theology, not science, scholastic dogma not free inquiry. His vision of society is medieval too, with the church at its apex. Jude’s second and greater love, his beautiful cousin Sue Bridewell, says of Christminster, its colleges and its church:
It is an ignorant place, except as to the townspeople, artisans, drunkards, and paupers … THEY see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons… At present intellect in Christminster is pushing one way, and religion the other; and so they stand stock-still, like two rams butting each other.
Sue – precociously clever, educated in modern texts in a weird unconsummated love affair with a Christminster undergraduate – tears apart Jude’s illusions one by one, first about religion, then about knowledge, finally about love and sex. She is herself emphatically irreligious. Sue is driven out of one of her lodgings when her spying landlady discovers a pair of cheap plaster copies of Greek divinities in her room. The landlady assumes they are Roman Catholic images and smashes them. Sue indignantly quits the place.
Sue’s strange sexuality soon governs Jude’s life. Also orphaned young, Sue supported herself from girlhood. She moves to London with her undergraduate, lives with him – but refuses to sleep with him. Next she embarks on a highly manipulative and brutally celibate love affair with Jude. When she discovers that he has been married before, she vindictively marries another man. That relationship too is sexually miserable. Sue leaves her husband and moves in with Jude – but still continues to refuse him. While living with him in this way, Sue discovers that Jude had a single encounter with his former wife during the period in which Sue was living with her husband. Sue is enraged. She does not want Jude carnally herself, but is determined that nobody else will have him either. It is this exclusionary motive that finally induces her to yield to him.
Sue is stifled by a conception of chastity as life-thwarting as Jude’s outmoded conception of learning. Yet in the end she does yield, without much joy, to a physical relationship. She bears Jude children. There the troubles begin in earnest, and spiral into disaster. Sue and Jude are highly intellectual people, irregularly but in their way profoundly educated. Jude can read the Bible in Greek, Sue is familiar with the new German Higher Criticism. Economically, however, they belong to the upper edge of the working class, the class closest to the all-important line that separated respectability from its opposite. Their life in their small town attracts the odium of their neighbors, setting in train an apocalyptically disastrous sequence of consequences.
The story is unbearably sad. And yet it is not quite convincingly sad. Jude the Obscure is very much what the Russians call a “novel of ideas”: that is, a story intended to illustrate an argument about society and politics. The problem with such novels is usually: too much argument, not enough story. And that is very much the problem with Jude.
Hardy advances a case stated by John Stuart Mill a generation earlier. (Hardy is writing in the 1890s, Mill in the 1850s). Inquiry should not be subordinated to religious dogma. People should be free to experiment with their ways of life, and neighbors should allow their neighbors latitude to conduct these experiments. In particular, marriage should be an equal contract dissolvable when either party withdraws his or her consent to the union. All interesting points, but not so interesting when propounded by characters in set-piece speeches in a slow-paced novel that abruptly lurches into a horrible ending designed to jolt people into assenting to conclusions they might otherwise reject.
I won’t reveal that ending, but it seems to me at least an under-handed trick. If the reader has not been convinced by the over-abundant speechifying, trying to overwhelm his or her feelings with a tear-jerking finale is melodrama, not drama. Hardy’s other endings, happy (Far From the Madding Crowd) or sad (Return of the Native) are always nuanced and organic. They emerge from everything told hitherto, the author’s hand is never felt tilting the scales. Not in Jude. You feel the author throughout, tugging at your shirtsleeve, hectoring: “Now do you see? Now do you see?”
I’m sorry the bad reviews abridged Hardy’s novelistic career, truly I am. But then again, I wonder whether we really lost so very much. On the evidence of Jude the Obscure, he seems anyway to have finished with his genre.