Thomas Hardy’s Jude: Not Nearly Obscure Enough

August 16th, 2009 at 11:33 pm David Frum | 10 Comments |

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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.

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    …….I’m a great admirer of Hardy’s novels but surely contrary to David’s assertion with one exception they all end in tragedy. Well I suppose you could say that with Far from the Madding Crowd it is semi tragedy. Personally I found Jude one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read along with Sophie’s Choice. And although I’m an avid re-reader I’ve never felt any inclination to revisit Christminster. You’re probably right about him having exhausted his inspiration.

  • joedee1969

    I’ve never read Hardy. I hear C. Rich is coming out with another book soon about ” The Conservative Reconstruction Project” I’ve read his essay entitled that but can’t wait to read the book. Between these two site I have found the middle of conservatism and could be happier. I told some friends about this site. I’m trying to spread the word:

  • ottovbvs

    joedee1969 // Aug 17, 2009 at 8:58 am
    ………Yes I’ve heard C. Rich is also going to publish the great American novel next year too……Scott Fitzgerald look out

  • DFL

    I enjoy David Frum’s book reviews but I wonder that part of the reason he is reviewing old novels is because the novel has been in decline for a long time. And is the decline of the novel a sign of cultural decline?

  • ottovbvs

    dfl // Aug 17, 2009 at 10:33 am
    “because the novel has been in decline for a long time.”

    ………..I’m not sure this is true……in terms of the quantity of novels published my vague sense is that over the last 20 years as many as ever have been published probably more particularly since writers in other cultures who hitherto were largely unpublished in the west are finding their way here…….I’m sure 75 years ago we’d never have heard of Mahfouz…….you could argue the novel as art form is declining in quality…….to be honest I don’t read too many new novels and most don’t seem to measure up to a Fitzgerald, Conrad, Trollope, Waugh or Dickens although there are the odd exceptions…….but wasn’t it ever thus……..Fitzgerald has survived because he wrote some great novels amongst a lot of dross from people who are long forgotten

  • Rodak

    It is my opinion, as a confirmed bibliophile and lover of good fiction, that never in history have there been so many fine writers of fiction working and publishing as there are today. If anything, there are far too many excellent writers publishing for one to have any hope of keeping up with them all. One may not like the content of their various works (if one is dissatisfied by the world about which they write), but one can fairly disparage neither their technical abilities, nor the quality of their vision.

  • balconesfault

    I’ve always considered Jude a story of just how difficult social mobility can be. We have so many Horatio Alger type stories (along with no shortage of tales of the never-do-well wealthy falling on hard times) … but the reality is that for the lower and even lower-middle classes, significant upward mobility is really a matter of threading the needle, one must have extraordinary drive and talent, and even then there are tons of pitfalls that can keep you from the success you pursue. The interesting thing about Jude was that it didn’t use the traditional barometer of “success” – great economic prosperity – but rather the more elusive goal of going from being poor to being accepted among the real elite unless you have accumulated great wealth to buy your way in.

    The tragedy at the end is also the tragedy of being poor and not buying into all of societies conventions, and the personal disasters that can result when people become stressed and desperate. It is the story we hear too frequently in America – the man who loses all and can’t support his family who turns his guns on them and then himself – but we don’t write novels about it.

  • DFL

    Who writing today is an equal to Hemingway, Updike, Percy, Faulkner, Dickens, Waugh, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Conrad, Sinclair Lewis, James, Orwell or the Bronte sisters? Heck, does anyone today write better than that soft-pornographer of the Old South, Erskinbe Caldwell?

  • ottovbvs

    dfl // Aug 17, 2009 at 2:43 pm
    ” Who writing today is an equal to …….. Updike,”

    …….Updike only died a few months ago ergo he’s a contemporary novelist…….McEwan has written at least one memorable book, Amis certainly one perhaps two, for every Wharton, James and Conrad writing in 1905 there were a dozen clunkers starting with G. K. Chesterton who is revered on the right but even more tedious than Ayn Rand and that’s saying something…….. and who reads H. G. Wells today? although he did create some memorable ideas

  • Rodak

    Who today is equal to all of the above? Don Delillo, Richard Ford, Robert Stone, the late David Foster Wallace, and a host of others so numerous to list. I concur, for instance, with ottovbvs w/r/t McEwan. I would add Coetzee, as well. I’m also a huge fan of both Updike and Percy, btw.