Its not hard to see why criticism of Jude The Obscure was so severe Hardy vowed never to write another book again.
In Jude The Obscure Hardy points out flaws in religion, morality, marriage, education etc. He doesn’t leave much to imagination and the things he argues for wold be controversial even today. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started the novel. A happy tales of a man overcoming all odds? Something that would tell your all is right with the world and no hurdle was impossible to overcome.
When it was implied that women could use their sexuality and a little victim blaming was thrown around, I shook my head and though I knew where this was going. It was great that Hardy acknowledged sexuality existed, but he was still a Victorian after all. It was too much to expect him to deal with sexuality in a manner agreeable in our modern age. Boy was I wrong.
Sue Bridehead is easily one of the most surprisingly strong and interesting female characters I’ve ever read. She better read than half the men around to begin with. Its tragic Jude can’t educate himself, but its more tragic that a person who is less interested but more capable than half the scholars around her doesn’t even consider an education. She is able to reason and debate better than anyone around her; she throws away superstition, tradition and religion. She does what she wants regardless of what the men around her say. The fact that her strong will is finally broken by an unhappy life and social pressure is in my opinion the most tragic part of the novel.
Jude himself is a more passive traveler. His determination to study, marry,find a sort of employment is often hijacked by other matters he gets himself into. You can’t help but sympathies with him and all he goes through. His kindness gets him no where, all his efforts at educating himself are futile and are made during the wrong time. He never finds happiness and dies a drunk failure who can’t stand what he used to believe in.
What the many tragic characters do is highlight the problems with Victorian society. The desire to learn means nothing is you aren’t wealthy. An act of kindness such as separating from some one who cant stand you is damnation. Marriage is a bizarre entrapment that contains little love. Sex is sold,exploited or forced. People are also often cruel and judgmental.
The world isn’t a very nice place for non-conformists. Jude and Sue might have found happiness after breaking away from the many expectations and roles they were obligated to fulfill but it doesn’t last long. Social persecution is immediate and the pair are soon outcasts. They become semi-nomadic and struggle to find work. What little comfort they found was lost once Jude could no longer work and poverty seemed imminent. All their children die as a result and Sues spirit is destroyed. She goes from a strong willed, free thinker who saw no need to conform to the popular ideas of marriage, to a broken woman who desperately tries to find solace in religion and forces herself to marry a man she can’t stand- even going so far as to forcing herself to sleep with him even though the idea used to make her jump out of her window.
Jude is constantly hounded by poverty and class difference. He loses faith in religion, becomes alcoholic and is sickly till his end. Nothing ever comes from all his struggles. Other characters like Richard and Arabella are interesting in their own right. Richard is also a tragic figure although he is not as prominent in the story. His kindness and unorthodox views cause him to lose all his prospects and Sue never reciprocates his feelings towards him.
Arabella clearly knows how to use her sexuality and is also rather independent. She is shallow and manipulative but she doesn’t really invoke much dislike. Old father time is one of the less believable characters. He seems almost too tragic and depressed to be real -I don’t think children are competent enough to kill two of their siblings and themselves let alone willing. But that doesn’t take away much from the novel.
Jude The Obscure is a dark tragedy that is ruthless in its criticism of Victorian morality, marriage and social divisions. It is a very gloomy novel but engrossing all the same.