Sparked by Words

J is for Jude the Obscure

 

judeobscureJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is a dour story of oppressive nineteenth century English societal and religious restrictions and the ominous consequences of rebelling against them. Why would I choose such a grim book as a favorite in this series?

I’ll begin with why I read the book in the first place because had I a different choice, I wouldn’t have. It was my senior year of college and proving rough for me to graduate. It wasn’t that I was such a lousy student though I could have been much better had I applied myself with more focus. My financial circumstances were stretched to a vanishing point. I couldn’t afford another semester of college though I really needed to go on to graduate school. (I never did but that’s another story.) I was engaged, our wedding planned for spring about six months away.

It was my final semester and though I was supposed to have priority registration, I didn’t. My senior seminar had to be one of about eight literary masters classes offered that semester, among them Shakespeare, Hemingway, and a half dozen other lions whose books I loved and longed to study. Whatever I selected, it would be a course taught by a full professor and attended by two dozen or so serious, advanced literature students whose discussions would illumine my knowledge of letters for life. But who the heck was Thomas Hardy?

Didn’t matter that I didn’t know a thing about this Englishman. The class was the only one not yet filled. The choice was made for me by an absence of options and a lack of finesse about the inside track on how to get into a desired class. Hardy it was – and I couldn’t have been more fortunate. Once immersed, I realized I did know a bit about him: his novel Far from the Madding Crowd, made famous by the movie in which Julie Christie played the beautiful, headstrong, sexy Bathsheba Everdene. And that was it, all I knew until the course syllabus required that I read many of his poems and several of his novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, and The Return of the Native, as well as Madding.

I remember the book for the ill fated characters. Jude Fawley yearns to be a scholar but abandons his noble quest as he cannot bridge the chasm between his low social status and poverty, and the upper echelons of academia. It resonated with me as I struggled to complete my undergraduate classes. Arabella Donn is a crass and lusty woman who tricks him into marriage and defeats his aspirations of bettering himself for the practical needs of supporting a wife. Sue Bridehead is the woman he loves, an independent spirit and initially a religious skeptic who later becomes obsessed by Christianity and believes she must be punished for earlier moral transgressions. Little Father Time is Jude’s son with Arabella. He’s an old soul in a child’s body who later comes to live with his father and Sue, now in a relationship that produces two children without benefit of marriage. Written when Hardy had become disillusioned by the limited opportunities of the poor and the church’s dominance of English society, the negative reviews of the book threw him into such despondency that he never wrote another novel.

Even more than the well rendered characters are two grisly scenes that haunt me fifty years after my first reading. Reunited with Arabella, Jude must butcher a pig according to her demands for a cruel, lengthy bloodletting that will guarantee a higher price. Jude cannot stomach the animal’s screams – neither could I. More disturbing is the act committed by Little Father Time. Jude, Sue, and the three children are ostracized by church and society for living in sin. Little Father Time tries to alleviate his parents’ dire circumstances by hanging his younger siblings and then killing himself. I’ve seen thousands of TV and movie murders and deaths, a few in real life, but nothing matches the horror of the boy’s misguided act. Hardy exposes the influence of rigid cultural mores on people deeply in love, struggling with humble everyday activities, simply trying to provide for their children. Few books resonate with as much sorrow and tragedy.

My favorite line from the book reveals Jude’s thoughts on his fervent pursuit of Sue Bridehead. “Onward he still went, under the influence of a childlike yearning for the one being in the world to whom it seemed possible to fly.”

Jude the Obscure, written in 1895, remains a compelling story, one that resonates with contemporary conflicts and complex social implications. That Hardy anticipated modern concerns 120 years ago suggests a writer of timeless insight. In an age when so many struggle to write a cogent text message, and reduce urgent situations to what can be written in a tweet, most of us could learn a great deal from Jude and Hardy.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for J:

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet; all four books are worthy of reading)

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite J fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Classics

 

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Comments on: "J is for Jude the Obscure" (30)

  1. Jude…grim, yes…and important, Sharon, as is this article for me as I needed to be reminded. Smiles…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind comment, Bonnie. Have you read Jude, or other Hardy books? In the last 10 years or so, I reread Jude, Tess, and Mayor, finding all of them still crucial. It’s no surprise that movies are still produced of these stories.

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  2. Jude the Obscure sounds so interesting. I put it on my list at Amazon. Because his books don’t cost that much, I’m going to see if I can get it right away. I really do need to get a library card for authors like this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite its bleak outlook, it’s a masterful book. Being now in public domain, a number of publishers sell it for a low price, though I bet it’s still higher than in Hardy’s day. Let me know what you think should you read it, Glynis.

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  3. Read ‘JUDAS MY BROTHER, the story of the 13th Disciple’ by Frank Yerby. It’s very captivating. You wont put it down until you read the last word.

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  4. As I love Hardy, I cannot disagree with your choice Sharon. Dark and tragic, yes, and after reading Jude you’ll be ready for something lighter. But what characterization and plotting!

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  5. Oh my. I think this may be too depressing. I like my rose-colored glasses. I am happy for your review, though, as there are many other Harding stories I have read. Now, at least, I know a bit about Jude.

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  6. Sharon, I like the way you initially came to this book by default! Your review is compelling and you brilliantly weave in your own circumstances. I read ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ at school and it was okay I recall. This book sounds amazing…astonishing such scenes can hold such strong sway over a century later, the writing must be brilliant. You’ve sold me and this is one book I will read soon…just fear those scenes will equally be etched in my mind afterwards.

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    • Written so long ago, Hardy’s writing is brilliant though his style is dated by today’s standards. His insight into people’s motives is as contemporary as any current psychologist’s but I think his old-fashioned sentence construction trips up many readers – especially high school kids.

      And I will warn you, Annika, those scenes are going to stay with you. I still think the book is well worth reading by any serious reader or writer.

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  7. Animal cruelty in novels and life seem to stay longer in one’s mind than cruelty to other humans. Maybe because animals seem the most unable to do anything about it. I think of the horse in Crime and Punishment, but also am reminded of my trip to Nicaragua where we were invited to a pig roast. The men thought it would be funny to watch us Americans squirm by killing the pig right in front of us. The poor thing was so frightened! Horrible experience.

    Then there was the organic farmer I worked for who hated the many Hasidic Jews who toured his farm (I found their culture fascinating and briefly fantasized about being one). He thought it would be “funny” to kill a lame old goat buck by sawing its neck with a blunt knife while shirtless and in the pouring rain as we all watched on in horror. The farmer hated Christians as well–he was a very angry atheist who once believed in God so hated followers.

    On that happy note . . . I liked The Joy Luck Club a lot. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • OK, Adrienne, my mouth was dropping lower and lower as I read your note until the last line – thanks for making me laugh at the end. Jude is a very tortured book, written by a man I suspect was deeply conflicted. It’s terrible what things some people do to animals and to other people.

      I almost wrote about Joy Luck Club instead but I really wanted to review a Hardy book. Amy Tan is a wonderful writer and I’ve loved all her books. She is excellent at presenting her Chinese background and showing the conflict between it and her American family.

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  8. Oh! I’ve just started reading Jude the Obscure this week. What serendipity. I will return to this blog post and reread, with comments, after I’ve finished. xoxo Julie

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  9. gnashing teeth at thought of taking on – see? perfect for an audio book – thanks Sharon, for encouraging us! love really really good books that can be difficult to wade into!

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    • Daal, it’s been hard to choose one book for each letter – in most cases, I could have selected every one on the list at the bottom of the post, and I can recommend every one of them to read as well.
      One day I may get brave and try an audio book though I know my strengths and weaknesses. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  10. Journey to the center of the earth would have been my recommendation, Shari. Of course, you already enjoyed. I’ve been thinking on this letter a few hours now and can’t come up with another suggestion. Jane Eyre was another, but J is tough.
    I enjoyed reading Hardy, Tess, is great. You’ve really had me reminiscing over this suggestion. Thank you..

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    • A few letters of the alphabet have very few books that I’ve read. In fact, my favorite Hardy book is Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but Jude had such a profound impact on me because of the two gruesome scenes that I’ve never forgotten. I recently reread Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge and will reread Tess soon, but I don’t think I can ever again reread Jude.

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  11. I had to read a bit of Thomas Hardy at university too, although not “Jude the Obscure.” It seems a pity that he got so upset by reviews that he never wrote another novel. I’m glad that he has managed to branch out into other fields since. I thought he was great in “Mad Max Fury Road” and there’s a chance he’ll be the new James Bond (although some say that at 177 years old, he’s a little long in the tooth for the part).

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  12. It’s a pleasure to read a review of an old classic novel especially as I read Jude over thirty years ago. Thomas Hardy was writing at the same time as Charles Dickens and together they brought to the attention of the rich and privileged the plight of the poor in Victorian England. His novels are very depressing but still relevant today. I agree Tess is my favourite Hardy novel but they are all brilliant. Thanks for reminding me.

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    • The class discussed Dickens as well as other political and social situations that affected Hardy and what he chose to write. I always loved learning about the historical background that impacted an author and helped bring a work to life. Both writers came from interesting situations. Thanks for your comment, Mark.

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