Jude 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