Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure:” A Summary and Comments
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was one of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists and poets. His work is ranked with Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert. He lived his life in the southwestern area of England known as Dorsetshire. This geographical area became the fictional “Wessex” of his later novels, the setting for the novel at hand as well as The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy was a writer in the tradition known as naturalism, where the forces of nature are arrayed against the intentions and plans of mankind, often overwhelming the latter. The influence of the pessimist philosopher Schopenhauer as well as the gloomy predictions of Thomas Malthus are at work in his novels.
Unlike the novels of Eliot, Tolstoy or Dickens, Hardy’s have few characters, and the landscape is much more compressed than in most literature. Yet there is a constant movement between the various towns and regions. Hardy was writing on the cusp of the Twentieth century, and a kind of restlessness and uprootedness characterize his leading figures. This novel was his last great fiction success. It attracted critical hostility because of its undertones of blasphemy and marital dysfunction. Hardy soon turned to poetry.
Jude the Obscure is the story of a young man, Jude Fawley, who begins his life as a bit of a dreamer and visionary. Jude from his childhood imagines that he will attend the university in the semi-mythical city of Christminster, which lies northeast of his home in Marygreen. He wants to be a clergyman-scholar. His station in life—he is both a commoner and an orphan—militates against such a dream, but he believes that he can teach himself what he needs to know in order to pass the entrance exams of the university. A man from his childhood, a Mr. Phillotson, who has encouraged Jude’s academic aspirations, has moved to Christminster, and Jude makes it his purpose to join him there.
Jude is beset by self-doubt. Like Mr. Christian in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (a major literary influence for this book), Jude cannot really believe in himself. His face wore “the fixity of a thoughtful child’s who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time.” He is hired to frighten the birds from a farmer’s cornfield, but cannot put his heart into the work. “They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them.” When the farmer punishes him and sends him packing, “Jude went out, and, feeling more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one, he lay down upon his back on a heap of litter near the pig-sty.” Later in the novel, Jude will have a son with many of his own psychological features.
The city of Christminster, as already seen, will hold a special place in Jude’s mind and heart. “Through the solid barrier of cold cretaceous upland to the northward he was always beholding a gorgeous city—the fancied place he had likened to the New Jerusalem… And the city acquired a tangibility, a permanence, a hold on his life, mainly from the one nucleus of fact that the man for whose knowledge and purposes he had so much reverence was actually living there.” That would be Mr. Phillotson. Again, one hears the echoes of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim with his gaze set on the Celestial City off in the mountainous distance.
Jude lives with his aging Aunt, a stern but kind-hearted woman named Drusilla. Both his parents have died. He is a bookish boy, given to daydreaming. Often, at night, he goes to the top of a hill to view the lights of Christminster in the distance. The years pass, and in time he is a young man of about seventeen.
Walking along the road between Marygreen and another village one day, he is hit by an object thrown at him by a girl in a neighboring yard. Jude turns to talk to the girl, who plays him along until he is intrigued enough to return to see her. Not long after that, she seduces him and feigns pregnancy in order to make him marry her. Her name is Arabella. Jude is a stonemason, and takes up that vocation to support her. Subsequently, she tells him that she is not pregnant after all. Their marriage is quickly unhappy, and soon she goes off to Australia with her parents to seek greater fortune.
One day, Jude passes a milestone on the old Marygreen-Christminster road and remembers that years back he had inscribed a simple message on the back: “Thither, JF,” and a hand pointing towards Christminster. He exhumes the old milestone, reads his inscription, and decides to resume his plans and finally go to the ancient city of learning. Before leaving, his old aunt warns him not to associate with his cousin Sue, who some years earlier had been taken to Christminster. The Fawleys are not meant for wedlock, she warns him.
Jude heads out to Christminster, “in the final direction of the elementary town” as Dylan Thomas would write. Once there, having surveyed the landscape and mystically communed with the spirits of the past—Gibbon, Pope, the martyrs of Protestantism, Jonson, Newman, the recently deceased Browning, the still present Swinburne—he settles into his trade and walks daily the city of his dreams. “He had the whole aged city to himself.”
He soon realizes that his dreams and self-education had prepared him for a place that was no more. The great university is in the midst of changing in ways that bring him consternation and unease. Then he remembers his cousin Sue Bridehead, and his prospects improve. When they finally meet, Jude is struck by her skeptical character. In many ways, Sue represents a more modern, liberated way of thinking and believing. Physically, she is nothing that Arabella was, swarthy, buxom, seductive and elemental. Sue, to the contrary, is nymph-like, pale and cerebral, possessing “a strange unconsciousness of gender,” a reader of Swinburne and Gibbon like Jude, but also enamored of the Greeks, whereas the young man is a student of the Church Fathers.
So far we have met Jude, his Aunt Drusilla, Mr. Phillotson, Arabella and Sue. These are the main characters of the book that now stands before us. There are a few other characters, but they are all minor and serve the purposes of these five. Jude and Sue fall in love, but unlike Arabella, Sue is somewhat distant and guarded. Unhappy in her work in a church supply store, she is taken by Jude to meet Mr. Phillotson, who runs a school outside Christminster. There she goes to work for him, and becomes coiled in Phillotson’s professional as well as personal life. He offers to send her to a “normal” (teacher’s) school in Melchester, another town of Wessex, where she will learn become certified to teach in his school. The understanding is that in return for this chance at a career, she will marry him. Phillotson is some two decades older than Sue, and she seems not to take the arrangement seriously.
Jude, back in Marygreen for a time, and unaware of the informal agreement between Sue and Phillotson, receives a letter from Sue. She is unhappy and has run away from the school. She wants Jude to come to her rescue, providing he does not ask her to abandon her paganism or compromise her chastity. When Jude arrives he sets her up in quarters he has rented in yet another Wessex town, Shaston.
The reader will find that keeping one’s geographical bearings in this novel is a challenge; perhaps Hardy has a method here, a presentiment that the world is changing around his young heroes, who are being stripped of older customs and familiarities such as set places in the firmament. One of the common adjectives used to describe many young people today is “homeless,” a consciousness of which our author may have had intimations. The constant movement of Jude, Sue and, soon, Arabella around the cities and towns of Wessex reminds us that our postmodern rootlessness is not an entirely new mindset.
Be that as it may, Sue informs Jude that she is engaged to be married to Phillotson soon. Her leaving the normal school has accelerated this development, and she asks him if he will give her away. Though stunned by this announcement, he agrees to do so. After the ceremony, Jude provides a simple meal for the new couple. As Sue is leaving, she drops a handkerchief. When she returns alone to pick it up, her eyes meet his and some unspoken words are exchanged.
At some point following these events, and while in Christminster, “there returned upon him that feeling which had been his undoing more than once—that he was not worth the trouble of being taken care of either by himself or others.” This ressentiment is a leitmotiv throughout the book. In this state of mind, he meets an old friend who takes him to a bar for a drink. There he sees, to his astonishment, Arabella, who is a server. She has returned from Australia, having left her second, bigamous husband behind. She and Jude spend a night together, an experience that leaves him with “an indescribable consciousness of Arabella’s midnight contiguity, and an sense of degradation.”
Concurrent with these events, Jude and Sue meet, and she confides in him her unhappiness at being married to Phillotson. They make a five mile walk together (reminiscent of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Up Hill”) to visit their aunt, who is, they believe, at the point of death. Sue returns to Phillotson at Shaston, he to Melchester, towns that are but a few miles apart.
We are halfway through the novel. Jude’s life enters a kind of intermezzo. His aunt has not died after all, he loses his desire to be in Christminster, Sue seems to be drawing closer to him, and he heeds a sudden call that comes to him through a hymn that he hears in a church service. He determines to track down the hymn writer, who is said to live in Kennetbridge, another Wessex town. The hymn’s title: “The Foot of the Cross.”
Mid-life crises, though Jude is only in his early twenties, are important episodes in the lives of young men. The “Nel Mezzo Camin” (“In the middle of life’s road”) theme occurs in Dante and in Longfellow, and no doubt other literature. It concerns a moment when it is possible for a protagonist to turn away from a course that may be leading to tragedy. Coming in the Easter season, the idea is perhaps that this is a moment for a possible resurrection of the young man’s faith. But in Jude’s case, when he meets the author of the hymn he finds him dismissive of the hymn and of music in general. Disappointed and dispirited, and feeling the recent spiritual flame extinguished, he leaves with a sense of growing bitterness towards Providence, an apostatic course that will determine the rest of his life.
Thus begins the second half of this novel where human intention is foiled again and again by the weakness of the flesh and diffidence in the face of one’s calling. Jude’s fatal acedia is set in motion. He and Sue now see each other on numerous occasions in a flitting subterfuge of both their lives. More and more, Jude deserts his faith, confessing to Sue that “my doctrines and I begin to part company.” He burns his theological books, while she, independently, asks Phillotson for a divorce.
Phillotson, aware of Sue’s profound unhappiness, grants her request at the very moment that Arabella seeks a divorce from Jude. Their marriage was never legitimately dissolved, even though she had “remarried” in Australia. Her husband is returning to England, she argues, and so it is best that they make a legal break. Jude grants this request.
Now that Sue and Jude are finally free from their former entanglements and are free to marry, Sue temporizes and puts the ceremony off again and again. Her old froideur angers Jude, who says “I do love you Sue, but I have danced attendance on you so long for such poor returns.”
Suddenly, a letter arrives from Arabella informing Jude that a son of theirs was born in Australia and will be coming to his father soon. She cannot take care of him. Jude was unaware of the child’s existence until now, and he decides to take in this son. By now, Jude and Sue are living together, still unmarried. Jude moves increasingly in the direction of unbelief.
The relationship between Jude and Sue is anything but harmonious, though it involves much passion. Both parties sense some guilt that they have disrupted each other’s careers, and a sense of doom seems to haunt them. Phillotson’s character is developed more fully at this time. His career too has been ruined by his accommodation of Sue. He has a friend, Gillingham, who counsels him to claim Sue back as his lawful wife, in spite of his legal divorce from her.
Meanwhile, the child arrives. He is more a force of nature than a person. Jude and Sue call him “Little Father Time” because of his constant melancholy. “He was Age masquerading as Juvenility, and doing it so badly that his real self showed through crevices. A ground swell from ancient years of night seemed now and then to lift the child in this his morning-life, when his face took a back view over some great Atlantic of Time, and appeared not to care about what it saw.” Sue remarks that she clearly sees Jude in his son.
Sue continues to sidestep the commitment of marriage, and as the couple moves about the fairs and events of Wessex, they are noticed by Arabella, who is now with her husband, Mr. Cartlett. Observing them on one occasion, Arabella comments to a friend that she regrets not having stuck it out with Jude. Arabella will come to play a more central role in Jude’s life from this point on.
The last hundred pages of the novel lead to a climax of horror unrivalled in most literary tragedies. Sue and Jude seem to trade places, she becoming more devout, he more reprobate. As their life together spins into misery and self-reproach, and as Phillotson and Arabella move in to claim their former spouses, Jude slips further and further into a cycle of self-destruction. They move back to Christminster. On their first day back, Jude encounters some friends in a crowd and is inspired to make a public confession in the form of a powerful speech. “It do seem like the Judgment Day,” comments Father Time as a weather front moves in.
In this seminal speech-confession, Jude recounts his early hopes in coming to Christminster. He has concluded that his poor heritage led to his failure. Echoing Shakespeare’s Romeo, he says “it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten… I may do some good before I am dead—be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do, and so illustrate a moral story… I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness, that makes so many unhappy in these days.”
Sue remonstrates. “Don’t tell them that! You weren’t that. You struggled nobly to acquire knowledge, and only the meanest souls in the world would blame you..” The crowd loves his disquisition, however: “Well preached,” exclaimed his old friend and drinking partner. “And this only a working man!”
Christminster proves once again to be a setting of profound disappointment and final disintegration of the dreams and ideals of Jude’s and Sue’s youth. In the end, Sue goes back to Phillotson, more as a lifelong penance than as a wife, while Jude is once again seduced by Arabella, whom he remarries. “We’ve both remarried out of our senses,” he tells Sue. “I was made drunk to do it. You were the same. I was gin-drunk; you were creed-drunk.”
Jude dies of pneumonia at the age of 30. Before he dies, he confesses to Mrs. Edlin, a friend of his departed Aunt. “And now the ultimate horror has come—her [Sue] giving herself like this to what she loathes [Phillotson], in her enslavement to forms!—she, so sensitive, so shrinking, that the very wind seemed to blow on her with a touch of deference… As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago—when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless—the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.” As Jude lies dying in his bed, the words of scripture come back to him, this time from the book of Job. “Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.”
Soon afterward, Jude passes away, alone in his room. “All was still within. The bumping of near thirty years had ceased.” On his shelf, an old copy of Virgil and his Greek New Testament stood side by side, books he had not burned. “There seemed to be a smile of some sort upon the marble features of Jude.” As for Sue, Arabella comments later to Mrs. Edlin that “Sue has never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she’s as he is now!”
Jude the Obscure is a book profound in its symbolism and keenly reflective of the anxieties of fin de siècle Europe. Recall that the book was published in 1895. The geographical features of Wessex seem to symbolize the desolate sense of the world prior to WWI. As Hardy wrote in his famous poem “The Darkling Thrush,” The land’s sharp features seemed to be / the Century’s corpse outleant / …The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry, / And every spirit upon earth / Seemed fervorless as I.” The bucolic horizontality of the countryside contrasts with the willful verticality of Christminster, yet both lose their meaning at the approach of the new century.
Critics remark at the singularity of meaningless suffering in the novel. Conventional wisdom had dictated that suffering was redemptive and meaningful, but Jude and Sue do not find this to be the case. Blind chance, uncontrollable physical urges and lusts overwhelm intellectual and moral intentions, while their youthful ideals and worldviews are inverted by the relentless march of tragedy and chance. The constant restlessness, the presence of geographical and spiritual movement, the phenomenon of orphanhood on the part of both Jude and Sue, are all factors in creating lives born fifty years too soon (or, perhaps more poignantly, too late), or, as Jude comments to Sue, “fractions always wanting their integers.”
The novel is deeply moving to me. It is in many ways close to my own story. Born poor and destined to a working class life, I still harbored a dream of significance. Early religious piety and longing for the life of a scholar-pilgrim Christian, my plans and intentions were sidelined by a loss of orientation and rebellion in my twenties. A close brush with a life-changing moment that I let pass by took me yet further afield from youthful devotion. Years spent in pursuits far beneath my aspirations and gifts characterized much of my adult life. Only yet another opportunity to seize my birthright saved me from a slow decline into intellectual and spiritual mediocrity.
To me, the moral of Jude the Obscure is simple: guard any dream that is God-given and make it your life-long pursuit to realize, ignoring momentary failure and the obstacles of seeming chance and careless flesh. Believe in God’s kind Providence in all things, and come as near to achieving your goal as possible, knowing you have fought the good fight. I know there are many other interpretations of this signal book, but none speak to me as clearly as Jude did himself in his speech in Christminster, when in closing he quoted the book of Ecclesiastes: “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? And who can tell what shall be after him under the sun?”