Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Alas! What a tragedy. Why so sad, Mr. Hardy?

Evaluating this book purely as a tragedy, I give it a score of 8 (of 10).

Jude the Obscure (1895) is a hopeless tragedy about an idealistic stonemason named Jude Fawley and his love for his beautiful cousin, Sue Bridehead. Their love is beset with indefatigable adversity and is further contested by a pair of not-so-admirable admirers. Below is my review. (Stop here for fear of spoilers and ye safe be.)

First, however, some background on the book: Jude was considered quite controversial in its day, dubbed by critics: Jude the Obscene. In fact, the harsh criticism the book received (copies of it were burnt publicly) is said to be why Jude was Hardy's last novel.* (He would live for another 30 or so years after that, devoting the rest of his time to the craft he felt, and I would have to concur, he was better suited for: poetry.)

Why such harsh criticism? Well, most of it was a response to the novels critical depiction of marriage as an unnatural and formal contract liable to kill the bond of two lovers. All the marriages depicted or mentioned are unhappy. Jude and Arabella's first marriage ends with the latter's jilting of the former, their economic difficulties having made it increasingly apparent that they do not love each other. Also, Sue and Philloston's first marriage is convenient enough, given Philloston's ability to care for Sue. However, Sue, disgusted by the thought of being physical with her husband, desperately flees to Jude. Via several twists of fate, the aforementioned couples wind up marrying each other - again. Their fates are essentially the same, but they are instead separated from their less-than-ideal mates only by death, living unhappily and unlovingly until its sweet embrace.

The novel is, also, especially critical of the contemporary English society, illustrating its coercive and conforming power. It is this society that, for example, burdens the pregnant Sue and Jude and their children during their urgent need for room and board at Christminster. The difficulties they face, unable to readily find someone who will take them in, for the social stigma of being unmarried and having children, ultimately leads to Little Father Time, Jude's son with Arabella, killing his little half-siblings and himself as a means to relieve his parents of the burden. What is Hardy saying? Society kills babies! Naturally, society didn't like that so much.

What works for the novel is Hardy's diligent depiction of a hopeless tragedy. In fact, Jude can be summed up with these words spoken by Sue to Little Father Time: "All is trouble, adversity, and suffering!" Indeed, my pessimistic little friend. The life of the eponymous protagonist, begins with him being whacked on the behind for no reason other than his kindness for animals and ends with his singular and slow death, initiated, it seems, from having fallen out with his one true love: Sue. Everything in between is one dream dying (scholarship at Christminster, marrying Sue) after another.

However, a substantial flaw in the novel is its superfluous length and tragic incredulity. Hardy's known for writing a lot, even when a little is enough. Whether it's nature painting or characters chapters, Hardy goes on and on and on. Don't get me wrong. Hardy's chronicling of the lives of his key characters, Jude and Sue, is well-done and certainly complete, though the rigidly chronological everyday details throughout could've been omitted. Also, the key climactic moment is when Sue, Jude's reason for living, finally leaves Jude, both of them having already suffered incredulously from social stigmatization to the death of their children, for Philloston; the two lovers that sought a better life through each other finally realize and accept that fate working itself through society had absolutely forsaken them. (Lama sabachthani?) I don't see why the story would need to go on for much longer after that - to watch Jude wither and die alone ever so slowly? Spare me. I get it: it's a tragedy.

All in all, it's a great novel. I enjoyed reading it every week, more so than the other things I've been reading, which speaks for itself.

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* The Well-Beloved (1897) was actually completed before Jude and printed previously in serial form (1892).

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