Book #84

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude Fawley's hopes of a university education are lost when he is trapped into marrying the earthy Arabella, who later abandons him. Moving to the town of Christminster where he finds work as a stonemason, Jude meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a sensitive, freethinking 'New Woman'.

I consider this novel a very old friend. One who is a bleak, depressed individual, intent on ruining my optimistic outlook on life, and regularly urging on another morbid existential crisis. Yet, with old friends, you love them for who they are, and Jude is this kind of friend.

Of course, it’s Hardy, so all of the above should be no surprise to anyone who’s delved into his work before; but hell, it seems as though this is the most desolate of all. Jude is initially presented as a child of hope - one with ambitions, dreams, and purpose. We’re banded together with him for almost 500 pages, and are witness to his slow destruction, his crumbling away, as the world takes swipes at him in a constant, insurmountable fashion. Some of the things which befall him are entirely incomprehensible and cruel; it’s a wonder he continued to dream. But such are the wonders of Jude Fawley.

From the beginning, despite Jude’s original faith in his future, Hardy hangs a desperately black cloud over each word he writes. It’s grimly fascinating how he achieves this, and although the gloom dissipates and intensifies throughout the pages, it remains a constant spectre hovering over us. It’s no wonder many have crowned Jude the most depressing book ever written. 
Aside: this leads me to wonder whether the character Jude in the other most depressing book ever written, A Little Life, was somewhat based on his Victorian counterpart in sorrow. I should look that up.

The characters are simply wonderful here, and the reader is bound to become mesmerised by them. Our main characters could inspire in depth studies into their motivation and psyche, Jude and Sue in particular who seem keen to overthrow society’s moralistic expectations and religious shackles. I won’t dive into these, but it was truly a wonder (albeit a heart rending wonder) to read of these two lovers who, despite everything, are consistently shunned away despite their deeper intentions.

Hardy has lots to say here, from the folly of ambition, to a woman’s role in society. Each satirical comment was a blow, every obstacle a curse. He critiques religion, the institution of marriage, wealth defining intellect, and a thousand other Victorian social norms. His comments rattled Victorian England so much, that Jude was his final offering to the world of fiction. I would mourn this fact, but if Hardy decided to crank up the tragedy in a subsequent novel, I’m unsure whether I, or indeed the world, would be able to handle it.

So, old friend, we have met again; you’ve given me joy and heartbreak, light and shade, as you always do. Maybe we’ll meet again in another ten years or so.

Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his trouble, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.