19 August 2007

14. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Another sad book.

Jude Fawley grows up in a small English village, a burden to his aunt, and feeling generally out of place. He has great respect for his schoolmaster, Phillotson, and when his teacher moves to Oxford he vows to follow in his footsteps. He reads and has a passion for learning, which is out of place in his small farming village.

One day, on his way back from his wanderings, he meets a fresh-faced, beautiful Arabella. They soon start courting and soon enough Arabella says she is pregnant. Jude abandons his scholarly ambitions and settles down to be a husband. Arabella turns out to be not at all what she seemed - false hair, false dimples, and false pregnancy. As Jude and Arabella try to slaughter a pig by themselves (instead of waiting for the slaughter man) they have the fight that ends their relationship. Arabella packs it in, moves back to her dad's, and then ships off to Australia for a new start.

As for Jude, he decides to resume his scholarly pursuits and so moves to Oxford. When he looks up his old professor Jude finds that ol Phillotson doesn't even remember him. He gets work as a mason and studies at night. Eventually he realizes that the mighty Oxford is never going to let him study there. It's a bitter blow for Jude.

While he is adrift in Oxford he runs into his cousin Sue. Who he falls in love with. She is a school teacher, working with none other than Mr Phillotson. Worse yet, for Jude, she has promised to marry him.

Jude is in love with her, but technically he and Arabella are still married.

Sue does marry Phillotson, but she is so unhappy (she thinks marriage does nothing more than enslave the soul) that she asks for her freedom. Despite good advice from his friends, Phillotson agrees. It eventually costs him his career as a teacher (because he is not a good moral example).

Now that she is free, Sue and Jude get together and move far away from anyone who knows them. She is a new thinker and even though Jude wants to get married she resists. And so they revolve around and around.

Ah, but did you think that Arabella was going to just fade away? Hardy thinks not. And so she returns, with a child she swears is Jude's. She sends the kid on a train to Jude, who has since moved back to his original village. Sue and Jude adopt the strange little boy, who they call Father Time. This is called symbolism. Jude and Arabella divorce so she can remarry. Sue and Jude have two kids. The family falls on hard times (because they are not married).

The kids die (this is on the back of the book, so I'm not sure the reveal qualifies
as a spoiler). This oh-so-Victorian tragedy sends Sue toward religion.

As a consequence of this religion she decides she belongs with Phillotson and so she moves back with him.

Jude is desolate. He turns to drink. He is rescued by Arabella, of all people. She brings him home, keeps him drunk for three days, and then marches him off to the preacher to remarry him.

Jude sobers up.

And then he catches cold. Relies on Arabella to take care of him. He visits Sue one last time.

So the book is about a lot of things - an editorial on marriage, on duty and responsibility, about the battle between philosophy of intellect and the call of religious study and work.

I have to say I have very little pity for Sue - her stubborn, willful and selfish defense of her ideas that contrast so radically with society that it seems like Hardy is shortchanging her in some way - like how can she not see the damage she is doing to her family (families), and herself. She's a walking Pyrrhic victory.

As for Jude, it's a little more complicated - he's a victim of his desires, society's rules, and stronger characters like Arabella and Sue. But he does allow himself to be manipulated by these characters and society.

Hardy's poems are dark, and his novels have a reputation for being so too. This was his last novel - some say because of the harsh reaction it received at the hands of critics.

I'm still thinking about this one, and I guess that means it was meaty.

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