Nine years ago I listened to Jude the Obscure as a free LibriVox audiobook (I love LibriVox!), mostly while cycling to and from my summer job at an art gallery. This was not my first Hardy (I had read The Mayor of Casterbridge for my first year of university), but obviously as his last novel, Jude the Obscure has a special place in Hardy’s canon.
I quite like my original review, if I do say so myself, so this is just a short update based on what I thought this time around. Obviously I’m in a different place in my life right now, and so slightly different things resonated for me.
This past year saw me move into my own house, and while I’m not married (and that is not on the horizon for me), I’ve definitely been adulting more and forming some of the first adult friendships of my life. So I paid a lot of attention to the way Jude conducts his relationships with Arabella and Sue, and in particular, to the way Sue vacillates in her desires for a relationship—and the nature of that relationship—with Jude. It’s fascinating because there isn’t that much of a rivalry between the two women. Certainly they are wary of one another, and neither is really all that happy to have the other in Jude’s life. Yet theirs isn’t so much a competition for Jude’s affection as it is an alternating of roles. Whichever one isn’t living with Jude as his wife is automatically more attractive and desirable, because, of course, the grass is always greener.
So much of this is wrapped up in respectability politics. Sue begs Phillotson to let her leave him, despite the hit he will take professionally for allowing that to happen. Sue and Jude essentially fake getting married because they can’t stand the thought of actually marrying, yet they crave the respectability that the appearance of legitimate marriage might bring to them in these rural towns they inhabit. It doesn’t work, of course, because Hardy’s whole point is that once a group of people have taken against you and picked you as their morality whipping couple, they aren’t going to let up because you pretended to get married.
Jude’s presence in the liminal space between tradesperson and scholar also jumped out at me more. Specifically, I see now how his failure to obtain the education and position he originally desired isn’t just a disappointment to himself: he is literally trapped between two worlds. He definitely isn’t a scholar; there is no way he can hold any respectable scholarly position with what little he has studied so far. Yet his fellow tradespeople look down on him, mock him, or pity him, for aspiring to more than his class would let him be. It isn’t just the scholars and academics policing Jude: even the people of the same class resent him for trying to make “better” of himself.
I don’t know if I picked the worst or the best time to read this book … my dad has had some serious health issues this summer, prompting far too many hospital visits, and I read a good chunk of this while sitting in the ER with him very late one night/early one morning. Yet as depressing and bleak as this is (the whole fate of the children still freaks me out, although it wasn’t as bad this time around now that I wasn’t listening to someone else describe it to me), there’s something really … nice … about reading this when I’m feeling drained or down.
For one thing, Hardy can write. His descriptions, of settings and of characters, are just so lush and detailed. This is what I love about the late Victorian novelists. Yes, sometimes they can be too verbose … but Hardy, I think, largely avoids that issue. He wraps himself in words just enough to immerse the reader in his Wessex, and it’s beautiful. Jude the Obscure is not a happy or uplifting book by any means, yet it is still a beautiful book to read. Hardy’s love of words, as evidenced in the poetry he would later go on to publish after leaving off novel-writing, shines through, particularly here.
I also think the distance of the setting (more so in terms of time than place) is very comforting. It’s difficult for me to read about sad things happening in contemporary fiction, because that feels too real. But sad things happening to someone in the late 1800s? The culture and society are so different that it’s basically like science fiction (which I also enjoy reading when I’m down): I have to figure out the rules based on what exposition the author gives me, and I can feel sorry for how the characters are constrained by their society without feeling constrained myself.
That being said, I’ll close with this thought of how we haven’t changed that much from Hardy’s time. While leaving one’s spouse for a lover has become slightly more commonplace and perhaps acceptable (depending on your circles), in general, our society is still quite repressive and conservative when it comes to codifying relationships. We still emphasize marriage as a much bigger deal than it should be—that is, I understand that some couples want to get married, for various reasons, and celebrate their love, and they should be allowed to—but by the same token, people who don’t want to get married deserve the same respect and status—and people who elect to be single, likewise. While we have left Hardy’s time behind, we are still hung up on a lot of the same issues.
And that’s why, some hundred odd years on, Thomas Hardy’s writing reaches out across time and space and still touches me.