Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Review: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Let me begin with some good news for once! Last night a couple of my students participated in our local Poetry Out Loud competition, and one of them took 3rd place at districts. After spending over a month teaching and reading poetry with my students, it was really nice to see them embracing it for themselves. It's always my hope that my students will find a connection to what we're reading, and develop a life-long love of literature on their own.

Having said that, I recently finished reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy because I'm getting ready to teach Tess of the D'Urbervilles again this year. It's truly one of my favorite books to teach, so I wanted to delve into a bit more of Hardy's work. I'd already read The Mayor of Casterbridge in college, and a number of his poems, but I didn't really learn to love Hardy until I read Tess last year. There's just something about Hardy, so I wanted to read some of the rest of his work to compare them, and to get a better overview of the themes he addresses.

Synopsis: Jude Fawley, the central character of the novel, has hopes for a future wherein he can get an education, and rise out of poverty. In this pursuit, he meets a young woman named Arabella, who convinces him to marry her after tricking him into believing she might be pregnant. Although the couple do eventually have a child together, Arabella abandons Jude before revealing her pregnancy. Jude delves back into work by becoming a stone-mason, wherein he meets young Sue Bridehead and falls madly in love with her. A strange relationship develops between the two, however, as Sue like Jude, but seemingly fights and withholds her feelings from him, eventually marrying the schoolmaster she works for out of some sense of obligation. Strangely, Sue instantly regrets her decision and leaves her husband before the marriage is consummated, and moves in with Jude.

The rest I hate to reveal, as much more drama occurs, including the return of Arabella with a son that Jude never knew he had, and Arabella's marriage to another man, which was considered illegal because of her prior marriage to Jude. Sue and Jude seem well matched though, and are on the path to weather out the storms of life that confront them, but like all Hardy novels, tragedy is just around the corner.

Review: After having my friend Doc read this novel and vehemently declare how much she hated it, I had a good deal of curiosity about the story. I will say though, that my own feelings are quite different. While I understand the frustration that comes from reading a novel with twists and tragedies as Hardy's novels do, I also really found the subject intriguing. Not only did I find Sue's evasive toying with Jude nearly unbearable to take, but also failed to comprehend why such a nice man as Jude would put up with the manipulation and whining that seemed to come from any and all of the women in his life. I tried to take into account the time period, realizing that Jude's life would be nothing but one big scandal, which actually made me like Jude more. As a character, I found him to be filled with honor, and merely a man dealing with the cards life had dealt him. As for Sue, Arabella, Phillotson (Sue's first husband), and a parade of other characters, I would say that the broad spectrum of human characters and their traits didn't fare well in this novel.

From his biography, I understand that Hardy retired from writing novels after writing Jude the Obscure, having been similarly attacked for being salacious in his previous novel, Tess. You can't miss the social commentary Hardy is making here, showing how hypocritical the social mores were of the day. Marriage, for anything other than love, is strictly painted as being damning to the soul, and a hypocrisy against any sort of religious belief. Hardy definitely holds a mirror up to society, then and now, to examine our judgments of other's lives, and our lack of knowledge behind what truly lies in the hearts of those we judge by the world's standards.

Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I have a renewed love for Hardy, and have looked into buying a copy of his complete works of poetry. As is common in his novels, his poetry also carries strong messages, social and religious, that ask the reader to examine their world with greater honesty. No, Jude the Obscure does not leave you feeling chipper, but I would definitely recommend it as a great classic to read. Tess of the D'Urbervilles is still my favorite, bar none, but am really glad that I have another Hardy novel to compare it with. Now...I'm off to see if there is a great film version of the novel that I can compare it with!

For more information, see:Jude the Obscure.

*This review is based off of a personal copy of the novel. This also counts as one of my books for the TBR Challenge.

Have you ever read a classic that you were so intrigued with that you had to read another by the same author?


  1. Actually, I had the same experience with Thomas Hardy! I read Far from the Madding Crowd when I studied abroad in England and totally loved it. Then I went on to read Tess and the Mayor of Casterbridge and I loved them, too. Strangely enough I'd read Jude the Obscure several years earlier in high school and completely hated it, as did everyone else I knew, so I think I need to revisit it!

  2. Great blog Becky thanks. I studied Tess at school when I was 15 and loved it - but it is very challenging to teach and keep people into because it is so long and has so many descriptive passages. Later in life, I have read other Hardy works and his poetry which I think wonderful. A lesser known novel - The Woodlanders - is actually my favourite and I heartily recommend it. Thanks for sharing, Hannah

  3. What a wonderful post! I thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't read Hardy for many years but I read all of his books and really liked them, especially Tess of the D'Urbevilles. Makes me wonder if I would feel the same way if I read them today.

  4. It sounds like a soap opera! I'm not sure I could handle this book.