Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy
Jude The Obscure

Hmmm, Thomas Hardy. I do love the beautiful poetical way he writes and his books are full of depth and memorable characters, but oh he is depressing, he just leaves me wishing for a happy ending that I know will never come and instead I’m just left feeling sad. And this book is very very traumatic with what happens to the children, I think those are possibly the most depressing pages in literature! But it is still a book I felt important to read as it feels a brave and challenging book with powerful themes (though I did sometimes wonder why I'd re-read it this time!). There is obviously a love story throughout the book between Jude and Sue, but I really can’t think of this as a love story as there is just so much unhappiness, it's definitely more tragedy than love story.

Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy available on Amazon
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 Paperback  Audiobook

Hmmm, Thomas Hardy. I do love the beautiful poetical way he writes and his books are full of depth and memorable characters, but oh he is depressing, he just leaves me wishing for a happy ending that I know will never come and instead I’m just left feeling sad. And this book is very very traumatic with what happens to the children, I think those are possibly the most depressing pages in literature! But it is still a book I felt important to read as it feels a brave and challenging book with powerful themes (though I did sometimes wonder why I’d re-read it this time!). There is obviously a love story throughout the book between Jude and Sue, but I really can’t think of this as a love story as there is just so much unhappiness, it’s definitely more tragedy than love story.

There are some interesting themes in the book that made me ponder. I was particularly intrigued by Sue and how she is seen as fragile and delicate by the men in the book, and I suppose perhaps by Hardy too, whereas I saw her as cruel and selfish, but I was fascinated by and admired her modernity in this time. Obviously Jude’s character is one to promote pondering, particularly his obsessiveness and weakness with women. The institution of marriage and its role and purpose was also dealt with in an interesting way and made me think. And of course Sue and Jude’s relationship and how this seemed to more often cause them harm more than happiness. I did think the book seemed almost to be more about Sue than Jude though, and I wondered why Hardy didn’t call the book by her name. And I have always been intrigued by the description of Jude as ‘obscure’, and whether this means he is unnoticeable or odd. 

Jude Fawley seems, even as a child, a boy who can often feel very low. His aims of education and a life in Christminster are admirable, as is him trying to educate himself in Latin and Greek from second hand books. He is disappointed and feels low from the setbacks he faces in this aim, but picks himself up and feels determined to try again. (I imagine Christminster to be like Oxford). His school teacher, Phillotson, who went to Christminster himself and who inspired Jude to want to do the same, tells him ‘Be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can’ (I feel this is very good advice to live your life by). Jude’s plans are waylaid by him meeting and falling in love/lust with Arabella, who he marries when she tells him she is pregnant, though she was ‘mistaken’ in this. They are poor and unhappy together, and she emigrates to Australia with her family and Jude is alone again planning his life in Christminster. 

While married to Arabella, he learns that his mother and father separated, as did his aunt and uncle, and so concludes that marriage is not for the Fawleys. He also briefly contemplates suicide by walking and jumping on a frozen pond, although he is more hoping the ice will break than being determined to break it, and it doesn’t break. 

He eventually makes it to Christminster working as a stonemason and studying at night. He hears that his cousin, Sue, is also at Christminster and becomes quite obsessed with her, telling himself he just wants her friendship as he is lonely, but realising in himself that he wants more while acknowledging he shouldn’t as he is married and she’s his cousin (his obsession with Sue makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. He seems unable to resist things that he wants, he becomes obsessed by them, like with Christminster and Mr Phillotson, he single-mindedly determines to achieve them no matter what the cost). 

He gets Sue a job teaching with Mr Phillotson, in his eagerness to stop Sue leaving Christminster, but then is distraught when he thinks they are having a relationship. He also comes to the realisation that his studies are getting him nowhere and he will never get into the universities there. He gets drunk and goes to Sue’s in the early hours of the morning, but leaves again before she gets up the next day. He is now completely disillusioned with Christminster and his aim of high study, he realises that money and class are necessary requirements to enter the college and without these he will never be accepted there, no matter how hard he studies or how passionately he wants it. He is also fired from his stonemason job and has no money. He walks back to his childhood home. He is feeling lower than he’s ever been before, lower than when his plans to move to Christminster seemed to be impossible, it is harder now that he’s got there but has then failed in his aims. 

He chats to the local priest, who suggests he should aim to be just a local curate, that there is good to do in that work and it requires less study. He decides to follow this course, then decides to follow it in the city of Melchester as he learns Sue is at teaching college there and when he suggests visiting her she is keen to see him. She admits she has agreed to marry Phillotson in two years when she is qualified, so they can purchase a big school together, him teaching the boys and her teaching the girls. Jude suggests he should no longer see her as she is engaged, but she insists they continue to see one another. 

Sue is fed up with her studies and is lonely. She is quite a surprising character, she is well-read in books and Jude notes she has read more than him, she is very modern in her ideas and dismissive of the accepted relationships between men and women, and when she was 18 she lived as friends with a male student in London but he wanted more than friendship and told Sue she was torturing him by being so close to him and he subsequently died and Sue isn’t sure if that was of a broken heart caused by herself. She speaks very easily to Jude, shrugging off the suspicions of her college teachers and staying over at his flat when she is in need, all the time while engaged to Phillotson. She is dismissive of the restrictions on women and she lived by herself in London after her friend died, but she declares her virtue is intact. She is quite inconsistent in her statements however, saying one thing in a determined way then immediately after saying the opposite in an equally determined way, eg she is worried that Phillotson will be angry that she’s left the training college, then says she doesn’t care what he says and will please herself. She sees that Jude loves her and tells him he shouldn’t, then tells him she doesn’t mind if he does (she seems a tease and to be deliberately perverse and cruel in her wish to torment and punish Jude). When she learns of his marriage to Arabella, she immediately agrees to bring forward her marriage to Phillotson and also asks Jude to give her away and continues to be close to him. Jude wonders if she has married Phillotson just to punish him, not realising what the cost would be to her. (I can see Jude, and Phillotson, being hurt in all this more than she. She’s definitely not the fragile vulnerable woman at risk of being taken advantage of, she strikes me as more cold and selfish and inconsiderate, I am really not liking her. The traditional emotions of men and women seem reversed slightly here, with Jude being thoughtful and easily hurt and sensitive, and her being selfish and pleasing herself. Though of course, Jude shouldn’t have pursued Sue in the first place!). 

Arabella turns up in Christminster as a barmaid, and Jude sleeps with her (for someone who seems to want a quiet, thoughtful, contemplative life of study, he seems to invite dramas, particularly with women!!). Arabella says she has married again in Australia, illegally as she is still married to Jude. The following morning Sue comes to meet Jude, and he compares the two women and feels ashamed of being with Arabella the night before, however he doesn’t tell Sue that Arabella is back. Sue admits she’s not happy with Phillotson, though he is good and kind to her (again, I see Sue being a tease here). Arabella then writes to Jude that her Australian husband has come to England for her, and they will run a bar in London as husband and wife. 

Jude is offered his former job back in Christminster. He considers his personality and ‘perceived with despondency that…he was a man of too many passions to make a good clergyman…his passion for Sue troubled his soul, yet his lawful abandonment to the society of Arabella…seemed instinctively a worse thing’. He shows obsession and misplaced idealism again by impulsively heading to see a hymn writer, believing they are twin souls and that anyone who can write a hymn like that must be able to understand and empathise with him. He is again disappointed when the man doesn’t live up to his idealistic view of him. 

When he sees Sue in Shaston, he tells her ‘Sue, I sometimes think you are a flirt’ (yes indeed, this seems very accurate to me!). She is very upset and offended and says ‘some women’s love of being loved is insatiable and so, often, is their love of loving, and in the last case they may find that they can’t give it continuously to the chamber-officer appointed by the bishop’s licence to receive it’. She says she and Jude aren’t to meet again (as she has said before, and I suspect she will, as before, change her mind!). Jude’s aunt dies so Sue comes to the funeral and they are together again. She tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, particularly the physical side of it, he tackles her that she only got married because he told her he was married to Arabella, he also tells her he’s seen Arabella again. He calls her ‘ridiculously inconsistent’ when she refuses to allow him to hold her hand and says he has ‘no feelings of love left in me’. He does try to fight his feelings for Sue (and I think she also tries to fight her feelings for him but the need to share her thoughts and concerns draws her to him again and again as the only person she can talk to. Perhaps if she had another best friend, it’d be easier for her to keep apart from Jude, but she is lonely and craves someone to talk and to share things with, and there seems to be only him. I wonder if she struggles to make friends with her own sex, as she is almost quite masculine in her modernity, rather than feminine and obeying customs and rules, so perhaps other women feel uncomfortable and intimidated by her, and she with other women, and therefore feels more comfortable with men, such as with her university friend as well as Jude). She tells Jude ‘a married woman in trouble of a kind like mine commits a mortal sin in making a man the confidant of it, as I did you’. They finally kiss passionately when she departs after the funeral. Jude seems to view Sue as a fragile person, both in body and mind (not at all how I see her), she is described as an ‘aerial being’, a ‘slim little wife’, an ‘ethereal, fine-nerves, sensitive girl’. 

Sue asks Phillotson if she can live apart from him and live with Jude instead, describing it to herself as adultery to live with Phillotson ‘on intimate terms when one feels as I do’. Phillotson finally agrees to let Sue live apart from him in their house and no longer have marital relations, although ‘he felt as lonely as when he had not known her’ (I do feel sorry for him). Phillotson then forgetfully walks into her bedroom, and Sue jumps out of the window in horror at his presence, so he decides to release her, although he doesn’t want to know if she will then go to Jude or how they will live together. Phillotson describes Sue and Jude as having an ‘extraordinary sympathy, or similarity, (and) seem to be one person split in two, (that they have) an extraordinary affinity or sympathy…their supreme desire is to be together, to share each other’s emotions, and fancies, and dreams’. 

However when she first meets Jude to go off with him, she seems not to want to be his lover, she says ‘my liking for you…is a delight in being with you, of a supremely delicate kind’. He is hurt and says ‘sometimes…I think you are incapable of real love’, but also realises that ‘neither length nor breadth, nor things present nor things to come, can divide me (from her)’. She describes her mistake of marrying Phillotson as her ‘love of being loved’ and says she encouraged Phillotson to love her while she didn’t love him at all, and then seeing him suffer she felt remorseful and tried to repair the wrong. Jude though interprets this as her flirting with Phillotson then feeling sorry for this and marrying him out of reparation. 

Arabella asks Jude for a divorce, and Sue finds out that Jude slept with Arabella when they met up. She is jealous and angry, she says he has been false to her and she will never forget it, even though she doesn’t want to be with him like that. He is confused by this, he says she is inconsistent and concedes nothing to him though expects him to concede all to her, but he then regrets these words and calls her a ‘spirit…a disembodied creature…a sweet tantalising phantom’ (hmmm, definitely not the way I view her). 

Phillotson loses his job when people find out he has condoned his wife running away with her lover, as he is supposed to be in charge of his pupils’ morals (poor Phillotson). He also decides to help Sue further by offering to divorce her. 

After both are divorced, Sue still says she doesn’t want to marry Jude or sleep with him, and he notes she won’t even say that she loves him (he seems never to have a hope of happiness). She says their family history means their marriage will be doomed, and she also believes people fall out of love quickly when they are contracted to be with that person for the rest of their life and no longer free. Jude says people often marry due to ordinary passions but that she seems to be a ‘phantasmal, bodiless creature’ and has no animal passion. She maintains fewer women like marriage than he thinks and only enter into it for the dignity and social advantage, which she is willing to do without. He agrees to go on as before. 

Arabella turns up and asks to speak privately to Jude, this greatly upsets Sue and she becomes jealous and demands that he doesn’t meet with Arabella pointing out that Arabella isn’t his wife, at which Jude points out Arabella is more his wife than Sue is. Sue says he is deserting her, and Jude points out that if Sue was his it would be different, whereby Sue says wildly that she will be his and will marry him (this seems almost a childish desperation on her part, using this to entice Jude to shun Arabella rather than because she actually wants to marry him or be physical with him). Sue still feels worried about Arabella so the next day goes herself to see her, Arabella notes that Sue seems different that day in how she talks of Jude so she concludes that they weren’t physical before but that her visit has now changed that. Arabella doesn’t tell Sue why she wanted to speak to Jude, and writes to him instead to say there was a child from their marriage that she has never had much to do with and left her parents to raise in Australia, but they have now sent the boy to her and she is desperate for her new husband not to find out about the boy. Jude and Sue offer to have the boy, and Sue seems surprisingly keen to love and raise him, though she is jealous again that he resembles Arabella as well as Jude but she is touched by how unwanted he seems and how keen he is to call her mother and how much he seems to need love. The boy is very quiet and withdrawn, he doesn’t seem to have a name, he says he was just called Old Father Time and has never been christened. 

Sue is still reluctant to marry Jude, going back to her concerns of how marriage wrecks a relationship and adding comments that Arabella made on the subject of marriage with her new husband and how she viewed this as a way to secure his better treatment of her and to ensure her security of a business with the pub. They have a few attempts at getting married but are put off by the unromantic questions on the forms, then put off by a story an old neighbour tells them of a previous relation of theirs whose marriage was bad and he was hanged for breaking into their former house to steal and bury his child’s body when the child died, then put off by the sight and stories of other couples waiting at the registry office who seem forced into marriage by unhappy circumstances. Jude then also seems as reluctant as Sue to marry and to risk damaging their relationship, they think ‘the intention of the contract is good and right for many, no doubt, but in our case it may defeat its own ends because we are the queer sort of people we are – folk of whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness’. They suspect that more people actually feel the same as they do, and that in 50 to 100 years’ time marriage will be questioned more. Sue sympathises with the women being married saying they are being given in sacrifice, but Jude said it is often as worse for the man and it is the institution of marriage that is at fault and not the man, though he says the woman oftens blames the man instead of realising ‘the common enemy, coercion’. (I’m guessing Hardy doesn’t support marriage or feels restricted with the rules of marriage, and is trying to state this here. I can see why this novel was disapproved of when it came out, as I can imagine these statements about marriage being bad and it better to live in sin must have caused a stir. I wonder in that time if marriage was more ‘arranged’ for monetary reasons for both aristocratic families and poor families, that this wasn’t frowned on and that marrying for love was rarer then).

Jude and Sue tell the neighbours they are married saying they went away to do this, but they are still a source of gossip and speculation and disapproval, and their son Old Father Time is teased at school, and Jude is turned down for work, particularly stonemasonry in churches as the couple are seen to be irreligious. They therefore decide to move on from place to place where people don’t know them in order to ensure their anonymity, and Jude no longer looks for work in churches as he feels disillusioned with religion now. They also now have two children of their own, as well as Old Father Time. 

Arabella is now a widow and bumps into Sue and Old Father Time selling cakes at a fair, these are designed as Christminster cakes with windows and towers and cloisters (I would love to see them!). Sue is pregnant again, and Arabella realises she wishes she herself was with Jude. Arabella also bumps into Phillotson and learns how he lost his school and income after Sue left him, due to him not challenging the divorce. Arabella is living fairly locally now to Jude and Sue. 

Jude has been unwell, and declares he’d like to go back to Christminster, even though he realises now that he will never succeed there as he hoped and dreamed, he realises Christminster hates self-taught men, that the city scorns such men’s labours instead of respecting their effort, and that it sneers at such men’s mispronunciations when it should offer help and encouragement. When at Christminster he insists on watching a procession of students on the annual Remembrance Week, he had planned their arrival so as to be there for this procession, and he is recognised in the crowd and asked how he has got on after his dreams of being accepted at Christminster. He describes himself to the crowd as ‘I am in a chaos of principles, groping in the dark, acting by instinct and not after example’. They struggle to find accommodation in Christminster due to the three children and Sue being pregnant, they finally find a room just for Sue and the children, with Jude having to look for a room on his own, but when the landlady questions Sue as to if they are married she admits they aren’t saying they have both had unhappy marriages in the past and are fearful that a contract would damage their love, that they have tried to get married two or three times but couldn’t do it, that they view themselves as married but are not married in others’ eyes. They are told to leave. 

Old Father Time is troubled by them having nowhere to go and identifies that this is partly because of the children being with them, he says he wishes he hadn’t been born and says that children who are not wanted should be killed. Sue tells him there will be another child soon, at which he is extremely angry saying she doesn’t care for them and is wicked and cruel and has done this on purpose. The following morning all three children are found hanged by Old Father Time ‘done because we are too menny’. (Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this has happened, this is honestly one of the most depressing sections in literature ever!). 

Sue and Jude are grieving, Sue pleads that the coffins be re-opened so she can see her children one more time, Sue goes into premature labour and loses her unborn child, blaming herself for the tragedy for speaking to Old Father Time as if he was an adult, and blaming herself for their choice of living unmarried as they do. Jude tells her the doctor said boys like Old Father Time are now springing up in this generation, who see all life’s terrors but are not old enough to resist them, that this is the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live, and on Old Father Time’s dead face Jude believes he can see ‘the inauspiciousness and shadow which had darkened (his) first union…and all the accidents, mistakes, fears, errors of the last’. Sue feels there is something saying to them that ‘you shan’t learn… you shan’t labour… you shan’t love’ (phew, it takes a lot to get through this section).

Jude gets work repairing colleges but no longer goes to any services, however Sue begins to go to services and says they must ‘conform’ and that God’s wrath has been vented on them, that she is ‘cowed into submission’ and that she believes she is still really Phillotson’s wife and belongs to him or to nobody, that Jude is still Arabella’s husband, that they should be sacrificing themselves to remove the evil and sin from them, that her babies being taken from her was done to make her see marriage differently, that ‘Arabella’s child killing mine was a judgement – the right slaying the wrong’, that she loves Jude still, but shouldn’t do so and is not his wife. Jude states he hates religion for making her feel like this, and questions how her views on religion and marriage can be so different now as to before, and how she can go back on all she has said after she had made him believe the same. She says she entered into their physical relationship ‘through jealousy and agitation’ and wanted to love without the physical side, that women can live like that but men can’t, that ‘an average woman is in this superior to an average man – that she never instigates, only responds’, that Jude’s ‘wickedness was only the natural man’s desire to possess the woman…mine was not the reciprocal wish till envy stimulated me to oust Arabella’ (phew, this is very heavy going). He blames himself for causing the change in their relationship to make it a physical one but also accuses her of never loving him as he loves her, that she has ‘not a passionate heart – your heart does not burn in a flame. You are upon the whole a sort of fay or sprite – not a woman!’. She says women have an ‘inborn craving…to attract and captivate, regardless of the injury it may do the man’ that their relationship ‘began in the selfish and cruel wish to make your heart ache for me without letting mine ache for you’. (Wow, I’m thinking Hardy despises women, this sounds so bitter!). Jude says he was selfish to over-rule her wish to not be physical and ‘perhaps I spoilt one of the highest and purest loves that ever existed between man and woman’ and he agrees for them to separate. 

She tells him a while later that she is going back to Phillotson, who has learned from Arabella that Sue feels she is still his wife, so he wrote to her saying he would take her back so they could try and reduce the failure of their lives. She admits to Jude that she doesn’t love Phillotson but that she will try and learn to love him by obeying him. Jude feels her bereavement has destroyed her reasoning and that he ‘never knew such a woman for doing impulsive penances’. She maintains the children ‘died to bring home to me the error of my views’, and she marries Phillotson. 

Arabella turns up asking help from Jude, saying she feels the same as Sue, that she is really married to him as her first husband, she keeps him drunk and confused at her father’s house for a few days, tells him he promised to marry her and needs to do so to protect her honour, so he does marry her, being barely sober and barely knowing what he’s doing (there is a humorous passage regarding Arabella’s and Jude’s married life, as the landlord of the lodging had doubted they were married till ‘by chance overhearing her one night haranguing Jude in rattling terms and ultimately flinging a shoe at his head, he recognized the note of genuine wedlock’, tee hee!)

Jude goes to see Sue for the last time, as he feels that he is dying. He states how ridiculous these false marriages are and pleads with her to run away with him, she refuses but admits she does love him and that her marriage to Phillotson has not been physical. She kisses Jude but still refuses to run away with him. Jude is ill and exhausted by the emotion and travel in wet conditions, and tells Arabella he presumed this trip would kill him and hopes it will. Sue feels she has sinned by kissing Jude and saying she loves him, so as penance she decides to be physical with her husband. Jude dies alone, while Arabella is out at the Remembrance Festival for graduates.

A sad depressing ending, and I can’t think of much happiness throughout the entire book, I felt quite drained and exhausted after finishing it. I still think this book is more about Sue, how she is a flirt and a tease, how she tortures Jude both when she is free-spirited and independent, when she is joined to him and they should be happy together, and when she mentally breaks down after the death of their children and alters all her views of marriage and religion. Through it all she still manages to cause Jude pain, as she has in various different ways ever since she entered his life, she has basically destroyed his peace and happiness and life! This is a very powerful book with very strong themes, and I’m aware I jotted down lots of quotes in order to help me try and understand the characters’ feelings, more than jotting down beautiful descriptive passages as I usually do. 

One nice thing in the book (one!) were the descriptions of the beautiful towns, Christminster (which I’ve googled and seems to be Oxford) is described as ‘college after college, its picturesqueness unrivalled except by such continental vistas as the Street of Palaces in Genoa, (and) as the sun made vivid lights and shades of the mullioned architecture of the facades, and drew patterns of the crinkled battlements on the young turf of the quadrangles, Jude thought he had never seen the place look more beautiful’. Shaston (which I’ve googled and seems to be Shaftesbury) is described as very historic with previously a castle and abbey and 12 churches and shrines and mansions and hospitals, sadly now all ‘ruthlessly swept away’ due to the destruction of the abbey by the Dissolution, but has ’natural picturesqueness and singularity’ and is a ‘breezy and whimsical spot’. I’ve googled that Melchester is Salisbury.

Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy available on Amazon
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Richard Morris
Richard Morris
5 months ago

Jude the Obscure is this month’s read at the book club my wife and I belong to. It’s not a popular choice by all accounts and I fail to understand why. I found the novel fascinating, insightful and yes frustrating. All our members know full well how depressing Thomas Hardy can be but that in my opinion is no excuse not to read the story. I look on the members and view them as emotionally intelligent people who being mature adults can handle difficult themes and events. It wasn’t my choice this month but I have read deeply and have much to discuss. It would be a great shame if the other members collectively have not. For where would we be then?

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