Book Review: Jude the Obscure

Title: Jude the Obscure

Author: Thomas Hardy

Pages: 511 (Mass Market Paperback)

First Published: 1895

First Sentence: The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

This is my first Hardy novel, which is funny because Jude the Obscure was in fact the last novel he would ever write due to the negative feedback it received upon publication. The book broke the social conventions of the late 1800s by dealing and questioning issues such as higher education, social classes and marriage. It’s one with vivid descriptions of settings and environment, thoughtful characters and allusions to the Bible and other poets all throughout.

First of all, let me just point out how page-turning this book is. I finished it in eight days, which for a classic read in a busy school week, is an astounding pace for me. However, I wouldn’t say that Jude the Obscure has a winding or confusing plot, in fact, it’s as straightforward as a tragedy can be, following Jude’s journey from boyhood to deathbed.

One simple reason of why I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this book is Hardy’s writing style. He was, indeed, a poet, so perhaps it’s fair that his prose is equally as neat and interesting as his poetry. Simple and succinct at instances, his language can also be long-winded as he assumes interesting syntax. Another aspect of Hardy’s strong points is how his fictional Wessex is based upon real England counties, disguising existing cities with fictional names, such as Christminster (Oxford), Melchester (Salisbury) and Marygreen (Fawley).

“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”

The quote sums up Jude Fawley and the whole book for me. Having dreamed of being a “son of the University” as a boy, Jude had to face the harsh truth that men born into the working-class like him could never receive the education those rich kids had taken for granted. His persistent attachment to the city which never wanted him led to his own downfall. From one disaster to the next, I’d like to believe they’re all the consequences of Jude’s refusal and inability to accept his fate and move on. But that’s all the more reason to look up to him. Jude is a man of his own rules with a distinct outlook on life, a man who thinks too far ahead of his own time. I do think Jude, in some way, symbolizes the human tendency of denying and ostracising the unfamiliar.

Love has its own dark morality.

Another thing I’ve noticed is how Jude’s love (or at least, his flitting fancy, in Arabella’s case) for the women in this novel more often harms than benefits himself, it’s as if his romantic emotion disagrees that of his academic passion. In the beginning, when Jude first met Arabella, he found that his “intentions as to reading, working, and learning” was suffering “a curious collapse into a corner”. Later on, while he is wishing to see Sue, he becomes “quite unable to concentrate his mind on the page”. And so I’ve come to the conclusion that despite Jude’s strong love for Sue (and once, Arabella), in the end it’s just another factor that forces him to give up his dreams.

Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall – but what a wall!

The wall in the quotation above, to me, signifies so much more than a physical barrier between Jude and the scholars. Yes, it’s heartbreaking to have only a wall separate you and your life’s dreams, and knowing that there’s nothing you can do to walk over to the other side. But this is what Jude feels; this wall also represents the socioeconomic barrier imposed by social conventions of that time which prevents Jude from getting the two things he wants in life: attending university and being with Sue. Later towards the end of the novel, Hardy describes high collegiate buildings darkening to gloom the little house, making them seem as if it had been on opposite sides of the globe; yet only a thickness of wall divided them. Jude’s dying breath is exhaled in one of the little houses in Christminster, in the presence of no other soul but his dying one.

All in all, Jude the Obscure is a beautiful book about the not-so-beautiful reality of life for the poor during the 19th century. It’s a story of a man whose ambitions were too high for his class; of two lovers who had thought too far ahead of their time; and of a boy’s dream that was grind down by society.

To enclose, here’s Jude musing about Christminster:

“It is a city of light,” he said to himself.
“The tree of knowledge grows there,” he added a few steps further on.
“It is a place that teachers of men spring from, and go to.”
“It is what you may call a castle, manned by scholarship and religion.”
After this figure he was silent for a long while, till he added,
“It would just suit me.”


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