Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (1895)

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them…They took upon them more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. “Poor little dears! You shall have some dinner—Eat, then, my dear little birdies, and make a good meal.” A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

Jude Hawley is a heart-breaking character. As the titular protagonist he has been trying to fulfill a dream since his youth, but is thwarted at every turn by a personal moral code that forces him to do the right thing while watching his dream fade until its fulfillment is impossible. That this is also a novel about love and living out an unconventional relationship, it incurred such nasty criticism against Hardy, he abandoned fiction writing after his next novel, The Well-Beloved.


When the novel opens we meet young Jude who has just been left with an elderly aunt, because his parents have given him up. She does not hide her disdain at having to take him in. The pain of feeling unwanted will affect Jude for the rest of his life as he extends the sensitivity to his own pain to that of others forcing him into decisions that will ruin the onward focus of his life. Even now, at the beginning of his life, this sensitivity expands to the animal kingdom, in this case the birds he is tasked with “clackering” out of a farmer’s fields so they don’t eat his grain. Feeling their hunger he lets them eat and upon discovery is severely beaten.

Walking one day he goes on the top of a roof and notices the lights of a city in the distance. A mystical vision takes hold of him.

He had heard that breezes traveled at the rate of ten miles per hour, and the fact now came into his mind. He parted his lips as he faced the north-east, and drew in the wind as if it were a sweet liquor,“You,” he said, addressing the breeze caressingly, “were in Christminster city between one and two hours ago, floating along the streets, pulling round the weather-cocks,…and now you are here, breathed by me—you, the very same.

Suddenly there came along this wind something towards him—a message from the place—from some soul residing there, it seemed. Surely it was the sound of bells, the voice of the city, faint and musical, calling to him, “We are happy here!”

Christminster becomes the goal out of his miserable life as a chance meeting with a stranger tells him what the university town has to offer. Jude decides to study theology and begins a years-long study. For the rest of his childhood and throughout adolescence and young adulthood, he spends hours in the evenings laboring through Greek, Latin and the Church Fathers.

Jude grows into a decent, but naive young man, who is taken advantage of by women for whom marriage is the only endgame in this rural town. First, is Arabella, who raises and slaughters pigs and fakes a pregnancy thereby forcing his better nature into marrying her. Even after she tells him there is no child he continues in the relationship foregoing his studies to concentrate on the marriage, but there is no love here and Arabella leaves him without divorcing him, which will cause problems later.

Jude has been told of a cousin, Sue, living in the vicinity and when he discovers her, though he doesn’t speak to her at first, falls in love. Once he reveals himself he finds her views on marriage and relationships very out of the ordinary. She does not want to marry, wanting instead to live with him as a married couple. However, she succumbs to the stability offered by an older, professionally stable man leaving Jude heartbroken.

Jude’s life becomes more and more complicated and his dreams of studying at Christminster fade as Sue leaves her husband and goes back to Jude where the years pass and three children are born. Then Arabella resurfaces asking Jude to take her young son so she can go back to work. Jude takes on all these responsibilities willingly, but there is finally the realization that all his studying is for naught; life throws cogs into his every wheel and the vision of a life in Christminster will never become a reality.

There is no way to brighten up this picture and the ending is most pathetic and sad. However, this novel portrays a good man, whose moral code is based on kindness and sensitivity no matter how cruel the manipulation and lies of others. One of the best books I read last year, though it was painful, I highly recommend this journey with Jude.

A note on Jude and Sue’s relationship—living together as husband and wife, but not actually married—was so controversial at the time that the criticism Hardy received ended his novel-writing career. In fact, the criticism came to the US even before the book was published here, emphasizing disgust at the relationship, instead of recognizing the major ark of Jude’s story as a moral man of failed dreams. The book was even burned by a few bishops. Jude the Obscure gradually found sympathetic readers, but the damage was done and Hardy soon turned full time to writing poetry, for which he is also well-known.

After Sue leaves her husband, he says to a friend,


“Yes….I would have died for her; but I wouldn’t be cruel to her in the name of the law. She is, as I understand, going to join her lover. What they are going to do I cannot say. Whatever it may be she has my full consent to.” Says the friend, “Some men would have stopped at an agreement to separate.”
I’ve gone into all that, and don’t wish to argue it. I was, and am, the most old-fashioned man in the world on the question of marriage—in fact I had never thought critically about its ethics at all. But certain facts stared me in the face, and I couldn’t go against them.”

Sue on marriage:

Fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer, and the social advantages it gains them sometimes—a dignity and an advantage that I am quite willing to do without.

…I feel just the same about it now as I have done all along. I have the same dread lest an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, as it did between our unfortunate parents…I think I should begin to be afraid of you, Jude, the moment you had contracted to cherish me under a Government stamp, and I was licensed to be loved on the premises by you—Ugh, how horrible and sordid! Although, as you are, free, I trust you more than any other man in the world.


Title: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Date: 1895, 1912
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 418

Challenges: Mount TBR