If I had read Anna Karenina after this book, it would have cheered me up. Hardy’s last novel, written in 1895, stirred up such harsh criticism that its author never wrote another novel, although he lived until 1928. In me, listening to the audio-book while driving a sales circuit of convenience stores in rural Illinois, it stirred up feelings of failure and disappointment in life. The character of Jude Fawley is a scholarly chap who aspires from an early age to study in the university town of Christminster (in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex), become a clergyman, and distinguish himself in the world. His tragic disappointment, indeed his utter ruin, moved me in an especially painful way. I saw much of myself in him: three college degrees, with highest academic honors, and ordination as a pastor having led me to a 32-hour-a-week career marketing junk food and cleaning products. I have even tasted, to some extent, what it is to be a pariah. But at least I know it could be worse. I have never passed through the mangle of romantic heartbreak, much less as thoroughly as Jude does. I still have my health (more or less); I’ve already outlived him by a decade or more. And after all, I still have my faith, which is more than Jude has to sustain him at the end. I may be on my way to dying alone, like Jude, but that (God willing) is a ways off. How consoling that thought is as I grip the steering wheel, feeling that if the novel were but a little more depressing, I might aim my battered Volkswagen at a guard-rail.
There is a scene in this novel in which Jude’s child from his unhappy first marriage pulls a murder-suicide, taking with him the two children of Jude and Sue, the love of his life. Sue then miscarries their third child. Their landlord, whose meanness may have indirectly triggered the tragedy—his insistence that the lodgers move out, because he didn’t want a family with children living there—realizes that the notoriety of the case may hurt his business. So what does he do? He tries to get the number on the house changed. Somehow, this throw-away anecdote is what really clinched this book for me. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy skewers the cruelty and hypocrisy of the way society works. He shows how, even in moments when men attempt to do something about the injustice of it all, they end up merely papering over the problem so that they don’t have to see what’s amiss.
Jude is brought up by a crusty old aunt in a village in Wessex, where he is devoted to a local schoolmaster named Phillotson. When the latter moves away to be closer to the Oxford-like town of Christminster, Jude begins to dream of following in Phillotson’s footsteps. He builds such a fantasy life around the university town that it shapes his entire destiny—well, that and a youthful indiscretion with a slatternly female named Arabella Donn. Though slow to abandon his dream of studying at Christminster, even after separating from his wife, Jude submits to the vicissitudes of being a stonemason, and thinks about entering the ministry via licentiate. Even this dream, however, is not strong enough to bear up against the temptation of his forbidden love of his pretty cousin Sue Bridehead, who ends up marrying (of all people) Schoolmaster Phillotson. Unlawful passion, bigamy, divorce, cohabitation, fear of marriage, and loss of faith in Christianity are only a few of the irregularities that bring scandal, disorder, and ruin to all four of these unhappy lovers. And when, at last, both original married couples are (air quotes) reconciled (end air quotes), the point is finally driven home that what is right in light of the letter of the law may, in the court of human experience, prove to be wrong.
I am not convinced that Hardy’s critiques of Christianity and marriage are altogether just and reasonable. But I recognize truth in the unreasoning hearts of Sue and Jude, in their anguish and hopelessness, in their anxiety and grief. In a similar way, I can see redeeming features in Arabella, selfishly as she behaves from beginning to end; and repulsive characteristics in Phillotson, in spite of his conscientious and even at times self-sacrificing kindness to Sue. The book has a lot of earthy characters in it, and indeed it sometimes made me laugh. But the weight that I felt bearing down on me more and more as its ending approached was very like a disgust with the world and with the perversity of life. As for Hardy’s career as a novelist, it’s a shame that he ended it so soon. Scandalous though his moral outlook may be, and dangerous the likely results of the social upheaval this book seems to demand, he here proves himself to be one of the great creators of complex characters with emotionally devastating problems. Simply put, he moves the reader powerfully. Not all of his books affect one quite as painfully as this book does; but their effect is strong and memorable. Fiction’s loss was poetry’s gain. And all is, if not right with the world, more richly and poignantly wrong now that this book is in it.