Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy is far from my favorite Victorian, and I think this is my least favorite of his novels I’ve read (compared to Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd). Here’s a short plot summary: Jude is a young man who dreams of being a scholar, longing to study in a town that seems comparable to Oxford. But he’s poor, so that’s impossible. He marries a young woman in his town named Arabella because she lies and tells him she’s pregnant; their marriage is ridiculously short. When she leaves him, Jude moves to the university town just to be close to all that learning. He meets and falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead. He can’t court her because he’s already married, so she marries Phillotson, their old teacher. She can’t stand having sex with him, though, so she begs him to let her leave him, and takes up with Jude. They live together for years but never get married. Arabella sends them the son she had after leaving Jude, and Jude and Sue have a couple kids too. They’re poor and itinerant because Jude can’t find steady work because of the scandal of being unmarried. Sue tells Arabella’s boy that she’s pregnant, and he hangs himself and the other two kids. Sue interprets this tragedy as a judgment on her and Jude for living in sin, decides Phillotson is her true husband, and goes back to him, even though she’s still repulsed by him. Then Jude wastes away and dies alone.
I really had a problem with the portrayal of women in this book. It read like a primary source text for the “men’s rights movement” because all the women behave in the conniving or irrational ways that MRA’s expect. Arabella lies about pregnancy to entrap Jude. Sue is educated, and that education seems to have made her into a bit of a radical and a free spirit, so she acts as she pleases rather than as society dictates, and that causes her and Jude’s downfalls. Sue’s main sin seems to be acting like she should be allowed to choose who she sleeps with, instead of the men who want her.
Sue and Jude have lots of conversations that seem like they’re supposed to be romantic, but I didn’t find them so. They both sounded like hippies, repeating the idea that they’d spoil their relationship if they were to get married because then they’d be together by force and not by choice, but I really don’t sympathize with that idea. I don’t understand how marriage could be seen as inevitably poisonous to love, or how a loving, equal marriage could feel like a trap.
The ending of Jude the Obscure seems like a tragedy, but if Jude is a tragic hero, what’s his flaw? Dreaming too big? Not being born rich? Marrying Arabella out of guilt or honor, without love? Living in sin with Sue? I don’t think any of these things are wrong, and certainly don’t deserve the punishment meted out. Especially compounded with the deaths of innocent children, it all just seemed pointlessly bleak and empty of meaning.
To me, the greatest lesson of this book is how glad I am to live in today’s world rather than Hardy’s. It is wonderful that today’s sexual morality is so much more reasonable and humane than it was even 100 years ago. The way Jude and Sue, and even Phillotson, are ostracized because they live together, get divorced, or in Phillotson’s case, refuses to rape his wife and allows her to leave him rather than imprisoning her, reads as profoundly stupid today. This book is a strong argument for why the modern normalization of divorce and cohabitation is a good thing.