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JUDE THE OBSCURE BY THOMAS HARDY
Hardy's strongest point in Jude the Obscure is his character development. Jude, Sue and Phillotson are completely rounded individuals. It is this that gives the novel its realistic feel as well as a certain depth.
Jude is the hero and the central character of the book, and his life is interconnected with that of all the other major and minor characters in the story. Hardy presents the protagonist as an ordinary, working-class man of humble origins struggling hard to realize his dreams but thwarted by a cruel fate and a pitiless, snobbish social system. Despite the resemblance to the hero of Greek tragedy (in his nobility of character), Jude, of all Hardy's characters can be said to come closest to a kind of Marxist literary hero. He is the outsider who is denied access to improvement and social advancement by a rigid, conservative class-system.
The reader first sees Jude as a child of eleven, hardworking, persevering, affectionate, gentle and extremely sensitive. Hardy develops certain traits in Jude's personality as he grows older: he displays a lifelong inability to hurt any living creature or to see it suffer, whether it be an earthworm, a pig, a horse, a rabbit or even his wife, Arabella. His vulnerability and essential gentleness lead him to be careless regarding his own survival.
Part of Jude's tragedy arises from his incurable idealism. As a child he is fascinated with Christminster. It is the focus of all his dreams, a shining ideal of intellectual life. But even though he realizes his ambitions may be futile, the university remains an obsession with him. Similarly, he idealizes Sue as the perfect intellectual woman, but here too he is disillusioned and frustrated. His obsession with Sue continues nevertheless. Both Christminster, the intellectual ideal, and Sue, the ideal of womanhood, promise fulfillment, and both frustrate him. All his hard work and earnest effort at mastering Greek and Latin come to nothing, and despite his great patience with Sue and devotion to her, he loses his job, his children and finally even his title as husband. His utter loneliness and desolation create a strong emotional impact on the reader. It is here that Jude, despite his humble working-class origins, rises to heroic stature. Very often in the book he is compared to heroic figures such as Job; he has, like Job, the ability to bear great suffering. He reconciles himself to the endless tragedies and disappointments of life. At the end of the novel, he matures as a man. With all the setbacks life deals him, he never loses his dignity. At two places in the novel, he is compared to Samson (Part I, Chapter 7 and Part VI, Chapter 7), defeated by his own innocence and a woman's cunning. Sue herself compares him to Joseph, to a "tragic Don Quixote" (Part IV, Chapter 1) and to St. Stephen "who while they were stoning him could see Heaven opened."
Jude's death at the young age of thirty (the approximate age of Jesus Christ at his death) indicates that he has been "crucified" by society. But even the flaws that contributed to his downfall are not really faults. If his sensitivity, kindness, sense of honor, naïveté and idealism are considered weaknesses, they are also his strengths. His only real weakness is a tendency to drink when in despair, although he is not a drunkard.
His death in Christminster on Remembrance Day and his loneliness and desolation has a strange poignancy. The reader is left with a feeling of bitterness and waste at the ruin of a promising life.
Sue is one of Hardy's triumphs. What strikes the reader about Sue is her intellectual capacity. Both Jude and Phillotson are impressed by how well read she is: J.S. Mill and Gibbon are her heroes, she is familiar with Latin and Greek writers in translation, as well as Boccaccio, Sterne, Defoe, Smollett, Fielding, Shakespeare and the Bible. She belongs to the eighteenth century tradition of critical intelligence and rational skepticism. Jude himself calls her "quite Voltairean." Towards the end of the novel, Jude, when talking to Mrs. Edlin, describes Sue as: "a woman whose intellect was to mine like a star to a benzoline lamp" (Part V, Chapter 10). Phillotson too talks of her intellect which "sparkles like diamonds while mine smoulders like brown papers" (Part IV, Chapter 4). She is quick-witted and observant and a good teacher. She is able to draw accurately from memory the model of Jerusalem she saw at an exhibition (Part II, Chapter 5). She is also able to quote accurately when she wants to win an argument (Part IV, Chapter 3).
But though the reader can admire her daring and unconventional approach, one gets the impression that many of her opinions are borrowed from her undergraduate friend. She lacks the tolerance of the true, liberal intellectual. This is evident in her attempt to undermine Jude's beliefs with her sarcastic comments about his faith and ideals. In this sense she is very prejudiced: she cannot bear Jude to hold opinions opposed to her own. When her own opinions are attacked, she conveniently takes refuge in tears, displaying her emotional side.
At the same time one cannot resist Sue's charm. She is vivacious, friendly and yet refined. Hardy contrasts Sue with Arabella to represent the difference between the spirit and the flesh. Sue is often spoken of as "ethereal" and "aerial." Jude himself calls her, "you spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet, tantalizing phantom, hardly flesh at all..." (Part IV, Chapter 5). Even Phillotson remarks on the rather spiritual affinity between Sue and Jude as something "Shelleyan." Though in some ways Sue represents a free spirit struggling against an oppressive, conventional social order, in other ways Sue can be very conventionally Victorian, for instance, in her shrinking from the physical and in her aversion to sex. She refuses to live with Jude as his lover even after leaving Phillotson. She regards physical relations as repugnant. Furthermore, she sees marriage as a "sordid contract" and a "hopelessly vulgar" institution. It often seems that she is merely seeking excuses to postpone marriage. Her dislike of Arabella is revealed in her comment to Jude about her being a "fleshy and coarse" and a "low-passioned woman."
Yet with all her sensitivity and apparent fragility, there is in Sue a selfishness and a corresponding insensitivity to the feelings of others. There is the Christminster undergraduate whose heart she broke, kind and decent Phillotson whose career she wrecks, and Jude, to whom she does great injury by undermining the beliefs which are essential to his well being. She utterly fails to realize the pain she inflicts on Jude with her wavering attitude. Jude is provoked to remark, "Sue, sometimes when I am vexed with you, I think you incapable of real love" (Part IV, Chapter 5). Despite all the sacrifices Jude has made for her, despite being free to marry him after her divorce, she will not make a commitment.
Hardy captures Sue's quality of unpredictability and elusiveness. She buys nude statues of Greek divinities, then repents and conceals them from her landlady. She snaps irritably at Phillotson, then regrets it later. Sue is sometimes reckless and then diffident, stern and then kind, warm and then standoffish, candid and then evasive. In portraying these glimpses of Sue--her unceasing reversals, her changes of heart and mind, her conflicting behavior-- Hardy creates a complex, fascinating character. The reader sees her telling Jude, "You mustn't love me" (Part III, Chapter 5) and then writing to him, "you may." After her marriage she forbids Jude to come to see her (Part III, Chapter 9), and then she revokes the ban and invites him the next week. Later, she cancels the invitation (Part IV, Chapter 2). Hardy indicates that along with her changing moods, she has a tendency to shift ground under pressure.
Finally, when tragedy strikes in the violent deaths of the three children, Sue is seen breaking down under the strain and becoming a sick woman. She plunges into a state of tormenting guilt and remorse. The reader sees a personality distorted by the effort to bear terrible burdens and now blindly seeking a self-inflicted punishment.
Arabella seems to be almost the antithesis of Sue and this is how she appears to Jude, especially after he has met Sue. While Sue is delicate and refined, Arabella is well built and coarse; while Sue distrusts the physical, Arabella is a flirt. She is uneducated and common in her tastes and interests, but at the same time, she is shrewd enough to advance her own interests. Her motives are uncomplicated: what she wants is to escape from her unsatisfactory life as a pig breeder's daughter and to find a husband who will give her security and the comforts of life. Jude, she feels, will fit the bill, and in her pursuit of him she shows considerable determination and unscrupulousness. That she is a ruthless schemer is obvious from the way she traps him into marriage. However, when the marriage proves disappointing, she has no qualms about deserting Jude and leaving for Australia. Her total lack of feeling and selfishness are displayed when she sells the photograph Jude gave her as a wedding gift. In Australia she enters into a second marriage without even a flicker of anxiety about its validity. Her child by Jude, Little Father Time, is regarded as a nuisance, who must be conveniently transferred to Jude and Sue. She displays no maternal tenderness or affection towards the child.
When she becomes a widow, her second pursuit of Jude and entrapment of him is as calculating and relentless as the first. She has not changed at all, and her temporary religious conversion is entirely unconvincing. As the book ends, the reader perceives her insensitivity when she leaves her deceased husband alone to go out and enjoy herself in the festivities at Christminster. Unlike Sue, who is broken by life, Arabella is resilient.
Phillotson is the ordinary, unassuming schoolmaster of Marygreen, but it is he who inspires Jude with the desire to go on to the university. He tells the young Jude to be kind to animals and birds, and kindness then becomes one of Jude's strongest qualities. He is like Jude in many ways; he is honest, decent, good-hearted and loyal. Though Sue treats him rather unfairly, she herself admits he is a kind, considerate and tolerant husband: "he's as good to me as a man can be and gives me perfect liberty . . . which elderly husbands don't do in general..." (Part III, Chapter 9). When Sue's marriage to him fails, he is pained and bewildered to find that she does not love him, yet so deeply does he love her, that he is willing to set her free. He cannot bear to keep her against her will. His friend, Gillingham, describes him as a "sedate plodding fellow" and is amazed that such a respectable, conservative man could take such an unconventional step. He is generous to the extent that he is willing to blame himself for the tragedy of his marriage. He laments, "She was a pupil-teacher under me. I took advantage of her inexperience and took her out for walks and got her to agree to a long engagement before she well knew her own mind."
His protectiveness and unselfishness are remarkable. Even after Sue leaves him, he sends Jude a note, telling him to be good to Sue and to take care of her: "I make only one condition, that you are tender and kind to her. . . . You are made for each other--it is obvious, palpable to any unbiased older person. You were all along the shadowy third in my short life with her."
However, his kindness and generosity to Sue lead to his financial and social ruin. His career is shattered, and he becomes a pathetic figure. Years later, beaten and impoverished, he cannot really be blamed for seeking to regain some social standing by remarrying Sue. Even then, he treats her with great sensitivity and consideration, agreeing to a marriage in name only until Sue insists on sharing his bed.