Artistic Worth of the Novel: Jude The Obscure

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      Hardy’s intention. It is apparent that Hardy intended to produce a novel of epic status dealing with the darker and gloomier side of human life wherein human ambitions are shattered by its own inherent weakness and presumably due to some extraneous cause such as social ostracism, etc. He introduced many new ideas and situations in the story which provoked many readers to protest. Ultimately these protests did subside but the psychological effect on Hardy was unexpectedly profound. He desisted from writing novels thereafter. Fortunately what the sphere of novel lost, the sphere of poetry gained. For more than a quarter of a century Hardy wrote splendid poems, wherein his vision of life finds fullest expression. In view of all these facts Jude the Obscure has a remarkable place in the annals of English literature.

      Autobiographical elements. Great novelists cannot resist the temptation of introducing many incidents from their own personal lives into the novels they write. Hardy is no exception. He has hinted at this in his preface: “The scheme was jotted down in 1890 from notes made in 1887 and onwards, some of the circumstances being suggested by the death of a woman in the former year”. The woman referred to was Tryphena Sparks who was the illegitimate daughter of his own sister wrongly supposed by him to be a distant cousin. Under this misapprehension Hardy had begun to love this girl and court her. On the realisation of the truth the relations were broken off. Another reason for the broken love was the girl’s emotional infatuation over an elder contemporary of Hardy, Horace Moule. These three are reflected in the novel as Sue and Jude and Phillotson. For a critical analysis of the novel, this autobiographical element may not be of any remarkable value, but it is better to bear it in mind.

      The nature and structure of the novel. Tragic in conception and gloomy in the frustrating incidents narrated therein, Jude the Obscure produces in us a universal sense of the tragedy of unrealised ambitions. The themes are unfolded to the readers from the very outset not through a totality of composition but through the entire length and breadth of the story from the very opening section. A series of significant incidents befall the characters with surprising suddenness and the author places them before us in a natural matter-of-fact way without interlocking them and weaving them into the web of his plot. As Hardy himself has put in the preface, his novel is only an endeavour to give shape and coherence to a series of seemings in the form of personal impressions. Hardy considers all other aspects of these things as not very important. He does not want to bother about the questions whether these impressions are consistent or not, whether they strike a note of discordance or not, or whether they are only transitory or whether they can have any semblance of permanence. Transmutation of experience from one person to another is not doubt difficult if not impossible altogether. The same thing is true with regard to one kind of experience vis-a-vis another kind of experience irrespective of the fact whether the experience belongs to the same individual or different ones. This basic fact is revealed to us through the episode of Jude’s toil in the realm of the grammatical study of Greek and Latin without the guidance of anyone else. What Jude thought originally in his innocence happened to be unsound and his disillusionment therein initiates him into a life-long education bringing it home to him that there is no law of transmutation much less in the one than in the other.

      Direct plunge into the depth. The events in the earlier novels of Hardy are gradually built up but in Jude the Obscure the potentialities of the tragedy present themselves to us from the very outset by means of a series of flashes as it were. Lost in his meditations in a field where he is lying musing. Jude feels as though events do not rhyme as he thinks. This unexpected turn of thought is not in respect of just a single event or episode in his early life as an orphan, when there is not only a negative aspect, of no one wanting him but also a constructive and positive one of some one aggressively attacking him. This point has been aptly and epigrammatically expressed by Jude himself when he feels “his existence to be an undemanded one” and expresses the wish that “he had never been born”. Aunt Drusilla refers to the luckless advent of Jude into the world and the death of his parents to which his own death would have been preferable. The schoolmaster Phillotson who earlier shows some consideration to Jude leaves the village itself and so does Jude. Jude is sacked by the farmer from the job of looking after the field. Dr. Vilbert deceives him after giving him some hope and extracting some work from him. Finally Arabella tricks Jude into a marriage by falsely asserting that she is pregnant. There appears to be a silver lining in the otherwise clouded life of Jude when they live together as husband and wife. When Arabella leaves him, Jude is so much disappointed that he attempts to commit suicide. Thus the first part of this story is relentlessly severe and gloomy but with a streak of comforting hope of a future bright career for Jude at Cliristminster.

      Intellectual aspiration negatives by social remoteness. The second part of the story is significant inasmuch as it present before us the social remoteness nullifying intellectual ambitions. In the earlier pages of this Section, Jude is described as wandering through the deserted streets of Christminster holding a mystic communion with the intellectual giants and stalwarts like Addision, Gibbon, Peel, Newman, Matthew Arnold, etc. and hearing their voices with adequate academic accents. Jude writes to several academician's for guidance in his academic pursuits but gets a reply from only one of them and that too crudely negative and dismally disappointing. Jude realises that the wall dividing him from the intelligentsia of the University is heartless and forbidding.

      The scepticism of Sue. The intellectual rigidity and the mediaeval outlook of Christminster is detrimental to its own survival. This is the criticism that Sue has to offer. Sue is no ordinary woman. She is an intelligent lady who has read many of the books produced by the intellectual giants who had come out of the portals of this very same University. Modernism is usually accompanied by a sort of scepticism. In the case of Sue it is remarkably so. In her opinion the social exclusiveness of Christminster is as worthy of scorn as, or even more so that, its attachment to an outworn creed. Sue justifiably distrusts the dead past because of the eagerness in the matter of freedom of spirit. She advocates tlie necessity for change in the entire framework of the society. It is no wonder that her ideas clash with those of Jude whose dream of an academic achievement cannot be called true or firm in its foundation and whose religious superstition is nothing but foolish. This sort of scepticism of Sue is presented to us to prepare us for the course of the story which affects both of them.

      Sue’s aversion to moral rigidity and its peculiar turn. In the third part of the novel, Hardy dwells on another aspect of the character of Sue. Sue has already been described as believing in the freedom of the spirit. The natural sequel to such a belief is the extreme intolerance of all types of moral rigidities. This does not mean that such a freedom-loving person should be a victim of circumspection as much as to avoid commitments of all kinds. Unfortunately we find this peculiar characteristic in Sue. She tells Jude “You must not love me. You are to like me that is all”. Her ardour to exercise freedom of spirit is somewhat thwarted through a sort of ambivalence culminating in a nervous readiness to protect herself and her cherished possessions whether they be concrete material objects or abstract subjective emotions. Sue had been audacious enough to run away from the training college hostel. Sue has no aversion towards a romantic attachment to Jude but she hesitates to proceed ahead to the logical conclusion implied in that sort of attitude.

      Jude jilted. Jude wants something more from Sue than she is willing to surrender to him. At the same time he does not want to be aggressive. He is already disappointed in the matter of intellectual pursuits. He is now disappointed in the matter of sensual cravings too. He therefore tries to get some spiritual comfort from a man reputed to be the composer of a popular hymn. When Jude goes to meet him he learns that the composer is not at all an earnest devotee. He is after money even by doing business in liquor and beverages. Jude becomes utterly disillusioned.

      The Spirit, the disembodied creature, the dear tantalizing phantom. In the fourth section Jude sees Sue in an entirely new light. Her marriage with Phillotson ceases to operate when she comes and lives with Jude. The narrative in the novel describing the dialogue of Phillotson and Sue on the final evening before she comes away to Jude is remarkable for its emotional appeal. The restraint and the delicate precision of the dialogue penetrates the heart of a sensitive reader. Jude tells her whenever he is vexed with her that he feels her to be incapable of real love. He calls her a tantalizing phantom because she raises hopes and immediately disappoints him. He accuses her of being enslaved to the social code as much as any other woman despite the fact that she airs her independent views.

      Freeing of the rabbit from the trap and its symbolism. The previous section ends with a challenge to the artificial system of things alluding to the peculiar predicament, Jude finds himself in. The duality of the spirit and the body have to be explored further and Hardy utilises this section for that purpose. Phillotson grants the divorce to Sue and Arabella divorces Jude.

      Now Jude and Sue are free to marry each other but Sue feels that to submit publicly to such a step will be unfavourable for the freedom of spirit she is fond of. She fears that her love for Jude will become debased if the government stamp of a marriage from the registry is resorted to. Hence her aversion to marriage. As for the formal wedding in a church, her opinion is that it is not at all different from issuing “a licence to be loved on the premises”.

      Modification of his adamant standpoint. In her relationship with Phillotson as well as with Jude in the earlier stage Sue adopts an attitude of “No Physical Contact”. But this adamant stance has to be altered in view of two unexpected events. Arabella re-enters the life of Jude and jealousy plays the natural part of provoking Sue to surrender herself completely. The boy “Father Time” with the ‘octogenarian face’ is presented to Jude now as his own son begotten of Arabella. These two unexpected events alter the course of the relationship between Jude and Sue.

      Gathering cloud without any wrong. Father Time’s philosophical remark that flowers wither too soon to be enjoyed makes Jude and Sue sad because it seemed to forebode tragedy. Jude is dismissed from his job following the scandal among the people centring round the pregnancy of Sue outside wedlock. This initiates a nomadic life for the pair with their home uprooted and their goods sold out. To a question from Father Time, Jude remarks sarcastically that despite the fact that they have not wronged or defrauded anyone a cloud has gathered round them. Their war with the society starts and the deadly war between flesh and spirit continues.

      Sue’ martyrdom causing all round disaster. In the last part of the novel we find that the spirit triumphs over the flesh but at what cost? Jude’s death and Sue’s living the life of a living corpse is the price paid for the seeming victory of the spirit over the flesh. Self-destruction had to be resorted to for the final annihilation of the body. Sue repents for her earlier folly, expiates for the initial sin committed by her and thus seeks to rid herself from the utterly vexing state of being ostracised by the society.

      Strange difference of sexes. Towards the end of the novel Jude makes this remark - “Strange differences of sex that time and circumstance, which enlarge the view of most men, narrow the views of women almost invariably.” He thus recognised the fundamental difference between them. Jude thus gives the finishing touch to the series of frustrating experiences from the early days of his childhood upto his sickness which is expected to lead to his dead. Fits of depression, intellectual and ecclesiastical ambitions getting thwarted, all these force him to come to terms with social reality.

      As for Sue the death of her children make her stage a volte face. She becomes orthodox and god-fearing and re-marries Phillotson with no undue stipulations as before. By means of a fanatical act of her will she attempts to reconcile the spirit and flesh. Previously she used to indulge in self assertion with a vengeance. Now she adopts self-renunciation to the detriment of a sane course of life herself. She is living corpse now.

      In the case of Jude, he feels that all the struggles and travails of his life point only to one thing—that man is pitted against men and senseless circumstance. He recognises that his as well as Sue’s fault lay in this that they were entertaining ideas fifty years ahead of the time. On the contrary Sue began to adopt the abstract metaphysical position. She echoes the words of a fatalist of the old school thus—“All the ancient wrath of the power above us has been vented upon us, his poor creatures and we must submit. There is no choice. We must, it is no use fighting against God.”

University Questions also can be Answered:

Jude the Obscure is a different kind of novel from the rest of Hardy’s. Discuss the artistic worth of the novel in the light of this statement.


“The work is the finest of Hardy’s novels.” Discuss some aspects of Jude the Obscure in the light of the given statement.

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