Jude The Obscure: by Thomas Hardy - Critical Analysis

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      (1). Autobiographical Elements. Hardy has portrayed Jude as a prototype of himself. Without any tutorial help Hardy had mastered Greek and in the novel, Jude is credited with such an achievement. Hardy wanted to enter the portals of Oxford but did not do so. In the novel the external circumstances did compel Jude to desist from his attempt to become an academician. Hardy had some romantic attachment towards the illegitimate daughter of his own sister whom he had originally mistaken to be a cousin of his. After the realisation of the correct relationship Hardy had entrusted his niece Tryphena to the guidance and care of Horace Moule, an elderly gentleman. In the novel a similar incident is narrated when Jude himself marries off Sue to the elderly schoolmaster Phillotson. Sue’s cleverness in English lettering and calligraphy is only a transference of Tryphena’s similar capacity. Hardy and his first wife Emma had no blissful conjugal life and since in Jude the Obscure this has been narrated at length, in an alluded form no doubt, Emma tried to prevent the publication of the novel lest she should be placed in an embarrassing situation.

      (2). Inner tensions in structure of the novel. The novel is the description of the tragedy of Jude as well as Sue—a tragedy of unrealised ambitions. What causes that tragedy? Is it indifferent force of circumstance? Is it the hostility of the society? Is it the all-powerful fate? In the ultimate analysis the cause crystallises itself into the inner tensions that Jude experiences. The series of incidents in the novel are presented, not with the aim of weaving them into a coherent plot, but to give coherence in the form of personal impressions.

      Jude and the intellectual ideal: disillusionment. Oxford has been the shining ideal of Jude's intellectual life. As Sue says, “Christminster was intended when the colleges were founded for those men with a passion for learning but no money or opportunities of friends. You were swallowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons”. Thus, one of the declared social purposes of Jude the Obscure is the criticism of the snobbishness of the people at the helm of educational affairs. Thomas Gray the product of the Cambridge University lamented over “Mute inglorious Miltons” lying embedded in the village churchyard. But Hardy produced a tragic hero fully alive and vociferous to a certain extent and yet, far from being a Milton nay even a mere graduate! Dickens had a greater influence on social reforms than Hardy but unfortunately he did not take up university education asa theme of any his novels. To be sure, after the publication of Jude The Obscure the English public did wake up and institutions like Ruskin College were founded to provide opportunities at the University for working class men. As depicted in the novel, Sue and the University, both seemed to Jude as objects of mysterious appeal but both of them ultimately landed him in disillusion. Despite the fact that both of them could have accorded him fulfilment, both of them frustrated him miserably Jude's craving for intellectual achievement simply resulted in being mockingly called “Tutor of St Slum” and his patient devoted attention to Sue brought him only misery in loss of the job, his children, his wife or wives and finally his life.

      Jude and Sue: counterparts on emotional plane, incomplete without one another. Sue is a bodiless phantom thoroughly unwomanly. Were Sue and Jude meant for each other? On the face of the ten commandments Hardy brought them together. They had similarities but the contrasts were also many. Hardy did the biblical trick of creating Sue by projecting one side of the character of Jude. As Phillotson is made to remark “they seem to be one person split in two.” Jude himself perceives something akin to this, when Sue escapes from the college hostel and lands herself at his lodgings in drenched clothes. She had fled to him in her trouble in the same manner as he had fled to her in his trouble. Hardy then calls them as counterparts. Both of them take interest in Pagan art and literature. Both of them have saintly unworldly streaks. Sue is Jude masquerading as himself on a Sunday. Jude's intellect nerves, sensitivity and bodiless essence have found a place in Sue. This non-physical purity coupled with intellectuality and sensitivity that has been developed in Sue contributes much to the attraction which Jude finds unable to resist. Although his yearning remained hopeless and debilitating Sue was the object of Jude’s ideal, making him recall his lost innocence before the advent of Arabella into his life.

      Jude and Arabella: disturbing pulls of passion. Arabella is pictured as a vulgar coarse woman of excessive voluptuousness. As Lawrence says, Hardy come out as a bad artist when he is offended by her coarseness, by her false hair, crudities and makes her the villain of the piece. But we cannot agree with Lawrence when he crowns Arabella as the heroine. Viewed dispassionately neither Sue nor Arabella can be raised to that status. Despite her vulgarity Arabella exhibits sound commonsense and shrewd intelligence on many occasions. The unvoiced call of woman to man arrests Jude and that call came from the coarse Arabella!

      (3). The twin-themes of the novel. Education and sex constitute the twin themes of the novel. Different aspects of human endeavour in the realms of academic distinction and sexual satisfaction are dealt with in the novel. As Hardy has clearly explained in his preface, Jude the Obscure is “the story of the deadly war waged between flesh and spirit and it deals with the fret and fever, derision and disaster that may press in the wake of the strongest passion known to humanity”. As for the education theme it was Hardy's endeavour in the novel to portray the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of a person who, in spite of the fact that he possesses all the fundamental requirements of a prospective scholar along with a disinterested intellectual zeal, forfeits the claim for sympathetic considerations and all possible encouragement merely because he happens to be over-sensuous where beautiful women are concerned and because he has a manifest weakness for the glass that inebriates but not cheers. The very fact that he succumbs to the charms of Arabella and the intellectual romanticism of Sue later indicates that he is not very enthusiastic in his scholastic pursuits. In regard to the sex and marriage theme Hardy portrays the war waged by flesh and spirit not only against each other but also against Jude. For Sue represents spirit and Arabella the flesh and both of them claim mastery over Jude who, caught between them, experiences a predicament. The destructive power of sexuality is remarkably indicated through the activities of Arabella, because the son given birth to by Arabella happens to be the murderer of his stepbrothers and thereby he affects the whole course of the later life of Sue.

       (4). Frustration and disillusionment rather than missed chances. In his earlier novels Hardy has been handling the theme of love very delicately like a romantic idyll. But in his later novels, especially in Jude the Obscure animality, frustration and disillusionmen gain the upper hand. Of course Victorian morality and unwritten moral codes of even progressive Victorian writers have restricted the wayward progress of his pen. Still many criticised the unusualness in the sexual behaviour out of wedlock of Jude and Sue. The critical examination of the sacrament and institution of marriage indulged in by Hardy is as noteworthy as the critical examination of the then current educational system. Jude's relationships with Arabella did not yield permanent and satisfactory results because she had been over-voluptuous, coarse and vulgar. His relationship with Sue also did not bear adequate pleasure of a permanent nature because she was more spirit tjhan flesh and body. In both the instances the frustrating influence had been inevitable.

      (5). How far is Jude the Obscure a Realistic Novel? It is nearly a century since this novel has seen the light of the day. What was in vogue at the time of Hardy’s middle age (he was fifty-five when it was published and he lived more than thirty years after that) cannot be expected to hold good now. Idealism, expressionism and symbolism reigned supreme in the literary realm as far as poetry was concerned and in the realm of fiction the realism of the type found in the novels of Dickens had attracted the readers and hence they were applauded by critics.

      The realism in Hardy’s novels is highly bedecked and sublimated by expressionism, symbolism and intellectual distortion. It may be justifiably remarked that Hardy has chalked out his own brand of realistic portrayal, wherein we can see the common textures of everyday life faithfully rendered in spite of the fact that he evidently failed very often in bringing out verisimilitude. Often he asserts certain things without convincing us by means of the subsequent events. For example take the case of Jude’s mastery of Greek and Latin by his own efforts. It is a great intellectual feat which ordinary men of average intellectual background are not capable of achieving. If really Jude had achieved that, it is a great credit to him. Then why did he fail in his University career? Surely he could have had the patronage of some academician who could not be blind to this scholarly achievement. Hardy’s critical approach to the educational problems vis-a-vis the injustices of the social firamework cannot therefore be justifiably said to be following the realistic pattern.

      The creation of the abnormal child “Father Time” may be amusing— nay a bit awful too—but it does not convince us as to the possibility of such a child walking the realistic paths of the society then, now or in the future. The dialogues in the novel are more like learned dissertations of the participants in an academic seminar or the jewels of wisdom and scholarship coming out from the mouths of distinguished elocutionists. The philosophic monologues of Jude and Sue now and then regarding the sufferings they have to bear with are tediously long, apart from the fact that the expressions used are inadequate and imprecise in many places. Realism has been attempted by Hardy but his success therein is doubtful. A fantastic touch lifts his novel from the drab realism of the documentary type to certain heights of imaginative fancy.

      (6). A novel of purposeful propaganda. The highly restricting clauses of the divorce law, the problems of marriages contracted by immature people on mere impulse of the moment, the laws governing marriages in general and such other allied topics had been the central themes of many short and long novels written during the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Hardy admitted in his preface that “the marriage laws had been used in great part as the tragic machinery of the tale”. He hacl his own personal views on a rational attitude to divorce. Still the main theme in the novel Jude the Obscure is definitely not the importance or otherwise of amendments to marriage laws to make life of married couples more blissful. Why did the life of Jude and Sue not give them adequate pleasure? Hardy makes us understand that the stance of the leaders of the society had been the cause of their unhappiness. They were annoyed because these did not conform to the conventions of the society.

      Sue was against the ceremony of marriage throughout. She was of the opinion that marriage is only a sordid contract based on material convenience in householding. She was against the laws governing marriage as they then existed. She used to say that domestic laws should be made according to temperaments which should be classified. Further she desired that one ought to be allowed to undo what one has done ignorantly. This has reference to divorce laws. Even after the two-fold divorce decrees, viz, between Phillotson and Sue as well as Jude and Arabella, Sue felt that the iron contract of a formal marriage might extinguish Jude's love for her. To cherish her under a government stamp and to consider her licensed to be loved on the premises by Jude, was something horrid and sordid in Sue’s opinion. Jude's opinion is better and less rigid. He points out that people go on marrying because they are unable to resist natural forces. Sue was adamant in her opinion that legal marriage was a hopelessly vulgar institution. Having projected the different ideas regarding marriage as an institution through his characters, Hardy ultimately appears himself to be of the opinion that the marriage bond is unreasonable, and that unhappiness is inevitable in marriage. This standpoint is the reason why some critics considered Jude the Obscure as a novel of propaganda against marriage and divorce laws.

      (7). Deadly war waged between flesh and spirit. Hardy proudly announces in his preface that his novel dramatises a deadly war between flesh and spirit. But it is doubtful whether the idea has been properly developed to such an extent as to merit the professed fact. The interior battle between the ardour for sexual pleasure and a noble ideal of resisting the temptation has not been consistently narrated. The fact that Sue was not for sexual intercourse does not mean that she represents the standpoint of certain saintly men and women who abstain from sensual pleasures by means of disciplined mind. Sue’s mentality is somewhere between the frigidity of a sexually immature and underdeveloped woman and the abhorrence of an intellectual woman under the mistaken notion that the sexual act is something vulgar. The fact that Arabella exhibits some vulgarity in the matter of sexual craving does not carry us far into the arena of a battle between idealism and sensualism. Jude succumbs to her charms without even a show of a fight or resistance. One-way advance of sensuality without resistance or protest cannot be a war at all, much less a “deadly war”. The poor girl wanted economic security in life. She had only one weapon in her arsenal, viz., the seductive charms of a fairly beautiful woman. She used her assets with the expected results within her limited sphere.

      One way of interpreting Hardy's epithet is in the following sense. Spirit is the struggling spirit of man and the flesh is the obstructiveness of an indifferent society bent on mischief if flouted. Man and senseless circumstances are always at loggerheads. It is not the adverse destiny that is responsible for human unhappiness, as Sue began to think after the premature death of her children. Roots of human tragedy must be traced to the antagonistic elements in the society. A rational attitude demands that we do not fall into error of fatalists who blame providence for adverse results and relieve society of that responsibility. Father Time too is not an instrument of fate but only a by-product of the wayward, callous and corrupt society.

      (8). Disappointments and unfulfilled aims: the effect on Jude and Sue. In the original preface to his novel Hardy mentions that Jude the Obscure pointed to the unfulfilled aims. Man’s life on Earth is never a bed of roses irrespective of his status in society or his financial achievement or cultural background. Why it fails is something beyond our comprehension. Something goes wrong somewhere and man suffers. Hardy attempts to portray this in all its aspects. In some places he says that the scorn of Nature for man’s finer emotions and its lack of interest in his aspirations is responsible for his sufferings. In other places he criticises the antagonism of society for human sufferings. Through Jude he anticipates the criticism of later enlightened members of the society and it is remarked—“When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have unhappiness to live in, what will they say!” In the realm of academic pursuits the fact that Jude could not enter university because he hailed from a poor family is a justifiable criticism of the education system as it existed in England then. Of course the situation improved a lot subsequently. Here also the criticism is nowhere sustained throughout. Casual remarks here and there are no doubt made. The effect of adverse reactions in fellowbeings was terrible in the case of Jude and Sue. These experiences enlarged Jude's views of life, laws, customs and dogmas but unfortunately what happened to Sue was just the opposite. The onslaught of the triple tragedy on Sue's mind and intellect was too upsetting to enable her to maintain a balanced equilibrium. Sue becomes too submissive a traditionalist to sustain her independence of mind.

      (9). Deviations and deficiencies. The development of the plot, the portrayal of characters and the description of events and attitudes etc., in Jude the Obscure show distinct deviations from the other novels of Hardy. The tragic hero is a working class intellectual. The theme and the hero have been taken from the contemporary world. Hence there is no room in this novel for great heroic or poetic scenes. The thinness of the whole texture of the writing in this novel as compared with the earlier novels The Return of the Native and Tess is specially noteworthy. The world described and the links that bind men to Nature are also equally thin. The absence of poetic scenes and great heroic descriptions can be considered a great deficiency in this novel.

      In Far From the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge there had been ample scope for remarkable episodes in the description of which Hardy was very strong. But Jude and Sue hail from the working class though they could rise to the level of intellectuals; they had been uprooted from the way of life represented in the earlier novels that could portray Sergeant Troy's sword-play and Gabriel Oak's fight to cover the wheat ricks during the storm or scenes of gambling on the heath. Hardy was never very strong in the manipulation of plot. Shrinkage in the design throws the emphasis on this and hence serious improbabilities crop up. Improbabilities mar the realistic features of this novel. Hardy's explicit airing of his views on the tragic situation of man causes an artistic imbalance in the novel. Probably the fact that Hardy did not employ much of his poetic quality and experience in Jude the Obscure has lent to it partially some of its power and impressiveness. The high-principled soft-minded hypersensitive Jude may be a characteristic Hardy hero but Sue indicates a departure from Hardy's other heroines with her ambiguity, sexual ambivalence and the fearlessness of the “New Woman”. The subtlety of the delineation of her character graphically represents the fact that woman of her type is not uncommon in the modem world. Unfortunately the only reputed writer of any distinction who could fully understand Hardy’s achievement in creating this heroine is D.H. Lawrence.

      (10). Worth of Jude the Obscure. This is the last novel that Hardy wrote. The Well-Beloved was published after Jude the Obscure but most of it had already been written before. The cause of the uproar against Jude the Obscure may seem ludicrous to us. In fact people will call it a conservative work on the theme of love which the modern writers treat without any reservation at all. Despite his talent, Hardy had carefully avoided exciting descriptions of lovemaking in his superb novel. Sue Bridehead might have startled some of his readers as ultra-modern and unorthodox, but in the eyes of the modern generation, she ceases to be modern at all. The Victorian public could be thoroughly shocked by a frank treatment of the sexual under-theme of Hardy's novel. But Hardy averred (we know that it is the simple truth) that he had treated less frankly than he had wished. Unfortunately in the opinion of many of his contemporaries the treatment was more frank than what was considered by them to be normal and hence acceptable. In the view of the Victorian sociologists, marriage as an institution and Oxford as the temple of learning and enlightenment were highly venerable. Hence Hardy's critical approach to those two did provoke a good deal of resentment. They would not have minded much his attack on social and religious hypocrisy even if it had been particularly more virulent than what is actually was. Hardy's fatalistic tendency caused some adverse remarks from certain quarters but on the whole the reading public mildly commended it after reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles (published in 1891) though it did not reach the level of open approbation.

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