Pessimism, Bitterness & Disparity in Jude the Obscure

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      Introduction. The temperamental inclination of a person and the emotional response that he evinces is the natural result of his outlook on life and the outlook itself is likely to change as and when his experience undergoes natural change due to the impact of various things on his mind, person and even his possessions. The different types of such responses are termed optimism, pessimism, meliorism etc. by critics of life and psychologists.

      Optimism and pessimism. Optimism can be defined as an inclination to anticipate and expect the brightest outcome possible of the different activities that we and others engage ourselves in. We also hope that events that befall us or which we have to face shall be to our liking in their ultimate result Pessimism is the opposite outlook when we are not inclined to take a favourable view nor do we expect that good results will be forthcoming from the events that happen. If what we see in his novels is any guide we are likely to come to the conclusion that Hardy is of the view that human life is a general drama of pain and suffering, and happiness need be expected only occasionally if at all. This justifies the portrayal of his characters as leading wretched and miserable lives not because of their intrinsic weaknesses and frailties but because of the opposition of the society or hostility of extraneous elements, say, Fate or Destiny. Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure are the characteristic examples of this pessimistic outlook, with the human situation painted grimly.

      Hardy’s view. Hardy says in a certain context: “Differing nature find their tongue in the presence of differing spectacles. Some natures become vocal by tragedy, some are made vocal by comedy and it seems to me that to whichever of these aspects of lie a writer's instinct for expression the more readily responds to that he should allow it to respond”. In view of this we can safely assert that Hardy had a sombre outlook since he is extremely vocal in tragedy. Hardy is affected by the injustice of the working of Fate, otherwise called Nemesis, with its retributive idiosyncrasies. Man, due to his intrinsic weakness coinmits certain blunders which have dreadful vitality in bringing about reactions in his life. This is viewed as the punishment of Providence by certain people but Hardy expresses the view that the punishment is out of all proportion to those blunders. This implies that Hardy's sense of law is an important point in his outlook of life.

      Pitying the sinner. It is Jesus Christ's (for that matter many other Eastern philosophers’ too) conviction that the sinner should be pitied and gradually converted to a way of life conforming to decency and the idealistic pattern. Hardy has evinced in his novels his acute sense of pity. His realisation of the terrible nature of the different handicaps man faces in his life has prompted him to view misdemeanour, blunders and indecency with a gentle tolerance characteristic of a confirmed philosopher.

      Gloomy versus bright aspects of life. It is a fact that no one in the world is happy invariably throughout his life. Life has its sweetness and bitterness for everyone. Unfortunately Hardy intensifies and exaggerates the gloomy aspect of life in his last novel Jude the Obscure. He does not show any patience to admire and appreciate, to welcome and encourage the sweetness that can also be observed beside the gloom. One need not wink at the littleness and sordid characteristics of life, or the enormity of the sufferings. But as the same time we do not gain anything by viewing them with a magnifying glass. This is what Hardy does. The splendour and the beauty of human life has been more or less excluded by Hardy from his writings. Even in a crook there is a bright sparkling spot which deserves appreciation and encouragement. Hardy seems to be unmindful of this. Hypocrisies and cruelties are avidly narrated by him but he does not dwell upon the positive aspects of life, albeit they may be few and far between. Hardy’s persistent and bitter preoccupation with the sorrows of life continues in his poetical works too, long after he ceased to write novels after bringing out Jude the Obscure. It was Hardy who created characters prone to such adverse fate and it was he again who accused the social framework for their eventual failure and doom. Jude was overweighted by him at the outset with abnormal excesses, frailties and weaknesses. Where is the wonder then that these excesses ultimately menaced him and brought about his ruin? Society, of course, cannot help him.

      Man's struggle, how and why? Hardy interprets the human situation as the struggle of man on two fronts, one that of an antagonistic society with its taboos and authoritative dicta and the other an omnipotent and indifferent — sometimes appearing to be hostile—Fate. Many of his creations are puppets in the hands of Fate, though this is not so much in the case of Jude and Sue. The endeavour for happiness is manifest in major as well as minor characters.

      Fate and its manifestation. Hardy clothes Fate in diverse forms in his novels. If it is presented as a natural force in the case of some characters it is given out as some innate weakness of character in the case of other characters. What is the cause of Jude’s ruin? The intensity of his sexual temperament no doubt. This is congenital in his case, through no wish of his own and therefore he is not be blamed. But he cannot control it and hence it ruins him.

      Chance, Fate in another guise. The conspicuous influence that chance exercises on the course of events in Hardy’s stories is worthy of observation. He overdoes this in many places. In the battle of man with destiny it is inevitable that inexplicable and unexpected blows of chance should have a role to play. Man therefore fails to modify the will of destiny. However, in Jude the Obscure chance does not have too obvious a role; of course, two instances occur to the mind—Arabella's first meeting with Jude and then on her return from Australia her seeing Jude and Sue at the Agricultural Show. But in neither case is the law of probability violated.

      Certain remarks of Hardy. Casual remarks of Hardy in different contexts when pieced together speak volumes in regard to his sombre view of life: “Grimness of the general human situation”, “life as a thing to be put up with” “the defects of natural law”, “the quandary to which man is led”, “Fate's transparent devices to get the better of helpless man”. Whereas the earlier novel Tess is a determined attempt to prove the supremacy of a hostile and active Fate in the guise of a God of Evil, Jude the Obscure is a novel where Hardy has piled agony over agony to such an extent that it cannot but excite horror. If this manoeuvring of hostile forces disfigures Hardy’s novels it certainly gives us an insight into his outlook on life generally.

      Hardy had, to be sure, a feeling of resentment against injustice and wanton cruelty that claim man as their first and foremost victim. All attempts of man to better his fortune are thwarted by an evil power that rules the Universe. But Hardy does not offer anything positive that can be conducive to man’s prosperity. He does not believe in a benevolent Providence. In Hardy’s fictional realm a stroke of good fortune never occurs but if at all it occurs it is instantly reversed into a stroke of savage retribution, and Hardy calls it “the ingenious machinery contrived by the gods for reducing human possibilities to a minimum.” If despair and passive revolt crop up as the results there is little remedy. Jude the Obscure seems to have something that exceeds the scope of tragedy. It is an arraignment and an accusation of various factors that cause the tragedy of humanity.

      Horror and agony. Tragedy as a literary work is - expected to have as one of its aims a cathartic purge of emotions by means of the excitement of horrendous agony and pain-provoking situations. If the same is carried to an enlarged sphere or to an extent exceeding the permitted scope the result is contrary to what is expected. Many critics are of the view that Jude the Obscure has become too pessimistic to produce a cathartic effect. There are some forces that wreck human happiness in collaboration with hostile elements in the society which, in Hardy's opinion, merit a retaliatory attack by means of not only an accusation but also with an arraigning indictment. It is no doubt true that a tragedy provides us with a feeling of relief and exaltation in spite of the portrayal of suffering and agonies. But these critics say that Jude the Obscure simply fails in this respect. No relief or exaltation of feelings can be genuinely expected from this ultra-grim novel.

      Melancholy and sombreness. Natural law, like the codified law of human society, can be infringed upon only with disastrous results. Hardy makes Jude come into clash with both. In the case of natural law the will has to be made subsidiary to the instinct. Jude's natural instinct, a sexual compulsion, made him flirt with Arabella. But his will is to rise above the flesh. However, he has to submit. She told him (or course falsely) that she had conceived. Now in accordance with the social law he had to marry her because of the unwelcome result. What is the result? Melancholy and sombreness alone. Again Jude comes into clash with the environments of learning as well as religion. He could not reconcile himself with them. The love affair with Sue Bridehead also brought him into a clash with society that insists on a ritualistic wedding ceremony to give authority to the living together of a man and a woman under the same roof. As Jude and Sue did not conform to the insistent demands of the society they had to become outcasts in the society. Individual's aspirations and the thwarting of these by various hostile elements cannot but lead to a clash and then the inevitable consequence of a miserable situation cannot be prevented. Jude had strong as well as weak points. His weak points are exploited by the society because of society’s make-up and he is made to suffer. He was not given any credit for his strong points.

      Isolation due to conflicting attitudes. It the individual's attitude is at variance with that of the society the weaker one becomes isolated. Here Jude and Sue are forced to face tragedy because of this weakness. They are both far ahead of their times which society does not easily tolerate. Now after hundred years society has many Jude's and Sues without the sufferings of the original Sue and Jude. To that extent society has advanced or, to be Put in a euphemistic phrase, society has relented to accept a few of these ‘misfits’ without demur. Thus Hardy reaches the pessimistic conclusion where the society and not the individual is tormented with the indicting arraignment.

      Sane view of the novel. An unbiased view of the novel cannot but enable us to conclude that the production of sympathetic feelings and a fear of the ruthless in the minds of the readers cannot be treated as impossible. The presentation of the essential dignity and nobility of the human spirit is not absent in Jude the Obscure. Hardy does not subscribe to the view that human nature becomes mean and ignoble due to weakness or cowardice. A pessimist can subscribe to that view. Hence he clears himself from the accusation of being a pessimist of the ignoble variety. It is harsh reality of life that the amount of human suffering is often at variance and out of all proportion to the faults and frailties of the individual. Happiness does not befall the seemingly frail individual to the extent he deserves but only to the extent the hostile element in society finds itself compelled to accord. Hardy cannot be accused of being a “pessimist” because- he admits this harsh reality and wants the saner elements in society to eradicate it.

      The three principal characters. Does the reader pity the main characters who happen to suffer as a result of the hostility of society? We cannot but admit that it is so. Jude deserves our sympathy and does get it thanks to his unbeaten spirit. He has an inherent weakness for the inebriating beverage and the seductive charm of women. But this does not prevent him from putting up a brave fight against the odds of life. The author does not portray him as betraying a faltering mind and snubbed spirit. In spite of his lust for the flesh he does show an amount of self restraint by allowing Sue the liberty of abstention from sex. It is a different matter when ultimately due to the compulsion of feelings of jealousy for Arabella, Sue submits physically too to Jude and so the latter accepts the opportunity. There is an element of stoicism in Jude's acceptance of his defeat in respect to the unrealisation of his intellectual ambition. The desertion of Sue on the last occasion might have unnerved him leading to his tragic death. In view of all these things we pity Jude.

      Take the case of Sue. Courage of conviction had been her strong point both in her life with Phillotson as well as with Jude. But the natural instinct of a mother whose children die unnaturally is to succumb to the inevitable even by throwing overboard the convictions of a life-long duration. She had the halo of martyrdom and self-immolation at the time of herself volunteered volte face and return to Phillotson. Therefore, we have sympathetic feelings towards Sue too.

      The dignity and nobility of spirit of Phillotson is also not to be lost sight of The schoolmaster had been brought up in a conventional manner. Still his magnanimity when he readily accords permission to his wedded wife to live with Jude is remarkable. He even grants divorce to her to enable a legal union with Jude. Selflessness thus displayed by Phillotson cannot but make us admire him and pity him for the adverse results he has to face.

      Conclusion. Thus the Aristotelian theory of catharsis in not at all infringed by Hardy. The novel does produce catharsis of our feelings of pity and fear at the spectacle of misery for one whose spirit is unvanquished. The intrinsic nobility of these characters has an exalting effect on the readers. But certainly, Jude the Obscure is a sombre work. Jude suffers to a much larger extent than he deserves. His hopes are crushed till at the end he gives expression to the resentment by wishing he had never been born. He does not come to terms with life or environment in his death and here lies the difference between Jude the Obscure and other great tragedies. Hamlet’s suffering leads him to understand that “Readiness is all”; Lear ultimately feels “Ripeness is all”; but Jude has no such understanding or feeling of reconciliation, only that he has been born before his times.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Discuss Hardy's vision of pessimism as exemplified in Jude the Obscure.


Hardy puts his final concentration of bitterness in Jude the Obscure. Comment.


Would you be justified in calling Jude the Obscure the most Disparity of Hardy’s novels ?


“It is one of Hardy’s starkest and most sombre of Hardy’s novel”, says a critic of Jude the Obscure. Would it be valid to call Hardy a bitter pessimist in the novels?

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