Society Responsible for the Tragedy in Jude the Obscure ?

Also Read

      Society of man. What is society? It is but a group of many individuals. Can society be apart and distinctly separate from, the individuals constituting the society? When a number of individuals constitute a society, do not the individuals suffer from the shrinkage of their individuality which is inevitable in the process of the amalgamation of the individuals of divergent characteristics? Man gains a lot by being within the protective circle of the society. But in order to gain from the guardianship of the society, man has to fulfill certain duties as well. Some people must sacrifice a portion of their selfish vested interests in order to facilitate the society to function properly. Society functions because of the individual contribution and this contribution may be in the form of certain concrete things such as money and material, physical work, etc., or may be abstract in the nature of willingness to abide by the unwriten rules and regulations that govern each society. Those who abide by the rules get the cooperation of the other members and those who defy society need not expect it. This being the case, the conventions of society are sure to be tyrannical in the case of those who insolently defy and challenge the tenets that bind the individuals together.

      Tyranny of society conventions. It is usually felt that Jude and Sue were the victims of the tyranny of social conventions. Hardy has pointed out the faults and weakness of his characters and the way in which they suffer. Just as Jude and Sue had certain faults and weaknesses the people at the helm of affairs in the society too had certain Weaknesses and faults. The result is the suffering of the weaker ones.

      Poverty and want of nobility of birth. Jude could not get encouragement from the intelligentsia in his pursuit of learning. This should have made him work harder still and fight with doubled spirit. Society tests the individual’s intrinsic grit. Learning is to be acquired by means of incessant hard labour. If only Jude had not spoiled everything by visiting the tavern and attempting to drown his initial disappointment with liquor he might have been successful in his next attempt. Similarly his weakness for sensuous pleasures also doomed him. Viewed thus, the tyranny of social conventions ceases to be a tyranny at all. Society may be seen as a whetstone stimulating and sharpening the inherent and latent qualities of men that constitute it. Poverty lack of nobility, etc. are only minor hurdles to be crossed spiritedly by those who want to ascend the rungs of the ladder of social prestige and success. If the Jude's and the Sues of the society really wish for ultimate success and real progress they must cast off their weakness. Hardy actually advocates such a step by pointing out their sufferings as a result of their blunder. But society is not an innocent by-stander in the tragedy. Humble social status certainly is no help; indeed it is a positive deterrent to aspirations.

      Protest against social inequalities. Just as individuals are likely to blunder, so also society as a class is likely to blunder. Hardy raises his accusing finger against tbe society also. He attacks bitterly the system in England at that time which made it impossible for youths hailing from poor families to cultivate their intrinsic capacity and develop the faculties. The exclusiveness of the elite in society and the consequent inequalities bred to the detriment of the welfare of the society as a whole, call for earnest endeavour on the part of social leaders to alter and amend the ways of the powerful elements in the society so that there can be progress in the less privileged sections of the society as well. Otherwise the Jude's of this world can only look at the wall dividing them from their more fortunate brothers with similar mental aptitudes—“Only a wall—but what a wall!” Their hopes can only be frustrated.

      Hampered by the want of advantages. Addressing the mob that had gathered together at Christminster Jude remarks that he was hampered by the want of advantages and says further: “I perceive that there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas” and wants men and women with greater insight than he has to discover what exactly was wrong. Jude feels that all his hopes and desires for intellectual and academic advancement have been thwarted by the callous social system and the culpable role of the society. Jude's aspirations to scholarship receive a rude setback with the reply of the distinguished academician advising him to remain content with this occupation of stone-mason. Why? we ask. Only because Jude did not have the advantage of having been born “high”? Phillotson too had a similar stifling experience.

      Social convention of marriage. Social convention most rigidly controls the relationship between man and woman. In such circumstances, marriage becomes all-important to “legalise” sexual relationships. Arabella the scheming girl entices Jude and succeeds in having clandestine physical contact with Jude. Thereafter she makes him believe that she has conceived and so compels him to marry, for a man has to marry the woman he has “wronged”. This social convention acts as a life-long trap for him preventing him from proceeding ahead with his plan of ecclesiastical studies.

      Sue’s defiance of the convention. Utterly unorthodox in her views Sue does not find it necessary to conform to the social convention of a formal marriage. She lives with Jude and begets children out of wedlock. Jude's suggestion to her to have a regular marriage ceremony provokes her to remark that marriage is only a “clumsy, sordid iron contract” and that the legal obligation as a result of the wedding ceremony cannot but be “destructive to a passion whose essence is its gratuitousness”.

      Disadvantages of noncompliance. Defiance of social conventions prove disastrous to both Jude and Sue. Jude loses his job and Sue who has conceived by that time finds she cannot live honourably among the other member of the society. This social ostracism compels both of them to lead a nomadic life, going from town to town for jobs as well as habitation, Compelled to leave Aidbrickham, Jude comments in bitterness that they have to leave because “a cloud....has gathered over us, though we have wronged no man...” In Christminster they meet with callous landlords and landladies who refuse accommodation because of the children or because they consider them to be a “dubious” couple. This frustration compels Father Time to hang his half-brothers and himself commit suicide. The heart-breaking disaster may perhaps have been prevented if only Jude and Sue had been less rigid in their unconventional stance. But the main culprit is the social code which condones hypocrisy rather than what it calls “sexual laxity”. As a result, Sue feels that she has committed a great sin in violating the sacred marriage with Phillotson and believe that the personal tragedy was punishment from heaven for her gross sacrilege. Consequently she is transformed into a full-fledged conventional woman. She returns to Phillotson as his wife in body as well as idea. It is doubtful if Sue found any true and lasting pleasure, let alone emotional satisfaction and psychological contentment. Here one cannot help feeling that Sue has given in tamely to social criticism.

      Was Phillotson a victim? Phillotson the sober schoolmaster of the strictly conventional type tries to improve his status by taking a University degree. He does not succed in his attempt for various reasons. His entanglement with Sue, younger to him by many years is a blunder committed by him. He takes a revolutionary step of permitting his wife Sue to live with Jude. To her convenience he divorces her and when she comes to him voluntarily thereafter he accepts her without any demur. He thus suffers from loss of job, illness, unemployment, poverty and all sorts of troubles. His life is almost wrecked. All this was in consequence of his violation of the social taboos. But he never loses his courage of conviction, and he does not cave in to society.

      Clash of individual will and collective social will: root of tragedy. Hardy saw Jude as dupe of his own good nature—or in Arabell's words Jude yas a tender fool. The world does not value kindness. Phillotson says: Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can't get out of it if we would!” Indeed, Jude is gradually led to his eventual defeat on stepping-stones of kind acts. He is thrashed for letting the birds eat the seedcorn, he marries Arabella because he feels guilty of her humiliation, he is led on to his second and more dangerous love affair because Sue writes to him that she is lonely. Sue wants an ideal world shaped into refinement through intellectual effort. But the shock of losing her children affects her reason. By the end of it all, while we admire the courage and the idealistic aspirations of Jude and Sue, we are left with the lasting impression that if they had expected less from life, if they had not trusted other people, if they had respected social institutions, they would have survived. Their idealism destroys them, for it clashes with the practical laws of society. The survivors of the novel are Arabella and Vilbert who have no feelings of compunction in preying on the vices of other people, or people like Phillotson who know when they are beaten and accept their place in society with resignation.

      Conclusion. Thus we find that Hardy gives us a true picture of the entire problem. The society is at fault in so far as it applies its rules and regulations without any mercy. Justice tempered with the quality of mercy would have been successful in ameliorating the evil consequences thereof! What is more, some of its conventions are obviously not right. But individuals who seek to defy these conventions must have strong will, otherwise they are sure to be crushed under its relentless pressure. Both in his aspiration for scholastic prestige and sexual fulfilment, Jude meets with frustration. And in this frustration—as well as in the disappointments of the other characters — society has a role. However, society is not an isolated culprit. Its culpability is combined with character traits and Fate to produce the tragedy in Jude the Obscure.

University Questions also can be Answered:

How far is society responsible for the tragedy in Jude the Obscure ?


Would you attribute the tragedy in Jude the Obscure to the tyranny of social conventions?


“Jude the Obscure is a novel about passion—passion for human and sexual fulfilment, and its agonised frustration at the hands of a society which must everywhere deny it.” Discuss.

Previous Post Next Post