Symbolism in The Novel Jude The Obscure

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      What is symbolism? Symbolism can be seen under one disguise or another in every great imaginative writer. These writers apprehend and express an unseen reality. A symbolist poet attempts to express a primordial idea through concrete phenomena that must have close esoteric affinities to that idea. Hence it follows that there is a duality of meaning as the basis of a symbolic expression. The mere literal level is for ordinary readers and the deeper hidden level of great significance is intended for those who crave a wider aspect in the literature concerned. This literary device is consciously adopted by all great writers especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century and subsequently. As to the earlier writers, this symbolism can be seen playing its part though not consciously adopted by those writers. Employing symbolism, a literary piece becomes enriched with an enhanced imaginative appeal.

      Isolation and state of unwantedness. As an orphan of eleven years, Jude had been engaged by the farmer Troutham to scare away the birds from the cornfields. The birds are not wanted by those who keep the fields because they spoil the crop. In his early childhood, Jude felt that he was living in a world that did not want him. Jude was a boy with great sympathy and kindness towards all living creatures. But his feelings towards these unwanted birds become all the more sympathetic because of his identifying himself with those unwanted birds even as he has the painful feeling of not being loved and cared for by the people of the society. Hence we can say that Hardy has used these birds as symbolizing Jude's peculiar predicament of being an alien in the world. About two decades of the life of Jude has been portrayed by the author. Throughout this period Jude felt like a fish out of water. He could not identify himself with the wide world. He did not belong to the world or society around him. He too was one such bird scared away by the society at large.

      Disappointment and depression due to frustration. That the life of Jude consists of a series of disappointment and moods of depression thanks to the non-realization of his aspirations is indicated by the author even in the earlier chapters. In his eagerness to master higher learning Jude struggles with his Greek and Latin Grammar books which he gets thanks to the mercy of Phillotson. The fact that many if not all the words should be committed to memory to be mastered adequately makes him desperate. This “by rote” process in the absence of a proper guide, exasperates him and he gives it up. This process of attempting and failing is his lifelong experience although he died prematurely. The early experience with the classical Grammar textbooks can be considered a precursor of his ultimate failure in every one of his attempts be it of an intellectual type or a sensualistic one, His intellectual aspirations as well as emotional cravings stay unfulfilled and he dies prematurely even before he had seen thirty summers. The author has put in a nutshell the futility of the entire life of Jude by narrating the grammar episode which therefore can be considered symbolic of Jude's tragedy of unfulfilled aims.

      The pizzle of the slaughtered pig of bristly skin. The sexual urge of a teenage girl enjoying robust health may be abominable if it descends to too vulgar and coarse and exhibitionism but it is understandable and even excusable in a girl of Arabella’s nature. She throws the severed penis of a slaughtered swine at Jude to attract his attention to her. Why she choose that particular missile for opening her attack on Jude need not puzzle us once we try to understand the symbolic significance of that lively organ of a dead animal. The dead animal symbolizes the fact that sensuality was lying hidden and dormant in Jude. It is fully alive in Arabella. The unvoiced call of a woman to a man cannot but arouse the hidden streak of sensuality in Jude. The coarseness of the character of Arabella is also responsible for Jude's ultimate failure in his intellectual pursuits.

      The steel trap that caught the rabbit. The author vividly describes the incident of how a rabbit gets caught in a steel trap and experiences a lot of agony in the vicious grip of the iron teeth. The unbearable howls of the pain of the poor animal compel Jude to kill it outright as it happens to be the only way of putting an end to its misery. This episode has significance symbolically. Early in his life, Jude gets caught in the iron trap of a matrimonial misadventure with Arabella on the false plea that she has become pregnant. Sue herself volunteers to get caught in the matrimonial trap with Phillotson though she avoids its iron teeth by sexually abstaining from him. But in the end, her rigid restriction on herself becomes less stiff and hence a bit flexible and she yields her body first to Jude and then to Phillotson. Jude dies and Sue becomes a living corpse. This ultimate denouement in the hapless story of Jude and Sue is symbolically hinted at by the rabbit episode. The rabbit could not be rescued from the trap and so they had to kill it to release it from the agony. To escape from the agony of frustration Jude also had to die. Sue had to become a living corpse to extricate herself from the clutches of the iron trap of marriage contract.

      The symbolic significance of rain. Jude had to drench himself in the rain while watching the academic procession in Christminster along with the other members of his family. Even though this drenching in the rain is detrimental to his health he is compelled to stand there. There are many forces in society acting adversely against Jude and Sue. The rain symbolizes those forces that shatter all the hopes of the poor fellow to enjoy even the minimum of happiness in this world. The landlords and others who refused Jude and Sue's accommodation, Arabella who compelled Jude to marry her again and various others were actually preventing Jude from enjoying whatever Jude could. In the case of the former, the reasons that prompted them to behave like this were their suspicion and the hostility born of it and in the case of Arabella, it was her overzealousness to find permanent monetary support for her. The untimely and unwelcome rain can be considered symbolic of all these things. The rain which brings about foul weather does not forebode anything good to the guilty. Hence Father Time the precocious child compares it with Doomsday, which condemns the guilty to a permanent stay in Hell.

      The warnings of elderly people and their symbolic significance. Aunt Drusilla narrated to Jude her experience that brought out the fact that the Fawley's as a group could not be successful in the field of matrimony. Wedlock could not bring them any permanent joy as expected by them. Mrs. Edlin an aged family friend of Jude and his aunt was a good friend but she unwittingly instilled fear into the minds of Jude and Sue on the eve of their marriage for which she had been invited and which did not materialize. The reason was the terrible story about an ancestor of his who was gibbeted and the resulting madness of the wife. These warnings and hints about the failures of marriages have symbolic significance that goes far beyond their literal meaning. In fact, the literal meaning does not signify anything in particular. But their symbolic significance is the subsequent tragedy that befalls both.

      Deadly war between spirit and flesh. Hardy describes his novel as dealing with the deadly war between spirit and flesh. Sue symbolizes the spirit and Arabella the flesh. Sue gains our admiration utilizing her abstemious habits. She can be considered to symbolize spirit. Arabella is a low-passioned vulgar woman of great sensuality. She signifies the flesh or bestiality. Hardy describes her always in some association with pigs. Throughout the novel, this unexpressed but hinted war between these two women of diametrically opposed qualities is described.

      Father Time and his symbolic significance. This boy with an octogenarian face symbolizes utter gloom and pessimism despite some wisdom and foreknowledge. Sue and Jude are desperately struggling for permanent happiness which eludes them. They want to repudiate the past, evade the present pressing demands of the society such as conformity to social norms of behavior and are utterly indifferent to the future because they do not curb the births of children without the wherewithal to support them. Hence Hardy introduces the character, Father Time. This boy symbolizes the pessimistic, morose philosopher who fails to enjoy the blooming fragrant flower today merely because it is going to fade and lose its fragrance tomorrow. The fact that fresh flowers blossom despite the fading of the old ones should have comforted any sane man but regarding Father Time, it is not so. His understanding is one-sided because emotional growth does not keep pace with his reasoning ability.

      The physical landscape in which the characters move has the independent force of an unseen personality shaping their lives and commenting on their actions. Christminster, that focus of Jude's emotions, is almost his first mistress; his unrequited love can easily be channeled towards the available Arabella. On his first visit to the city, Jude is enchanted by its glamour and the ghosts with which his imagination peoples it; the next morning the magic has vanished and the stonework is rotten and decayed. The last time Jude returns to his beloved city, Christminster is a grim collection of blackened walls, grim jail-like colleges, slums, and cemeteries; as he lies dying Arabella merely echoes the flighty indifference of the celebrating city. Marygreen, Jude's adopted home, is a relic of an earlier time like Aunt Drusilla; decayed and played-out, spoiled by ‘townish’ additions. Shaston is a reflection of Phillotson’s obsessions with the dead past and prudent behavior so that wherever Sue turns in her new home she finds the limitations of her marriage magnified. Melchester possesses both a cathedral and a railway station; as crossroads of the old world and the new, it is a fitting place for Sue and Jude to choose their courses in marriage or the church.

      The animal imagery with which the novel is filled suggests the pain caused to the individual by institutions designed by man to keep his fellows in order. Phillotson tells Jude in the opening chapter to be kind to animals and Jude takes him at his word; he is already too kind to step on the writhing, copulating earthworms, a symbol of sexuality at its blindest and most degraded. The killing of the pig Jude's poor ‘fellow-mortal’ and symbol of his sexual nature, shows how Jude has been victimized at the hands of that Lady Macbeth, Arabella. In this life, it is necessary to maintain your existence by killing another being for food. The birds which Jude is beaten for feeding appear and reappear in the novel, almost always associated with Sue Bridehead, and when at last she releases her pet pigeons from the butcher's cage we have an ironic sense of her own need for freedom just before she voluntarily re-enters the ‘cage’ and ‘trap’ of her marriage to Phillotson. Animals in the novel are usually exploited by man; the cries of the mutilated rabbit bring Sue and Jude out on a common act of mercy and allow Sue to illustrate how she is hurt and broken by her marriage. The cab-horse kicked at the doors of the Christminster college shows how learning does not automatically lead to compassion and understanding.

      Conclusion. The real imaginative strength of Jude seems to lie in the integrity of Hardy's vision. His characters may yearn for the ideal and the spiritual and live in a world of ideas, but the universe that shapes them is real enough, filled with shapes and smells and colors and details that impress themselves on the mind even as we take in the intellectual argument. The stale cakes arranged in the baker's window, Sue's thumb cocked jauntily up her sunshade as she goes unthinkingly to her doom, the beads encrusting Arabella's dress, the creaking weather-vane on the church, the ham that Sue prosaically eats before deserting her husband: such imaginative richness helps us see Jude the Obscure as a celebration of the texture of life as well as a somber vision of intellectual disappointment. Hardy's enthusiastic use of symbolism is always tempered by his sense of the way objects actually appear and his wish to convey precisely the circumstances of his characters’ daily lives. Nowhere is this more powerful than in the appalling discovery of the little bodies in the cupboard; what could in other hands have been the crudest melodrama becomes deeply moving as Hardy’s eye travels about the room, dwelling on the banal objects that belonged to lives now ended.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Write a note on the symbolic elements in Jude the Obscure,


“In this carefully designed novel symbols are repeated at intervals.” Discuss the symbolism in Jude the Obscure in the light of this statement.

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