Theme of the Novel Jude The Obscure

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      The two-fold purpose of the novel. From the jotted notes of Hardy and some of his letters to friends, we can gather that there are two main purposes he had in view. One concerns the intellectual aspirations of persons hailing from the weaker sections of society. The other corners the attitude or rather the obsession of the society with the institution of marriage. Hardy airs his opinions in a fairly outspoken manner.

      Intellectual aspirations of Jude. Hardy himself wanted to be a Cambridge graduate but he could not be. Of course, it was not his social backwardness that was responsible for his not entering the portals of University. He would have abandoned his career as an architect and entered the University if only he had had the incessant urge and encouragement from his friends and well-wishers such as Horace Moule and others. Hardy may have projected himself into Jude and re-lived part of his own life. Hardy’s concern for the progress and development in the status of every deserving person who happens unfortunately to possess only every limited opportunity is no doubt very comprehensive. The cases of young men hailing from poor and backward families and still having a burning desire for an intellectual life as exemplified by their eagerness to get into the University campus had been agitating his mind. There is no doubt about this. In 1868 Hardy wrote a novel The Poor Man and the Lady following the suggestion of George Meredith. Probably the theme was the struggle of a poor man. The book has never been published. Still, the theme must have been hovering around on the mental firmament of the author, since the idea is presented in some form or the other in all his stories and novel. Hardy reveled in the idea of focussing the sympathy of the reader on those characters who yearn for better social status and intellectual attainment.

      Jude’s intellectual ambition. In Jude, the Obscure Hardy folly describes the struggles and failures of such a young man. Jude was studious by nature. Even while driving the bread cart he pored over the grammar books. He mastered much of the classical literature through self-study and wanted to enter the premises of Christminster for perfection in his study. But unfortunately, Christminster showed more eagerness to offer him wall repairing work and stonecutting jobs than in giving him better illumination and greater enlightenment in the mind and intellect. Only persons belonging to the higher and dignified echelons of society can have access to the precincts of the academic edifice. Their walls formed insuperable barriers to Jude and persons of his status in society. The academician from BiblioIl College had the temerity to tender this advice to Jude that a worker can have better success in life by handling his tools rather than by wielding pen or poring over voluminous tomes. Jude was rudely shocked on discovering that inherent talents, intellectual ambition, hard work, etc. cannot compete with the dignity of the nobility of birth and parentage to secure admission into the academic institutions. As Jude is made to express bitterly—“It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one.”

      The theme of love. Hardy mentions that he wished to describe “the fret and fever, derision and disaster that press in the wake of the strongest passion known to humanity” meaning thereby the physical thrill resulting from love. Jude falls in love with Arabella at the very outset. His love is natural physical love that every sane healthy individual under the sun is bound to experience. It is a different matter if he becomes disillusioned afterward because Arabella was too coarse, voluptuous, and vulgar. He discovers that he had been a fool in loving her. Some disastrous consequences also have resulted in fi’om this blind infatuation.

      Sublimation of the love theme. Sue enters the life of Jude offering him a higher type to love, a Shelleyan romantic attachment wherein the physical play is not given much prominence. Jude and Sue live together out of wedlock. Hardy had unorthodox ideas about marriage as an institution. The views have been dealt with in detail in the novel. As Phillotson put it “I found from their manner that an extraordinary affinity or sympathy entered into their attachment which somehow took away all flavor of grossness. Their supreme desire is to be together; to share each other's emotions and fancies and dreams”. Sue also makes Jude repeat the immortal lines from Shelley's poem:

A seraph of Heaven, too gentle to be human
Veiling beneath that radiant form of a woman...

      Love is, in the view of Hardy and actually of many other poets as well, an affinity of the mind, and spirit that should be given more importance than the physical thrill of an orgasm. The beloved is viewed by Shelley as someone radiant, divine, and superhuman and Jude had the same noble feelings in the presence of Sue.

      Victorian concept of marriage. The Victorian concept of marriage as a sacrament for the fulfillment of Nature's expectation for the perpetuation of the line of succession is no doubt highly ideal. But in practice, as regards many people, the actual result had been a stultification and distortion of personality. Love has been reduced to a mockery of that aspect in marriage which has been glorified as fidelity and conjugal loyalty.

      As Sue says—“the dreadful contract to feel in a particular way in a matter whose essence is its voluntariness.” Hardy views marriage as an institution or tie that binds people. It fetters the free association of a man and a woman inside the four walls of a house that is little different from a prison, withering their souls. Society is tyrannous. It does not allow anyone to break the bond. The penalty for anyone who dares to violate the sacrament is economic discrimination and social ostracism. Think of the psychological reaction of the victims. Ultimately Sue succumbs to the machinations of Society and an undefined fate after the death of her children and reverts to the orthodox point of view thereby tormenting herself. The remaining period of her life sees her as a living corpse.

      Phillotson and love. Phillotson had a very preposterous request from his “wife” Sue, who had the temerity to stipulate as one of the conditions of her “marriage”, the idea of sleeping in different rooms, and the request was permission to live with Jude. An orthodox man may probably feel that the only course that can be possibly regarded as right and proper and honorable in him is to refuse it and put her virtuously under lock and key and murder her lover perhaps. But Phillotson asks “is that essentially right and proper and honorable or is it contemptibly mean and selfish?” The eagerness of Phillotson to avoid being mean and selfish brings down upon him the righteous indignation of the society thereby which deprives him of his job, status, and respect.

      Tyranny of the prevailing opinion. Victorian society in England was famous for its strict orthodox views on religion, conventional morality, social etiquette, and civilized way of life. Whoever attacked the accepted tenets of religion was supposed to corrupt other innocent people. These persons were accused of attempting to undermine the entire English society and its civilized social structure. The men at the helm of social affairs were very harsh with all those who were bold enough to step out of the line of demarcation in these regards. Jude the Obscure narrates in detail all these tyrannical activities of society. Jude and Sue are unconventional and hence “peculiar” in the eyes of the common people. Jude as a working-class boy had the wild dream of going to Oxford (Christminster) which the society did not like. Sue is an emancipated girl laughing at the rigorous taboos of society. Hence society begins to persecute them for living together out of wedlock. Jude says—“The intention of the contract is good and right for many, no doubt but in our case, it may defeat its ends because we are the queer sort of people—we are folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness.” Society did not hesitate to persecute Jude and Sue for their beliefs.

      Conclusion. Thus we conclude that the main themes of the novel revolve around the two traits in Jude's character (a) intellectual ambition and (6) love in all its ramifications and the singular aspect of Sue's character, i.e. non-conformity with the social practice.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Write a critical note on how Hardy handles the tragic theme in Jude the Obscure.


“The theme of Jude the Obscure is the inevitability of Jude’s defeat, given the forces at war in his personality and his worship of false gods.” Discuss.

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