Tragic Element & Characters in the Novel Jude The Obscure

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      What is a tragedy? In the treaties of Literary Criticism and works on literary pieces, the word “tragedy” is used in a very restricted sense. Aristotle is the pioneer of “Poetics” and his conception of tragedy has the following salient features: The work should be a serious drama. The protagonist or the person who takes the leading part (you may call him or her the hero or heroine) must be a member of the aristocracy or very exalted rank. There should be a conflict between this protagonist and a superior force such as fate or destiny, The end must be sad and usually, it is the death of the hero or heroine. This death must excite the audience's feelings of pity and terror. This is explained as the catharsis of these feelings. If the audience is confronted with the spectacles of pity and terror naturally there is a purgative effect. The mind is cleansed of obsessions and preconceived notions. The word ‘tragedy’ associated with a drama of the nature we have described now, is also used to denote calamity, misfortune great setback, or any disastrous event.

      Hardy’s conception of a tragedy. Aristotle’s dictum referred only to the stage presence of a drama vis-a-vis the audience witnessing the performance. But extended to another aspect of literary production, namely the novel, with a wider audience comprising peoples of different realms, walks of life, and periods. Hardy’s concept of a tragedy must of necessity be fundamentally different although some sort of similarity cannot be ruled out. Take the case of the hero. In Aristotle’s opinion, the hero must hail from the clan of nobility and aristocracy. Shakespeare followed it closely. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, novelists and even dramatists cannot be expected to follow suit. Hardy exercised his democratic outlook by introducing ordinary people, men, and women of the peasantry, working class, etc. in his novels. As to the concept of a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force Hardy’s idea is not different from the orthodox viewpoint. Jude, the hero of the novel, is struggling against the superior might of his innate weakness for wine and women as well as the tenacity of the social conventions. Concerning the emotional reaction of the reading public Hardy does hope that his novel will not be wanting in its capacity to produce that cathartic effect in the manner expected by literary critics.

      Causes of a catastrophe befalling the hero. The proper understanding of the causes of the disaster that befell Jude and Sue is necessary for the full appreciation of the entire tragedy. Some critics believe that Hardy was essentially a fatalist and pessimist. He is found better at the detailed graphic description of the darker aspects of human life than the cheerful and bright sides. He attributes various causes for the sufferings of humanity, besides fate and Providence usually mentioned by the fatalists. He accuses society and its unimaginative leaders for the unhappy predicament of the less privileged members. Of course, the innate character, frailties, weaknesses of individuals, adverse hereditary traits, etc. have also been mentioned as contributing their share towards the human sufferings. As in the case of the other novel of Hardy, in Jude, the Obscure also find the various causes adequately dealt with such as heredity, the tyranny of the social institutions, conventions and norms of behavior, economic and social conditions of the characters portrayed as well as the idiosyncrasies of the leading persons of the story; i.e., Jude and Sue.

      A tragedy of frustrated aims and unrealized love. As clearly stated by Hardy in the preface to the first edition of the novel in book form the main theme is the tragedy of unrealized love and unfulfilled aims and ambitions. Love is the strongest passion known to humanity and there is no limit to the havoc that it can work in its wake. It causes fret and fever, derision and disaster in its course, and Hardy has dealt with these remarkable. The cravings of the flesh in the body and the aspirations of the soul are generally contradictory. Jude’s intellectual aspirations get thwarted thanks to his sensuous nature. Sue too wanted her brand of love unattended by and uncontaminated through physical contacts to flourish but she could not realize that aim concerning both Phillotson and Jude. The younger pair adversely, affected the sober elderly schoolmaster Phillotson and made him sink in the vortex of tragic happenings.

The tragic character of the novel vis-a-vis Jude:
      (a). Intellectual pursuits thwarted. Jude is introduced to us as a lad of eleven years who has a foretaste of the later vast experience of sufferings with the feeling that he is unwanted in the world. His great aunt Drusilla expresses the wish that it would have been better if only God had taken away his life too along with that of his parents. In that case, he would not have had to face the ordeals in the world as an orphan. The boy has an acute thirst for knowledge. He views the city of Christminster as a city of enlightenment, religiosity, devotion, and scholarship. With the help of the Latin and Greek Grammar books sent to him by Phillotson, he makes an independent effort to learn those languages but fails in that attempt for want of a proper guide. Under the crushing recognition of the great error of no guide lending a helping hand in his earnestness to study it is no wonder that Jude wished himself out of the world.

      Jude strives further and carries on some sort of a study of the classical authors Virgil, Horace, etc., and then turns to Christian theology intending to become a Doctor of Divinity. But the unvoiced call of a woman in the form of the aggressively sensuous and voluptuous Arabella brings in an obstacle for his intellectual pursuits. What Hardy calls the “deadly war between flesh and spirit” takes its origin here. He marries Arabella and consequently bids goodbye to his studies. He gave vent to the animal passion for a woman and allowed it to lead to very grave and disastrous consequences. The marriage foils and the frustrated Jude first attempt to put an end to his life but later tries to forget his troubles by getting drunk. The good sense in Jude awakes temporarily and he goes to Christminster with the vision of the thousands of scholars, scientists, philosophers, philologists, and statesmen who have come out of the portals of this “alma mater” of his dream.

      (b). Deadly war waged between flesh and spirit. The cravings of flesh temporarily subdued by Jude raise their heads once again. Within a few days of his arrival at the university town, his sweet-faced cousin Sue is remembered by him. The result was that he began to weave curious and fantastic romantic dreams about this young woman. The keen recollection of his purpose in coming to this city of enlightenment warned him against the likelihood of an involvement with Sue which should be prevented if he were to succeed in his ambition of reaching the University precincts. He then comforts himself by saying that his relationship with that lady will be confined to his thoughts about her as “a kindly star, an elevating power, a companion in an Anglican workshop and a tender friend”. But his actual meeting with Sue did not stop at the ideal level. Sue’s loveliness kindled in him the temporarily subdued sexual cravings and a war between two equally powerful impulses—the passion for the glamorous body of Sue and the passion for the mastery of the realm of academic study—began to be waged in Jude’s mind. When Sue marries Phillotson there is a setback in the ebullition of the romantic heart and Jude seriously pursues his original plan for realizing academic distinction.

      (c). Two-level-failure. Hailing from a poor family and struggling in life for even his existence Jude finds himself in a delicate situation. He cannot stand on his legs. He realizes that without the help of a coach he cannot master the difficult subjects of study. Engaging a coach means an expense he cannot afford. Scholarships and other means of academic help too are out of his reach. The pittance that he can save from his meager income may meet his expected expenditure provided it is accumulated for a continuous period of fifteen years. He writes to five academicians seeking their help and guidance in his pursuit of study. But only one of them cares to reply and that reply happens to be negative, slapping him on the face as it were. This failure in his ambition together with the former one of failure in love upsets him too much. He then becomes a regular patron of a cheap tavern. Now Jude is in a veritable hell of conscious failure in ambition and love with his hopes shattered in the field of intellectual advancement and exciting escapades into the realm of romantic love.

      (d). Brief period of stolen pleasure. Again feeble rays of hope begin to shed their dim light on the gloomy life of Jude. The desire to become a licentiate in the church finds a place in his heart with some faint hopes. But the fact that the matrimonial adventure of Sue with Phillotson does not proceed ahead smoothly kindles his flame of love towards Sue. The cravings of the flesh gain mastery over him and he sets fire to his ethical and theological books so that he need not have any qualms in his pursuit of romantic love with Sue. His first aspiration for academic proficiency was checked by Arabella and his second aspiration for apostleship became checked by Sue. Sue lives with him. Though she denies him sexual pleasure initially, she relents later and gives him sexual thrills as well. They beget children. Because of Sue’s antipathy, they do not solemnize their marriage. The ostracism of the society becomes minor pin-pricks in their wedded bliss.

      (e). Tyranny of society and ultimate death. The fact that society does not show any mercy towards the people who flout its laws and taboos brings about tragic happenings in the family. Father Time hangs his half-brothers and commits suicide himself because that misguided child feels himself to be the cause of Sue and Jude’s inability to get lodgings. “Done because we are too many”— that is at once terrible and absurd. This domestic tragedy drives Sue back to Phillotson. Jude is left in the lurch. His health breaks down and before he reaches thirty Jude dies. Ironically the people celebrate Remembrance Day in the University city of Christminster while Jude is on his deathbed.

The tragic character of the novel vis-a-vis Sue
      (a) Marries Phillotson to repent later. Tragedy overtakes Sue also with great poignancy. Highly intelligent and impulsive she had her notions about her life in society. Her ideas are diametrically opposite to those of the leaders of society. On the spur of the moment, she decided to marry Phillotson, stipulates the condition of no-sexual contact with him, and after some time finds her life with Phillotson tortured. In fact, Sue’s aversion to Phillotson is greater than her fear of spiders. She even jumps out of the window to avoid physical contact with Phillotson. Sue recalls the fact of her hasty marriage and somehow justifies it by saying “I did not marry him because of the scandal in the Training School. Sometimes a woman’s love of being loved gets the better of her conscience and though she has agonized at the thought of treating a man cruelly she encourages him to love her while she does not love him at all”. Although this stance is peculiarly unwomanish generally we can find such rare specimens in modern society as well.

      (b) Domestic Tragedy of the death of the children. Sue leaves Phillotson and begins to live with Jude. Initially, she gives free play to her pet whim as in the case of her husband Phillotson in not allowing Jude to have physical contact with her. But her jealousy of Arabella makes her relent and the two live a life of domestic felicity and rear children too. A catastrophe overtakes the couple as a result of the social ostracism to which they are subjected for not conforming to the laws and taboos of society. Father Time hangs his half brothers and himself. The children hanging from the hooks meant for garments shake Sue with horror. Sue feels that the guilt for the death of her children is her own—a just punishment from heaven for her violation of the sacrament of marriage.

      (c) Remarries Phillotson and lives the life of a living corpse. All mental peace deserts Sue after the tragic death of the children. She then deplores the life of self-delight that Jude and she have been leading. She eagerly wishes to lead a life of self-abnegations. Calling the children born to them as “sin-begotten” she decides to go back to Phillotson though she does not cease to love Jude. She enters the new wedlock as a rite of atonement for her sins. She does not deny Phillotson his legitimate access to her body as well. She thus acts as a martyr at the altar of sacramental devotion. She begins to live the life of a living corpse. As Arabella says—“She has never found peace since she left Jude’s arms and never will again till she is what he is now” (i.e. dead).

      (d) An analysis of the causes of Sue’s tragedy. What are the causes of the tragic character of Sue’s life? The primary cause of Sue’s tragedy is her impulsive character and capricious and whimsical behavior. She happens to be too intelligent to be a natural woman with average feelings or feminine characteristics. She marries Phillotson far more senior to her in age on the spur of the moment. But after marrying him she denies him sexual access. She then lives with Jude flouting all conventions of society. Can society look on helplessly? It ostracises the couple and denies them peaceful existence in its midst. This makes Father Time hang his half brothers and himself. It is this tragedy that completely upsets Sue and leads her to the tragedy of life like a living corpse after her remarriage with Phillotson. All these combine to wreck the life of Sue.

The tragic character of the novel vis-a-vis Phillotson:
      (a) Sober schoolmaster past middle age. Phillotson is introduced to us as a convention-loving schoolmaster with some academic ambitions. His ambitions become. shattered. With no prominent position in society and having not much wealth it is no wonder he remains a bachelor till such an advanced age. He is happy no doubt when Sue marries him and immediately sets about providing for her all material comforts within his means. But when he finds that Sue repents having married him and wants to live with Jude he becomes magnanimous enough to free her. He does not mind the loss of his job for his out-of-the-way act of his. He hopelessly ruins his prospect because he can never be accepted as a teacher anymore. As Hardy says he suffers more inconvenience than any other person because of his charity whether it be Christian or pagan in its ultimate analysis. He is knocked about from pillar to post almost beyond endurance even to the verge of starvation. His sole support is a small stipend from a village school where the pastor also becomes ill-spoken of for befriending him, it is no comfort to him that Sue remarries him and leads a life of a living corpse.

      (b) Causes of Phillotson’s tragedy. The main cause for the sufferings of Phillotson is his inherent weakness. In the first place, he is overzealous in marrying a girl far younger than him in an age when he has passed middle age. He is sober no doubt and cannot be called sexually aberrant. Of course, when Sue herself volunteers to marry him he just slips into the marriage for the pleasure he expects it will give, but does not get, due to the whimsical nature of Sue. After marriage when Sue wants to live with Jude he becomes very magnanimous and allows her to live thus. The society does not relish this and ostracises him for his high-minded charitable act. He has to live a life of poverty. Her remarriage with Phillotson is no comfort to him although now also it is the case of a voluntary action of Sue. Thus due to misplaced magnanimity Phillotson suffers much.

      Chance and coincidence in the novel. It is but a trick of fate that sometimes some chance occurrence or a mere coincidence may lead to a momentous result. Some of the earlier novels of Hardy do contain such causal features with disastrous consequences.

      In Jude the Obscure, on the other hand, no major part is played by chance occurrences although some episodes with some influence on the characters of the story are mere chance events. What makes Arabella select Jude for her attack with the pizzle of the slaughtered pig? That village did contain many other young men whom Arabella could have approached with her sensuous advances. But as it happens this chance occurrence does influence the course of the story to a certain extent. Then the business failure of Arabella’s father casually brings the family back to England with the child “Father Time” who certainly influences the course of tragic circumstances. Jude meets Arabella after the family’s return, at a bar. This is also accidental but certainly has some adverse influence on Jude and his tragedy. Jude’s death happens exactly at the time when the people celebrate Remembrance Day. This fact adds poignancy to the sad tragedy of Jude. Apart from these and a couple of other minor events none of these incidental events has any crucial influence on the development of the main plot of the novel.

      Has Fate anything to do? The unseen hand of destiny or fate shaping or misshaping human development is an accepted fact in all societies occidental or oriental, ancient or modern, civilized or barbarous. Thinkers accepting this layman’s superstition or conviction are not few. Many novelists have written their stories revolving around the harsh interference of what is called Fate. Hardy himself has done so in some of his earlier novels. As to this novel Jude, the Obscure Father time is certainly an instrument in the hands of Fate. Jude and Arabella are ordinary mortals with many weaknesses. But why should they give birth to an abnormal child of the sort of Father Time? It is just the trick of fate. Since he takes it into his head to do away with his half-brothers the course of the story is completely altered. Here we find the working of fate. Abnormal children seem to see all the terrible aspects of life before they are old enough to have the power to resist them and Hardy says that “it is but the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live.” Fate, therefore, according to him, works hard to extinguish in human beings the very desire to live.

      Heredity and its influence. Hardy is of the opinion that certain mishaps occur and recur in certain families. The great aunt of Jude remarks that the family of Fawley's is notorious for unhappy marriages and dissuades Jude and Sue from marrying. The elderly lady Mrs. Edlin recounts the story of on ancestor of Jude and Sue who quarreled with his wife and who was subsequently hanged. The lady in question becomes mad afterward. These stories make Jude and Sue hesitate to solemnize their marriage. If only they laid married legally Sue could not have gone back to Phillotson forsaking Jude. Probably in that case the final catastrophe in Jude’s life could have been avoided. Therefore heredity is explained here as playing a role in the development of the plot of the story.

      Role of Nature. In some of his earlier novels, Hardy describes Nature as hostile to man in certain respects. But in Jude, the Obscure we do not find any exposition of the author's view except some chance remarks such as “Jude is keenly aware of the scorn of Nature of man's finer emotions and her lack of interest in his aspirations” etc. Sue regrets having said before that it was Nature's intention and Nature's law that mankind should be joyful in what instincts Nature herself has afforded it. After the death of her children, she says that she has been a fool to take Nature at the face value of this view meaning thereby that Nature is only beneficial but it destroys human happiness at the psychological moment.

      Human nature according to Hardy. Hardy does not sink to the level of cynicism though he proudly asserts his pessimistic outlook. In his view, man is essentially good and noble though some dust and dirt may cling to him projecting an unfavorable first impression about him. The three main characters of this novel have their individual sterling qualities despite some weaknesses and frailties. For example, Jude was honest though poor. He had a sense of honor despite his cravings after sexual intercourse. He had the integrity of character. Sue has an inherent sense of justice, chastity, and authenticity. Phillotson is largehearted, magnanimous, and very sober in his activities. He is methodical in all his undertakings. Arabella and Vilbert do not seem to have any striking good point but the world does not lack in such people.

      Feelings of pity and fear. What Aristotle calls the cathartic and purging influence of a genuine tragedy is amply provided for by the novel Jude the Obscure. It arouses our pity through some of the poignant scenes of suffering and torture the hero and the heroine do undergo. Our sense of fear is provoked now and then by the apparent indifference of the universe and we are very anxious to know the subsequent result on coming to know of some tricky and crucial events. The murder of the innocent children and the deathbed scene of Jude does provoke in us a sense of unease. Many other feelings too are roused. Reverence, admiration, sense of wonder, and awe at the mysteries of the Universe are also provoked. Hardy takes an honest stock-taking in order to warn human beings of the necessity to mend their affairs so that improvement of the conditions of their life may be possible. This affirms Aristotle's theory of catharsis. The scene of pity and fear acts as purgative and makes us feel better. A critic has truthfully pointed out—“Hardy's characters are moral agents aware of their dignified significance in the neutral Universe because they see good and evil around them and own a duty to conduct their lives in terms of that perception although they are senselessly tormented.”

      Conclusion. Jude the Obscure is a tragedy. Significantly, Sue and Jude in the course of the novel compare themselves to the story of Agamemnon. Hardy believed in the Greek idea of tragedy in which a man better than most of us but still possessing weaknesses that make him human rather than saintly, fails or is destroyed in the pursuit of a grand project because of his character flaw. In Jude we find such flaws contributing to his failure. But Hardy does not make the character alone responsible for the tragedy. He gives a wider scope to Jude's tragedy by setting it in the context of perpetual human disappointment and the indifference of an amoral universe.

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