In Which My Heart Explodes from Pure Artistic Satisfaction

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy, 1894

Try not to cry, y’all. We have arrived at Thomas Hardy’s last novel. I have a lot to say about this brilliant book. Jude is Hardy’s most autobiographical novel and his most scathing take down of marriage and morality in the Victorian Era. Thirty sticky tabs protrude from the top of my copy indicating passages I adore and want to share with you. Feel free to stop reading at any point. I’ll still be here, spilling my Jude thoughts into the void.

We begin with little unloved orphan Jude watching his schoolmaster pack up and leave for Christminster. This city stands in for Oxford. After the departure of his beloved teacher, Mr. Phillotson, Jude grows to see Christminster as a glistening beacon of erudition, glory and all that is best in the world. He dreams of following Phillotson to Christminster and becoming a scholar himself. An unlikely future for a rustic child whose aunt tells him “It would ha’ been a blessing if Goddy-mighty had took thee too, wi’ thy mother and father, poor useless boy.”

Dear Jude does try to be useful. He sets off to earn a few pence by scaring rooks off of Farmer Throutham’s grain. And you must read this entire passage, because it is the best thing in the British canon. Not joking. Please enjoy.

The fresh harrow-lines seemed to stretch like the channellings in a piece of new corduroy, lending a meanly utilitarian air to the expanse, taking away its gradations, and depriving it of all history beyond that of the few recent months, though to every clod and stone there really attached associations enough and to spare—echoes of songs from ancient harvest-days, of spoken words, and of sturdy deeds. Every inch of ground had been the site, first or last, of energy, gaiety, horse-play, bickerings, weariness. Groups of gleaners had squatted in the sun on every square yard. Love-matches that had populated the adjoining hamlet had been made up there between reaping and carrying. Under the hedge which divided the field from a distant plantation girls had given themselves to lovers who would not turn their heads to look at them by the next harvest; and in that ancient cornfield many a man had made love-promises to a woman at whose voice he had trembled by the next seed-time after fulfilling them in the church adjoining. But this neither Jude nor the rooks around him considered. For them it was a lonely place, possessing, in the one view, only the quality of a work-ground, and in the other that of a granary good to feed in.

The boy stood under the rick before mentioned, and every few seconds used his clacker or rattle briskly. At each clack the rooks left off pecking, and rose and went away on their leisurely wings, burnished like tassets of mail, afterwards wheeling back and regarding him warily, and descending to feed at a more respectful distance.

He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon more and more the aspect of gentle friends and pensioners—the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling, and they alighted anew.

“Poor little dears!” said Jude, aloud. “You shall have some dinner—you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!”

They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.

Oof. It’s so beautiful it hurts me. Burnished like tassets of mail! The setting is so beautifully described, you can imagine precisely the sight of the lonely field with all its history, the rooks catching the sunlight, the wee orphan whose big heart won’t allow him to complete his appointed task. Channellings in a piece of new corduroy! We have the theme of the novel disguised in Hardy’s early description of previous pastoral pairings. Jude is destined to take his share in the misery produced by Christian insistence on binding sexual partners inextricably through marriage. Inky spots on the nut-brown soil! His lonely tenderness for the crows hits me right in the heart. Poor, dear Jude. A magic thread of fellow-feeling! I know Thomas Hardy; if I hadn’t read the novel, I would know that Jude’s gentleness “suggested that he was the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain on his unnecessary life.” Oh, he will ache. And you will rage with me over the trampling the cruel world inflicts on this sensitive soul. Young Jude does not perceive “the flaw in the terrestrial scheme, by which what was good for God’s birds was bad for God’s gardener,” but Hardy does and he will show us just how horribly the laws of Nature and Man punish sweet, innocent souls. Hardy knows the universe is not looking out for us. We are chaff to be ground by the millstone of circumstance. And marriage laws. This is really all about how marriage without the possibility of divorce destroys lives.

Jude determines to become a scholar. His village school cannot prepare him for Christminster, so he teaches himself Greek and Latin. One day Jude is lost in reverie, trying to reckon how far he has progressed toward learnedness when he feels something smack “him sharply on the ear.” His Dark Angel, Arabella, has chucked a pig penis at him. Dang. This forward country lass sets her heart on Jude. She decides to seduce him and trick him into marriage by claiming to be pregnant. It works and “the people of the parish all said what a fool Jude Fawley was. All his reading had only come to this, that he would have to sell his books to buy saucepans.” Alas, he is hooked.

Thus, the pair “swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.” Y’all, I’m married, and I enjoy it. But, if I didn’t have the option of divorce, I never would have signed that piece of paper. Hardy is right. Marriage without the possibility of divorce is bondage. For too many people matrimony is not holy, but dangerous and degrading. The literary canon provides further opportunity for me to comment on the horrifying failure of the Church of England to save neither the souls nor the very lives of women in abusive marriages. Encouraging a person to stay with an abusive partner is plain evil. Ok, deep breath. I’m getting worked up. The point here is that social custom and religious practice require two people who just wanted to get it on to bind themselves together for the remainder of their lives. For better or worse, worse, worse, worse, worse.

Jude immediately regrets his decision. Arabella is not a soul mate. He finds there is “something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour.” He can’t bring himself to feel that his lust for Arabella was a sin or unnatural. When he finds out that she was never actually pregnant “he was inclined to inquire what he had done, or she lost, for that matter, that he deserved to be caught in a gin which would cripple him, if not her also, for the rest of a lifetime?” Oh, I forgot to mention that Jude’s storm crow of an aunt believes that their family is cursed to fail at matrimony, because “there’s sommat in our blood that won’t take kindly to the notion of being bound to do what we do readily enough if not bound.” So there’s that too. He’s cursed. When the marriage falls apart and Jude becomes romantically entangled with his cousin. Double curse!

Yikes, there are so many more details from this book that I want to share with you. Jude and Sue’s mystic romantic connection. The way Hardy plays with gender to show Sue as smarter, braver, and wiser than her male counterparts. She is fiercely individualistic until her defiance of social rules causes poverty and tragedy. You need to read it and fondle those details yourself. I will hustle us on toward my second favorite moment in all of English literature.

Jude is denied entrance to the hallowed halls of Christminster. The elitist prigs don’t want his kind mixing with their precious lordlings. This happened to Thomas Hardy himself. The English fonts of knowledge were too blinded by classism to educate one of the greatest minds of his generation. They rushed to bestow honorary degrees upon Hardy after he became internationally famous. They were too good to educate a rustic, but not too good to bask in the glory he achieved without their help. A cheerful reminder that our respected institutions reinforce existing imbalances of power and wealth.

Glossing over a host of deliciously described details that you must read yourself: Jude and Sue escape their bad marriages and are free to become legally joined. But their experience with this supposedly sacred institution makes them reluctant to shackles their sweet and pure union with the bonds of “holy” matrimony. They have been living together in supposed sin and accepting the scorn heaped upon them. But a child is involved. Their compunction at heaping scorn upon him as well drives them reluctantly to the whatsit’s office to get hitched. They wait while a soldier and his young bride sign the blessed document. Jude and Sue notice that “the solider was reluctant: the bride sad and timid; she was soon, obviously, to become a mother, and she had a black eye.” Sue and Jude linger, letting another couple pass and conduct their business. This bride brought her groom directly from the prison gates and paid for everything herself. She is “ruddy with liquor and the satisfaction of being on the brink of a gratified desire.” The place seems too sordid to host the “climax of our love.” The couple shies off and heads for a church. Sue feels terrible about the woman giving “herself to that goal-bird, not for a few hours as she would, but for a lifetime as she must. And the other poor soul—to escape a nominal shame […] degrading herself to the real shame of bondage to a tyrant who scorned her—a man whom to avoid for ever was her only chance of salvation.” Oooof. Every time I read those words of Sue’s my heart wants to explode from pure artistic satisfaction.

Hardy rips the still-beating heart out of the Victorian notion that sex and marriage must go together. He skewers the concept of “holy matrimony.” One couple has to marry, because they have already had sex. Their union will be a danger and a degradation to the bride. Sue sees that salvation lies for this woman in escaping the man that Victorian Christianity would bind her to for this life and the next. There is nothing holy about this marriage. As to the other couple, he wants money and she wants sex. She doesn’t want a lifetime of devotion, but the “respectable” thing for a horny person to do is tie themselves forever to the object of their lust. In a page and a half Hardy demonstrates that when sex and marriage are inextricably linked, there is no sanctity to marriage. And I just…explosions…I’ve never read anything better. It’s too perfect. He’s a genius and I wish we could be bffs.

Sue and Jude decide not to get married. Hardy being Hardy, he subjects them to misfortune and misery. They are too good for this world, so the world crushes and breaks them. That sounds bad, but you should absolutely read this book. It’s a masterpiece. I shan’t say another thing about it. Hardy’s words are better than mine. Just read it. Then call me and we can chat.

You might like Jude the Obscure if:

  • You like things that are good.

You might not like Jude the Obscure if:

  • I can’t imagine why anyone would ever feel that way. Oh, right, Henry James found it sordid. But his own writing is mostly terrible, so no one should listen to him about anything ever.

Final thoughts: I am depressed that I am out of Thomas Hardy novels to review. There are no more. At least I can console myself with his poetry. I didn’t even get around to mentioning that Hardy incorporates by favorite Brit Lit trope: paganism versus Christianity. Being a genius, he puts this trope to a different use than most authors. I adore the unspoken anxiety running through much British Literature that the islanders never really gave up their pagan beliefs and are liable to erupt into performances of nature worship at any moment.

Instead of expressing fear of such scary practices as telling the moon that you love her, Hardy uses Sue’s pagan tendencies to show her individualism. After she purchases a pair of miniature nude sculptures of Roman deities, Sue wraps them in leaves to hide them from prying eyes. Young ladies are not meant to indulge in such idolatry. When her scandalized landlady smashes them, Sue indignantly leaves her boarding house. This is one of my favorite sequences in the novel, but only the beginning of Hardy’s characterization of Sue as someone who can see beyond the rigid moral codes of her day.

Jude comes to see Sue as someone so intellectually and morally advanced that she would have a wise druidess, a spiritual leader if she had been born in a different time or cultural setting. I would love to read a book about that version of Sue. The one who lived in a world that didn’t systematically grind her best qualities out of her. Don’t get ground down, dear reader. Be the wise, insightful druidess you were born to be.

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