Jude the Obscure, 13 years later
“The more I read Hardy the surer I am that he is a major novelist, but also that the problem of describing his work is central to the problem of understanding the whole development of the English novel.”
– Rowan Williams, The English Novel
“Indeed, one suspects that none of the 'solutions' to that problem which may be fashioned in our own day will be relevant to the dislocations of the age, if they are uninformed by a deep knowledge of what the world appeared to be like to the author of The Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure.”
– Nathan A. Scott, "Hardy and the Victorian Malaise," in Craters of the Spirit
I’ve read and re-read Hardy’s Jude the Obscure for 13 years now. It remains an enigmatic work, a tragic coming-of-age novel that is a series of disconnected impressions (as Hardy claims) that form a unified, screeching protest against the barriers and hypocrisies of his era. Only Hardy could have Jude become a stonemason who works on the university walls that keep him from attaining his dreams, with names like Sepulchre College and Mildew Lane. Only Hardy could have the rebellious lovers hypocritically earn money for re-painting the actual letters of the Mosaic law in a church, when the novel is so oriented around the spirit versus the letter of the law (whatever that means – even Hardy is unsure). It is a portrait of a society that is decaying, hypocritical, and cruel, even as the protagonists are sympathetic and frustratingly unheroic (an early working title for the novel was The Simpletons).
13 years later it remains a harrowing work to read and teach, shocking even to hardened college millennials who cut their teeth on shows like Breaking Bad. As I re-read it these past weeks, Sue’s psychological imbalances are ever more clear even from the beginning. The final catastrophe is the breaking of her already fractured state, and it is a trap that is cruelly sprung by Hardy. She is only indirectly known, seen through Jude and others; her history is unknown, and she is a vital protagonist who is ever on the margins of the story, page, and mental imbalance.
It’s a marvelous and awful prophetic rambling of a series of failures that are hard to summarize or separate, which is part of its genius. Like other great tragic works, it seems to say something profound, and yet we are unsure what it is saying; the questions are raised but the answers are only mumbled. Yet it reflects a true space that exists just there, between judgment and mercy, law and grace, and spirit and reality, a place that abhors cruelty, and that is at its heart deeply Christian.