Thursday, May 1, 2014

It’s a Cruel World, After All

"Jude the Obscure,” by Thomas Hardy, 1894-1895

This is one of the greatest ‘old’ books from an English writer.  It was very controversial in its day because of its frank description of the need for sex, its position against religion, its portrait of the sham of marriage and an early depiction of the ‘new’ independent woman.  It also is a view of the class system from the underside.  The key events are not based on the earlier rationalism of Jane Austen, but the urges of the libido, and the more grounded ideas of the working class.  It focused on an ‘obscure’ man in a tragic way – when prior to this only ‘great men’ were allowed tragedy.  Obscure men – like Jude – a baker’s apprentice, then a stone mason, all along an aspiring collegian – were only thought to be good for comedy or melodrama – or as ‘color.’  They were not to be central, and not to be taken seriously.

This book was so controversial in England that Hardy quit writing novels after publishing it, and became a poet until the end of his life.  He later tinkered with the text by making the novel a bit less tough, to somewhat appease his critics.  Hardy grew up in a ‘lowly’ position – a stone-mason’s son, then took up architecture, careful descriptions of which play a role in this book.  Hardy was married but took up with another woman, and they lived together after his first wife died.  He was not able to graduate from college and so some of Hardy’s life is played out in Jude. 

The plot:  Jude is a dreamy orphan who wants to go to Oxford and become an academic.  Instead he becomes a stone mason who works on gravestones, walls and churches like Salisbury Cathedral.  His sexual side is brought out by a pig-farmer’s daughter, Arabella, who seduces him, then tells him she’s pregnant, and forces him to marry her.  She was not pregnant.  Their marriage lasts a few months, then they separate, and she goes to Australia.  He lives in Oxford for a time, self-educating himself to be a scholar. He doesn’t know how to afford the tuition and is eventually dissuaded from entering Oxford by a professor who tells him he’s better suited to his manual trade.  While divorce was legal at this time in England, it seems to have been reprehensible.  Jude tortures himself over his being married when he meets his cousin in Oxford, Sue Bridehead, and falls in love with her.  She is a neurotic, educated and prudish and charms Jude, but marries another, older teacher, Mr. Phillotson, out of some odd sense of responsibility.  At one point in the marriage, she jumps out of a window when her husband accidentally enters her room!  She then leaves the teacher for Jude, and Phillotson is fired by the respectable people as a bad example to the children for letting her go.  Only the ‘itinerants’ in town stand up for him.  Both Sue and Jude finally get divorced, and Sue dreads marrying again.  Jude and Sue live together after Jude drops his attempt to be a preacher and burns his religious texts.  Sue withholds sex until he pretends to marry her to quell the viscous gossips in the small town they are in.  Arabella returns from Australia and tells Jude that indeed he does have a son, dumping off a strange, depressed child at Jude & Sue’s door, which they are happy to take in.

Arabella is a carrier of bad fortune.  Constant movement, murder, suicide, miscarriage, alcohol, religious revival, remarriage and death follow.

The couple are surrounded by conservative neighbors in every town they live in who are aghast at unmarried associations.  Sex is a forbidden topic among the majority.  Both Sue and Jude are too tender for the world, and too over-emotional to survive well.  They have frustrating flaws, like real people.  Sue, who loses her job as a teacher, never gets paid work again and the family travels throughout Wessex in penury.  They are unable to handle the real world, and are ultimately crushed by it. 

Hardy observes that conservative attitudes are dying out.  At one point, Sue says that their ideas on religion and marriage are 50-100 years ahead of their time. And indeed they were.  Marriage and religion are now both dying in England, but class is as strong as ever. 

Here is Hardy on Marriage:
“Weddings be funerals ‘a b’lieve nowadays.” 
“Their lives were ruined …by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: That of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling…”
“I don’t regard marriage as a sacrament.” 
“Marriage … is a sordid contract.”
“…how hopelessly vulgar an institution legal marriage is - sort of a trap to catch a man…”

Hardy on Sex:
“…the human was more powerful in him than the Divine.” 
“…a life of constant warfare between flesh and spirit…”
“…a religion in which sexual love was regarded as at its best a frailty, and at its worst damnation.” 

Hardy on Love:
“Sometimes a woman’s love of being loved gets the better of her …she encourages her to love him while she doesn’t love him at all.” 

Hardy on Religion:
“…religion of some sort seems … not only a luxury of the emotional and leisured classes.”
“The struggling men and women… were the reality… though they knew little of Christ or Minister.” 
“I don’t’ believe in half of them … the theologians, the apologists, and their kin the metaphysicians, the high-handed statesmen…” 

Hardy on Women:
“The woman mostly gets the worst of it in the long run.”

Hardy on Class and College:
“Every successful man is more or less a selfish man.”
“For a moment there fell on Jude a true illumination;, that here in the stone yard was a center of effort as worthy as that dignified by the name of scholarly study…”
“He saw that his destiny lay … among the manual toilers … unrecognized as part of the city… yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers think.”
“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you,” (Job Xii.3)  Something Jude writes on the wall of the college.   
“He began to see that the town life was a book of humanity infinitely more palpitating, varied and compendious than the gown life.”
“But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires sons!”
“Christminster (Hardy’s name for Oxford) …is a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.”     

Nearly all men and women … are ‘obscure.’  By making this kind of life central, this book crosses the threshold into modernity.

Red Frog
Happy May Day!  Workers of the World Unite!
May 1, 2014 

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