Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

As a constantly fervent fan of the works of Thomas Hardy, I was drawn to read Jude the Obscure and this was strengthened by an extract of the novel appearing in my A-Level English literature exam. All in all, as is typical of Hardy, it was not a novel one would expect.

Jude, poor and working class, has a longing to study at the University of Christminster which begins when he is a child. Using the little resources that he can find, he tries his hardest to become learned and, as he grows, the romantic concept of one day going to Christminster strengthens and he goes into employment in order to earn money for the seemingly tangible future. He is diverted, however, and ends up trapped in a marriage which he has no care for. When he eventually gets to Christminster, he falls in love with his cousin and is rejected by the University but he and Sue defy convention and the rigid Victorian society around them as well as the insatiable class system can do nothing but tear them down.

It is hard to put this novel into words. The one used on the blurb and in reviews I find I have to use here – unconventional. So typically Hardy. The irony behind many aspects of this novel which Hardy explores is that a lot of these social restraints exist still today – his criticism of Victorian society could easily be made applicable to modern day; the inability for a working class person, because of funding and their class, to advance their education unlike someone of a higher standing, the prospects of a person not bequeathed wealth – labour and the production of children, the inability for people to defy convention (more so in the Victorian era), the social rejection of difference and the role of women. So many topics are tackled head on in this novel that I had to prevent myself scribbling like a madwoman in the margins, underlining text and so on. towards the end, I just couldn’t help myself and underlined one phrase which I believe to be the epitome of the novel: ‘We must conform’.

This novel – although I read it painfully slowly and seemed to plod in that inescapably Victorian way – is quite possibly one of the best novels I have ever read from a general and analytical point of view. I could have had a field day with this book if I had read it for A-level. There are so many things going on to analyse and take in its unreal. I am unsurprised but saddened by the fact that this book was so poorly received at the time – one review I read from the time called it ‘Jude the Obscene’ because it head on attacks so much of the Victorian social system – I find that refreshing but I am so, almost hurt by the fact that the people of his own era couldn’t appreciate how revolutionary the work of Hardy really was. I was also saddened to learn that there is a speculation that Hardy stopped writing novels and stuck to poetry because of how poorly received this book was. To think – we could have had so many more amazing works lining the shelves if not for the stiffness of Victorian critics – now that one just stings! A voice such as Hardy’s should never have been quenched but it was…

This book has a startling number of twists and turns, is remarkably unconventional and fantastic for anyone who enjoys studying literature. Hardy at his very best.

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