This last of Hardy's novels is incomparably better than its predecessor, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The prose is smoother, the story more believable and thus more tragic, and the characters excite real sympathy. Constructed on a smaller scale than Tess, but addressing larger ideas, Jude the Obscure tells of the unhappily ambitious Jude Fawley and his incestuous relationship with his cousin Sue. Despite the repeated foiling of his plans, Jude does not lose his thirst for a university education, and thus cannot be truly happy with his beautiful Sue. His ambition, and society's disapproval of their relationship, ultimately destroys them and their family.
This plunge into misery and despair, a classic feature of Hardy's novels, is accomplished here with ease. Hardy utilises such grisly imagery as graveyards, gibbets and crucifixes at every key point in the novel, without slipping into the sort of sweeping melodrama that stultified the end of Tess. He explored the ideas of class and education, love and marriage, fidelity, religion and atheism with great competence and directness. There is almost a sense of his sticking his fingers in the direction of the Victorian moral police - in which group was included his publisher. The current Penguin Classics edition of Jude the Obscure is taken directly from the "unbowdlerized" 1895 manuscript; the excellent endnotes to this edition indicate the extent of the censorship applied before the book was published in serial form in 1894-1895.
In its original form, Jude the Obscure offers a clear and relevant insight into the mental life of a bygone era. It's a big of a tough read - most readers will find a dictionary useful along the way - but is certainly well worth the effort by the tragic finale. Hardy ranks alongside Dickens as a great social critic of his age.
back to litblog