Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Jude the Obscure... I loved it!

I recently read my first Thomas Hardy book, Jude the Obscure, and I’m dying to discuss it.  I think I had entirely the wrong impression about Hardy because I linked him with the other authors I know who were writing in his era.  Yet when I did a little research about it, I learned that this book specifically received negative attention for being so different than the other literature of the time.  It was banned from a number of places, and there’s even a rumor that a bishop publically burned a copy.  Fortunately for Hardy, he was already a successful writer by this time and this was his last novel anyway.
Let me just start by saying I loved it.  I think the themes are fascinating and multi-dimensional, and the characters are so realistic it almost takes the romance right out of it.  So what made Jude the Obscure so different and controversial?  I think the most obvious reason for this reaction is its treatment of marriage.  Hardy unapologetically exposes the non-romantic aspects of marriage that we usually don’t see in literature.  Multiple characters are unhappy in their marriages, and some of them even acquire divorces, which was highly unusual at the time.  In fact, the female lead character, Sue, proposes not only that couples can be in a happy relationship outside of marriage, but also that this is the only way to be truly content in a relationship.  I imagine that this was a very revolutionary idea in 1895 when it was published.  In fact, I think it’s still a little revolutionary today.  I’m not sure I agree with her, but I can see that we still look at marriage as the primary way to demonstrate love and dedication in a relationship.  In a number of ways, Sue is a strong female figure with intellectual and emotional insight, as well as the courage to challenge the culture’s mindset.  However, my admiration for her eventually morphed into pity, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I’ll move on.
It’s interesting to me that I read Sons and Lovers and Jude the Obscure back-to-back because I think the character formation is similar.  Jude and Sue are both flawed, although I tend to be very forgiving of Jude.  (I happen to like him way better than Paul Morel).  I should have known that anyone with the title “the Obscure” attached to him would be an appealing character for me, but I was surprised by the way I connected with him. 
One of my absolute favorite things in the novel was Jude’s unbreakable attraction to the academic town of Christminster.  It seemed obvious to me that Christminster was Hardy’s fictional name for Oxford, England, and he portrayed it incredibly well.  I had the wonderful opportunity to live and study in Oxford for a year, and it did not take me two seconds to recognize that this was the town Hardy was subtly describing.  The physical description of the buildings and streets was incredibly heart-warming to me as I remembered my time there.  He so intricately expressed the indelible feeling you get in the city knowing that great academics lived and studied there before you.  But part of what made Hardy’s description so accurate was the snobbery Jude encountered from the academics.  In my experience, there is a very real division between those who live in the city as academics and those who live as blue-collar workers.  The people of “Christminster” did not welcome Jude and his love of knowledge, and Jude eventually discovered the two different worlds that preside in this one historic city.  Even though I was there as an academic, I even sensed some of those boundaries from my fellow students simply because I was American.  Nevertheless, I have an enormous amount of love for the city of Oxford and feel as emotionally tied to it as Jude was. 
But perhaps the gritty realism isn’t in the characters individually but instead in their interaction as a couple.  The struggles and concerns of Jude and Sue throughout their relationship remove the “fantasy” aspect of their love story, and yet this is precisely why I found it to be believable.  They face a number of obstacles, but they work through it together.  And then, shockingly, tragedy strikes and challenges their relationship to the very core.
I was absolutely shocked by this tragic twist near the end.  I honestly did not see it coming at all, although hindsight is 20/20, of course.  In fact, as I was reading in public, I think I noticeably gasped and clasped my hand over my mouth.  (Hmm, I should probably stop reading in public, because I’ve had other noticeable public reactions reading Lord of the Flies, A Hero of Our Time, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin…)  But seriously, this particular scene in Jude the Obscure really ripped my heart into pieces.  It also completely changed the course of the novel.
I’ve already written so much, so I will stop myself from saying more.  If you have read all this, I am so glad that you took the time.  Clearly, I connected with this novel in a number of different ways, and I hope that this will inspire you to pick up a copy yourself or consider it from a different perspective if you have already read it.  I do have a final question for any readers still looking at this.  If you have read other Hardy novels, do you think that this is similar or considerably different?  I wonder if Jude the Obscure was a bit unusual and I might be surprised in reading Hardy’s more popular works.  Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sons and Lovers

I've had some trouble figuring out what I was going to say about Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.  I read it by the recommendation of friends and fellow book bloggers, but it was not at all what I had in mind.  My earlier impression of Lawrence must be coming from what I've heard of Lady Chatterly's Lover because this was so different.  And when I finished, it took me some time to dissect how I felt about it.  But I did really like it, and I do think it's valuable literature.

Overall, I think there is a lack of excitement in Sons and Lovers.  The plot moves steadily, and there are no significant high moments or thrilling achievements.  I'm not saying it's boring; I'm just saying it's not The Three Musketeers.  Yet I think that the slow pace may have contributed to my uncertain feelings at the end of the novel.  I didn't feel like it was moving toward a dramatic climax, and the one thing that the story seemed to be moving toward wasn't even realized.  (I won't explain this any further to avoid spoiling it for you).  In the nature of the plot, I found that there wasn't even something in particular I was hoping would happen.

However, it didn't take me long to realize the true strength of this novel.  In fact, I was almost startled when it occurred to me because I should have picked up on it right away.  The characters in the story are extraordinarily realistic.  Lawrence so carefully developed each of them that it is hard to believe they are fictional.  Each character of focus has a significant back story to help us understand how he or she become the person in the story.  For example, by learning all about Mrs. Morel's ambitions and desires, we see how her marriage became a bitter disappointment.  This also helps us to understand why she began to live through her children.  And yet it's not so simple as an unhappy marriage.  In a delicate way, Lawrence weaves in an underlying and reluctant love between man and wife.  They fight and they put each other down, but they are bonded in an inseparable way until the very end.

I thought William was going to be the protagonist and was surprised when the focus shifted to Paul.  And somehow, by carefully crafting the personal and emotional details of William, we are prepared for an even deeper understanding of Paul.  As for Paul, he is a tormented character, and I was frustrated with him for most of the story.  However, I could thoroughly understand his actions even when I didn't agree with them.  Even Miriam and Clara, Paul's two loves, have a significant amount of depth to them.  They are very different women, and their respective attraction to Paul comes from unique needs and desires.  Naturally, this adds dimension to the relationships he has with each of them.  There is just nothing silly or frivolous in this novel.  All of the characters are flawed and yet so very real.  It feels so profoundly human that I began to view the characters in a different way than I usually do for fictional people.  I think I was processing their motives and feelings on a deeper level because they themselves have so much depth.

Despite the remarkable realism in the characters, Lawrence somehow achieves this subtly.  He is not imposing the background stories on the readers or forcing us to attach ourselves to them.  In fact, in my opinion, there's not a single character we are meant to really love.  There are no heroes, and yet this is the genius of it.

Although I enjoyed it, I don't think I'll be rereading Sons and Lovers.  The characterizations are not enough for me to go back repeatedly to the text the way an exciting plot might pull me in again.  I read somewhere that this is Lawrence's most autobiographical work, which is probably how he managed to create such realistic characters.  So I have a feeling his other works may be more exciting, and I will read them at some point.  But for now, I just want to rest in admiration of how truly human these characters seemed to be.  What do you think of the novel?  Was this similar to your experience?