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.
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.
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!