Jude the Obscure
The Simpletons or, as it was entitled after the first instalment, Hearts Insurgent, was serialised in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in twelve instalments, running from December 1894 to November 1895. Hardy had been obliged by the editor to bowdlerise his text lest the readership should be offended. He undid most of these enforced alterations for the publication of the work in book form, by Osgood, McIlvaine, in November 1895, under the title Jude the Obscure.
In the Life Hardy identifies the probable ‘germ’ of the novel in a note recorded in April 1888: ‘A short story of a young man – "who could not go to Oxford” – His struggles and ultimate failure. Suicide.’ Jude’s career could be said to match all but the last word of this summary. In his Preface to the novel, however, the author proposes a different, or a further emphasis. He is writing about ‘a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit’. Jude, a self-educated young man from a humble rural background, cannot gain admission to Christminster (the fictionalised Oxford), but he has in any case been temporarily distracted from his educational ambitions by the claims of the flesh, as represented by the sensual Arabella. Later he falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, educated and daring, a ‘new woman’, but with a sexual instinct, in Hardy’s words ‘unusually weak and fastidious’. The situation, in short, is a mirror-image of that in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with the man, in this case, caught between contrasting kinds of love. The plot is accordingly, as the author remarked in a letter to a friend ‘almost geometrically constructed’.
Jude differs from most of the Wessex novels in several essential respects: Hardy chooses not to make use of some of his characteristic strengths. So far from there being a presiding context, such as Casterbridge or Egdon Heath, the characters are shown to be constantly on the move. The titles of the various ‘Parts’ make this clear: ‘At Marygreen’, ‘At Christminster’, ‘At Melchester’ and so on. In consequence there is relatively little description of physical background. Nor does work feature: Jude is a stone-mason, but we are told nothing about his training or his professional capabilities.
Jude and his cousin Sue have both been well educated, if by different routes, and both are in general terms emancipated and progressive: Jude observes near the close that ‘our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us’. Hardy’s concern is with the modern consciousness, which he explores partly through direct debate between troubled characters, and partly by bluntly expressionistic episodes and details. Incidental authorial comments make it clear that he shares the pessimism of his main characters. He remarks, as early as the second chapter, that Jude’s tender-heartedness means that he is set to be ‘the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal before the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life should signify that all was well with him again’. After this defining observation few readers will expect a happy ending. The interest is to lie in the ways in which the lives of Jude and Sue can go wrong, and the arguments, the protestations and the defeats that their misfortunes are to precipitate.
When it was first published the novel aroused a storm of protest on the grounds of its alleged indecency. The Bishop of Wakefield announced that he had burned his copy. Hardy claimed in his 1912 Preface to the work that this furore ‘completely [cured] me of further interest in novel-writing’.
A filmed version of the novel, directed by Michael Winterbottom, appeared in 1996, starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet as Jude and Sue.
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