"Jude the Obscure" is a novel, first published in 1895, that is considered to be the masterpiece of its author, Thomas Hardy. Much like The Mayor of Casterbridge, it provides a linkage between the sentimental, stylized novels of Victorian times, and the modern, realistic works of the 20th Century. At the time of its publishing, its content was considered scandalous in its depiction of extramarital sex, but in the present day, it is very tame in that regard.
The basic plot of "Jude the Obscure" is that Jude Fawley, an intellectually gifted but poor young man, dreams of going to university, but instead becomes a stonemason. A naive young man, he is tricked into marriage at a young age by Arabella Donne, a more experienced woman. The marriage doesn't work out, they separate, and he later meets his cousin, Susan Brideshead, who quickly becomes engaged to Richard Phillotson, an older man who was previously the tutor of Jude. Susan is a liberated young woman, or at least supposes herself to be, and leaves her husband to live with Jude. (In the book, and at the time, them being cousins is not a problem. Them both being previously married, however, is.) The book follows their declining emotional and financial status at a time when being divorced meant being an outcast from society.
I wrote a bit about The Mayor of Casterbridge, and most of what I wrote there very much applies to this book. At times, Jude the Obscure is a socially and psychological realistic novel that shows the personal consequences of people trapped in restrictive and demeaning social norms. But at other times, the soap opera like contrivances of the book's quadrangle, as the two pairs break up and rejoin, and lost children are rediscovered, is painfully melodramatic. This comes to a head in the book's key scene: Jude and Arabella's son, called "Father Time" for his precocious seriousness, murders Jude and Susan's children, and then commits suicide, because he feels that the children are keeping his parents in poverty. When I read the scene, I was confused, because while I thought I had been following the text closely, I missed the fact that several years had passed, and Susan had children by Jude. The children are, in fact, never mentioned or given personalities, except for their role as sacrificial victims to move the plot along. Consider the following line of dialogue:
"We went about loving each other too much -- indulging ourselves to utter selfishness with each other! We said -- do you remember? -- that we could make a virtue of joy. I said it was nature's intention, Nature's law and raison d'etre that we should be joyful in what instincts she afforded us-- instincts which civilization had taken upon itself to thwart. What dreadful things I said! And now Fate has given us this stab in the back for being such fools as to take Nature at her word!"
That speech was given an hour or two after she discovers her two children murdered and her step-son dead by suicide. Within the book, the purpose of the episode is clear: it shows that Susan, despite her claims of liberation, is psychologically unprepared for what that means in real life. But the point is made in a heavy-handed, unrealistic, and tasteless way, with the deaths of three children. Even after their deaths, the psychological crux of the novel is that Jude and Susan divorced their first spouses. Even given the much greater social taboos of the time, the characters seem to wallow in what (to me) seems like a fairly pedestrian situation. Even given the fact that I am reading a novel in 2020
that was written in 1895
, the book seems contrived. Melodramatic circumstances are put together so the author can push the story along in a way that doesn't seem natural.
All of the usual caveats should be applied here: Hardy was writing in a different time and parts of the book that would have made it more coherent couldn't be included due to censorship. The book is historically important. Parts of it are very well written. But as it is now, I just couldn't take it seriously, because such a crucial part of the book felt so contrived.