peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 05 05 Hardy JudeTheObscure

Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure

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After seeing Jude a few weeks ago, I thought I'd give the book a go, and am glad I did. Hardy's prose is nowhere as stodgy as that of his fellow Victorian Dickens [1]. While the plot drags at times, and his characterisation of female traits somewhat lamentable, on the whole the novel chugs along quite pleasantly. It's a bit like reading George Orwell: the social politics dominates (and sometimes lays waste to) all else, in a readable way.

Apparently the canoncity of Hardy's text is unclear; the Penguin classic I obtained from UNSW Library, dated 1998, has the accoutrements of an academic treatise. I particularly disliked the endnotes, as one couldn't readily tell if they were usefully explaining some classical or geographical reference or merely pointing out where the various texts differed.

I can't resist reproducing the following, from Part Sixth, Chapter 1 (p326 in the book I read):

But finding himself the centre of curiosity, quizzing, and comment, Jude was not inclined to shrunk from open declarations of what he had no great reason to be ashamed of; and in a little while was stimulated to say in a loud voice to the listening throng generally:

'It is a difficult question, my friends, for any young man — that question I had to grapple with, and which thousands are weighing at the present moment in these uprising times — whether to follow uncritically the track he finds himself in, without considering his aptness for it, or to consider what his aptness or bent may be, and re-shape his course accordingly. I tried to do the latter, and I failed. But I don't admit that my failure proved my view to be the wrong one, or that my success would have made it a right one; though that's how we appraise such attempts nowadays — I mean, not by their essential soundness, but by their accidental outcomes. If I had ended by becoming like one of these gentlemen in red and black that we saw dropping in here by now, everybody would have said: "See how wise that young man was, to follow the bent of his nature!" But having ended no better than I began they say: "See what a fool that fellow was in following a freak of his fancy!"

'However it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten. It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one; and my impulses — affections — vices perhaps they should be called — were too strong not to hamper a man without advantages; who should be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig to have a really good chance of being one of his country's worthies. You may ridicule me — I am quite willing that you should — I am a fit subject, no doubt. But I think if you knew what I have gone through these last few years you would rather pity me. And if they knew' — he nodded towards the college at which the Dons were severally arriving — 'it is just possible they would do the same.'

'He do look ill and worn-out, it is true!' said a woman.

Sue's face grew more emotional; but though she stood close to Jude she was screened.

'I may do some good before I am dead — be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story,' continued Jude, beginning to grow bitter, though he had opened serenely enough. 'I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness, that makes so many unhappy in these days!'

'Don't tell them that!' whispered Sue with tears, at perceiving Jude's state of mind. 'You weren't that. You struggled Nobly to acquire knowledge, and only the meanest souls in the world would blame you!'

Jude shifted the child into a more easy position on his arm, and concluded: 'And what I appear, a sick and poor man, is not the worst of me. I am in a chaos of principles — groping in the dark — acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of opinions, but they droped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I cannot explain further here. I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine, — if, indeed, they ever discover it — at least in our time. "For who knoweth what is good for man in this life? — and who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?"

The movie concludes at what I think was an opportune point in the plot; the denouement merely repeats and reinforces the social commentary of the above form, driven by some under-explained female hysterics and scheming.

[1] gifted me this fantastic URL:,_why_wasn't_I_born_old_and_ugly?.