Thomas Hardy, the Populist
In 1895, when Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure was published, Victorian England was hardly ready to accept that novel’s story of a love affair between cousins: Jude, married and estranged from his wife; Sue, married and estranged from her husband. Moreover, Sue is a woman whose mind is restless and inquiring; her frustrations with an age’s conventions and ideals are obvious. To make matters worse, the unmarried couple has three children — one, Little Father Time, Jude’s by his earlier marriage. Toward the end of the novel Hardy has that boy kill his two half-siblings; he leaves behind a note that says, “Done because we are too menny.”
The reception to the novel was stormy. Church officials were especially shocked — and one Anglican bishop ordered the novel publicly burned. Hardy fought back; he insisted that he was not trying to undermine the institution of marriage, but rather indicate (as had novelists before him) the hold sexuality can claim on us, no matter a society’s demands. (Freud was then a young Viennese physician who had yet to write his first book.) However independent a thinker and writer Hardy was, he never wrote another novel — though, of course, over the years Jude the Obscure did become for readers of the 20th century a powerfully suggestive statement, a means by which they could look critically at recent social and religious history.
These days, of course, few readers would blink at the sexuality of Hardy’s last novel. By our standards, alas, the story is quaint, and is narrated with a delicate primness. The instance of a child killing other children still surprises and upsets readers, I am sure — but we who live almost a century after the appearance of Jude the Obscure will be touched simply by a story of yearning love and unrequited love, love impaired or thwarted by the conscience of lovers, never mind the customs of the world around them.
In certain respects, however, this novel continues to challenge its readers, who are surely among the more comfortable and better educated of this earth’s population. Jude Fawley is a stonemason of humble origin who has a strong desire to educate himself. He dreams of mastering Latin and Greek — of becoming a thoroughly civilized, erudite man of letters. He studies at every possible turn, and aims to emulate a local teacher, Mr. Phillotson. His eager, conscientious mind is not unlike that of the melancholy heroes D.H. Lawrence would later offer us — the decent English working-class youth who dares hope (and work) for a much better life, and who soon enough discovers the costs of such ambition.
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