I’m not that mature in life to understand why great novels mostly end with tragic results: the Great Gatsby is murdered, Anna Karenina kills herself, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles gets executed. If you could have Gatsby getting married to Daisy, and Anna Karenina happily ever after with Vronsky, those novels would not have left such impact as they are known. Even so, I sincerely hoped that Jude the Obscure, the last novel by Thomas Hardy, would be the last tragedy for me to read before discovering the delights of falling in love, getting married, and having children. Jude the Obscure plainly denies all such pleasures in life with a stark portrayal of a young stonemason who gets refused an education, failed in marriage, lost his children and ultimately perished at the abandoned room overlooking the college festivity he has so ardently yearned for.
Hardy is palpably a pessimistic writer. The young Jude’s hope and ambition for a scholarly career in Christminster is instilled at the same time with fear and wariness for his future. Hardy cruelly deprives childhood of the bliss of innocence and instead burdens it with perpetual loneliness and incredible vulnerability that later become the source of profound disappointments and frustrations in adulthood.
Somebody might have come along that way who would have asked him his troubles, and might have cheered him by saying that his notions were further advanced than those of his grammarian. But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world.
Throughout Jude’s ill-fated pursuits for academics and Sue, his ‘will’ is depicted so trifle and powerless against the external forces–class, religion, tradition, and societal values–that are pertinent to his place on Wessex but strikingly unsympathetic to his honest aspirations. His own abilities and potentials never succumbs to the socioeconomic barrier towards college education. Having failed his prior marriage to Arabella, the earthy barmaid, Jude could not bring himself to apply his love for Sue to the Christian conventions of matrimony. None of the major characters are capable of sustainable and productive relationships outside of their base–even the initially respectable teacher-pupil relationship between Jude and Phillotson later mutilated into sexual rivalry.
Contrary to my expectation, the university theme was less important in Jude the Obscure than the marriage theme–his “meretricious” bond with Arabella and his imploring desire for Sue. I was mildly repelling to the premise of Jude’s carnal desires triumphant over his ambitions. Even Sue, the freethinking ‘New Woman’ turns out to be an obscure low woman when she fails to adjust herself to the discipline in the Training School and escapes into a reckless life with her cousin. To my yet immature eyes, Arabella seems to the only character in the novel with something resembling integrity, for her wants only remained unchanged throughout the novel.
Hardy is a great writer. For too many times I was overwhelmed by his gravitating prose. But I would like to stay away from him for a while when I want to stay positive for the things I want to accomplish. But my natural love for great novels may pull me again into this bottomless despair of Hardy’s protagonist, for I still have Tess of the D’Urbervilles unread. But for the time being I want to brighten up… Is there any novel that both grasp happiness and greatness at the same time?