Jude The Obscure Book Review - Lunchtime Lit With Mel Carriere
Real Books By Real Humans
The magnificent thing about books is that they are still being written by people, not machines. The day that machines start to lay out plot lines, develop characters, and invent dialogue, all via some complicated algorithm programmed by imported techies speaking marginal English, is the day I get a new hobby.
But as of today, novels are still being written by people, and these people often, but not always, draw from their own human experience to create stories that other humans can sometimes relate to.
It is obvious that Thomas Hardy, author of Jude The Obscure, was a real human being, not an algorithm, and that he experienced a specific set of frustrations and disappointments. These setbacks inspired the themes he explored therein. Jude The Obscure was certainly very relevant for its time, being set in Victorian England, a period when people were still being segregated by their status at birth and not by what they were able to make, or not make of themselves, after birth. Whether things have improved since then, or not, is a subject for debate beyond the scope of a mere book review.
Despite the historical circumstances in which it is set, Jude The Obscure still speaks to people today. It most definitely spoke to me, in a way that few other books have. I could identify with the protagonist Jude - struggling to rise above insurmountable obstacles to fulfill his dreams. I could also identify with how his reproductive hormones derailed him from his chosen path. I could feel Jude's pain very acutely, 125 years after it was set down in writing. This, to me, is a sign of a very remarkable book, one for the ages. It also shows that gadgets may change people superficially, but at the core Victorian age hominids are no different than the hominids now - whatever historians and anthropologists are going to label us, 125 years in the future, as they sift through the detritus of our civilization.
So whether you are a lowly mailman like me, or a stonecutter like Jude, there is something in this book for you that speaks of derailed dreams and halted hopes. On the other hand, if you are one of those go-getting, never take no for an answer types who have achieved everything you wanted to regardless of the obstacles, you have my sincere congratulations but maybe this ain't the book for you.
Lunchtime Lit Year To Date Recap * ** ***
Jude The Obscure
*Seventeen other titles, with a total estimated word count of 3,649,830 and 502 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total, for better or for worse.
***I am slogging along as slowly but as powerfully as the San Andreas Fault, trying to catch up. After this there are only three reviews to bring me to date.
Lunchtime Lit Rules and Selection Criteria
Lunchtime Lit reads are chosen via a sophisticated, careful selection process, call it an algorithm if you dare, that sometimes includes begging and outright theft. Jude the Obscure fell into my literary lap more or less along these guidelines. Remember the Simpsons episode where Homer gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday, intending to take it from her when she doesn't use it? Jude the Obscure came my way in a similar fashion. I bought the novel as a present for my son, but when he wasn't quick enough to read it, I confiscated the book under imminent domain.
In said Simpsons episode Marge uses the ball anyway, just to spite Homer, and winds up falling for her suave French bowling instructor, Jacques. That has nothing to do with Jude the Obscure, it's just an amusing aside.
But now that I think about it, Lunchtime Lit books are a little like bowling, because they can only be read on the liquor-less lanes of my half hour Postal lunch break, never taken home. You can't really bowl at home anyway, without breaking some furniture and upsetting the cat. In the same respect, Lunchtime Lit requires a dedicated locale where the literary pins can be knocked about with abandon. No special reading shoes are required on these lanes, just my shady spot in the lee of a church building in fall and winter, then a geographical shift in spring and summer, when the shadows grow short and I cross the parking lot to the cooling trees on the other side.
Man That Was All She Wrote
When I expropriated Jude the Obscure from my son, I expected it to be just another Victorian Era yawn fest, like Wuthering Heights. If nothing else, Lunchtime Lit is a great venue to evaluate those ponderous classics my limited attention span could not otherwise handle. I had no idea I would end up liking the book, or that I would identify with the tragic stonecutter Jude like few other characters have caused me to.
You don't have to be a stonecutter or mailman to get it. The tragic consequences of human hormones, and the cruel way they can derail dreams, is something a lot of us can relate to. As Spruce Bringsteen sings in The River:
Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat
Been there done that? Well, perhaps not as extreme or as dead end sounding as the Boss's lament, but no doubt many of us have taken the plunge for a pretty face, only to snap out of our hypnosis 30 years later and wonder where the hell all the time went.
A similar fate awaits our Obscure protagonist Jude Fawley. Cursed by a blighted background, Jude is inspired by a local schoolmaster to escape from his dreary village and shoot for the steeples of Christminster, a fictional university town just beyond the horizon that was modeled after Oxford, England.
Jude begins a self-taught process of intense study to school himself in Latin and Greek, pouring over dead language classics into the wee hours after a grueling day's toil of cutting stone. But then Jude tragically catches the whiff of woman, which lures him out of his cloistered cell of intellectual pursuits, pretty much to his doom. This tempting vixen is Arabella, a buxom butcher's daughter barmaid. Arabella tricks Jude into believing she is pregnant so that he will marry her, And man that was all she wrote.
Times change, technology changes, human nature does not change. Jude teaches us that despite all the bells and whistles, we remain hopelessly biological beings. A hundred years after Jude's demise, Springsteen was singing the same sad song.
Can Jude Take A Sad Song And Make It Better?
Arabella, whose name sounds somewhat like that of a cow - a creature whose dull personality she somewhat mimics, eventually tires of Jude and deserts him, fleeing to Australia. The reader happily assumes that Jude can now get on with his intellectual endeavors, but instead our protagonist just exchanges one set of girl problems for another. Our tragic hero next falls in love with his cousin, Sue Bridehead. Further complicating matters, lovely Sue also happens to be married.
Nonetheless, Jude and Sue defy Victorian expectations and link up, eventually bearing children. No spoilers here, but not surprisingly the affair ends tragically, more accurately horribly, for everybody.
Throughout the turbulence of his domestic life, Jude maintains his vision of mastering the ancient languages, attending college in Christminster, and being ordained as an Anglican minister. In the late 19th century, there seem to have been no other outlets for the University educated. Still, the few student positions available were reserved for the children of the elite, a fact that is curtly communicated to Jude in a letter rejecting his application:
"Sir,-I have read your letter with interest; and, judging from you description of yourself as a working-man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by" adopting any other course. That, therefore, is what I advise you to do. Yours, faithfully,
"To Mr. J. Fawley, Stone-mason."
In other words, mind your place.
I transcribed this rejection letter exactly as it appears in the book. In doing so, I took note of the strange, incorrect placement of dead-end quotation marks. As such, it doesn't seem like a polished literary creation to me. Instead, it appears to be either an editor's oversight, or an actual rejection letter that author Thomas Hardy received during his own struggle to ascend from obscurity, which he copied and pasted into the novel.
A Deadly War Between Flesh and Spirit
Being the son of a humble stone mason himself, author Thomas Hardy struggled to break out of his own obscurity. Like his fictional hewer of stone, Hardy diligently learned the classics, but lacked the means for a university education. Eventually he was apprenticed to an architect and practiced that trade for a time, until discovering a passion for writing that finally brought him success. Before his swan song Jude The Obscure, Hardy had several what we would today call best-sellers, among them the notable Tess of the d'Urbervilles, another book now considered a classic.
As they led up to Jude, Hardy's novels became more cutting edge and controversial, increasingly putting Victorian morals to the test, which caused the eventual derailment of his prose career. Even by today's standards Jude The Obscure is somewhat shocking - including carnal relations with a cousin and a bizarrely tragic ending for Jude's little family. If some of its plot particulars make me cringe, it is not surprising that proper Victorian readers were completely appalled.
In his preface to Jude, Hardy describes the outrage as a "shrill crescendo" coming from both sides of the Atlantic. One critic said it was the most indecent book ever written. Its detractors called it Jude The Obscene. In his own words, Hardy responded:
"After these verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop - probably in his despair at not being able to burn me."
The backlash from this critical fallout, in fact, drove Hardy to abandon novel writing and turn to poetry for the rest of his writing career.
Still, it is Hardy's novels that have become his legacy, and continue to live on and apply to the lives of humans, a century and a quarter after he stopped writing them. As long as people populate the planet Jude's words and themes will ring true, however biting they might be. Hardy himself referred to the principal theme of Jude as "a deadly war between flesh and spirit." A not much improved century later, The Poetry foundation says that the novel is "characterized by a pervasive fatalism." The Encyclopedia Britannica elaborates this point by adding "Hardy traces these characters' initially hopeful, momentarily ecstatic, but persistently troubled journeys toward eventual deprivation and death." Bummer, huh?
This literary analysis means that, try as they might to jump over the hurdles that beset them, Jude and probably 99 percent of humanity currently living on Earth are going to realize it is not worth the effort, then settle into a life of soul numbing obscurity. In that regard, nothing has really changed between Hardy and now.
How Many Minds Wither On The Vine?
The seemingly pointless striving of Jude Fawley causes me to contemplate certain philosophical and mathematical abstractions. Namely, how can we quantify the loss to humanity's legacy when great thinkers are allowed to lie fallow in the field?
How many minds have withered on the vine without ever being recognized for their abilities, either because they were born into circumstances beyond their control, became trapped in toxic relationships, or were held back by a fatal flaw in character that prohibited them from matching blows with the rats that invariably gnaw their way to the top of the heap? Does one in ten extraordinary minds ever get acknowledged for its brilliance? One in a hundred - a thousand even? Is the next earth shattering theory in physics trapped out there in a timid brain, never to see daylight? Is a Nobel Prize in literature locked in some meek wordsmith's night stand? Is a shrewish, disillusioned wife somewhere, despondent over her poverty, ridiculing her would-be inventor husband's brilliant creation, beating down his confidence to launch a gadget that might ease and simplify all of our lives?
Jude's was a mind that never took flight. Jude The Obscure continues to poignantly point out that a lot of mankind's greatest efforts have been permanently grounded, fictional and otherwise. Old Queens die, new Kings and Queens arise, but the repercussions of the somber story line remain the same.