Martine's Reviews > Jude the Obscure

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
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's review
Jul 21, 2008

liked it
bookshelves: british, film, nineteenth-century, psychological-drama
Recommended for: people in need of some good old-fashioned tragedy
Read in September, 1996

If it weren't for the fact that it's somewhat whiny and depressing (and that's putting it mildly), Jude the Obscure would be an ideal book for secondary school pupils struggling with their book reports. See, the way Hardy wrote the novel, the reader is not required to think for himself about what the characters are like and why they suffer the misfortunes they do. Hardy spells it all out for him, mostly by having the characters analysing themselves and each other ad nauseam. Thus the reader is told that the ambitious stone mason Jude is a 'purblind, simple creature' whose scandalous relationship with his free-spirited cousin Sure is doomed to fail because Sue is an 'ethereal, fine-nerved, sensitive girl, quite unfitted by temperament and instinct to fulfil the conditions of the matrimonial relation ... possibly with scarce any man' (subtle foreshadowing, that) and who, for all her modern ideas, doesn't 'have the courage of [her] views', as she helpfully informs Jude (and the reader) in one of the many dialogues in which her character is discussed at length. Hardy spends so much time spelling out his protagonists' psychological quirks (usually in the form of dialogue) that it borders on the absurd. As a lazy twenty-something reader, I loved this tendency of his (it even struck me as very good characterisation), but when I reread the book last weekend, I wanted to find myself a time machine, head for 1893 and hand Hardy the OED page on which the concept of subtlety is explained, as well as a plaque reminding him to 'Show, Don't Tell', to be put over his writing desk and memorised afresh before each new chapter. Seriously. The characterisation is that overblown.

Hardy's tendency to beat his reader over the head with psychological insights is not the only thing about Jude the Obscure which would make a modern creative writing teacher reach for his red pen. The author also makes the mistake of adding a child to the story who talks and behaves as no other child has ever been known to. His unlikely inclusion and the even more unlikely resolution to his storyline are so preposterously overdramatic and sentimental that they ruin what could have been a very good story despite all its flaws. For make no mistake, there's a good story hidden in there somewhere. There's some genuine tragedy in this tale about a man who keeps making the same mistakes, a woman who is emotionally incapable of love, and a cruel society which will neither allow them to make their dreams come true nor condone any impropriety. As an indictment of Victorian marriage laws and social intolerance, Jude the Obscure is quite effective (it caused an outrage on its initial publication, and understandably so; one can only wonder what the irate Victorian audience would have made of the uncensored draft of the book, which contained even more offensive scenes). As a requiem to dreams, an exploration of happiness versus duty and a lesson not to get side-tracked from one's dreams by false sentiments, it's a powerful read -- or so it would be if it weren't for Hardy's penchant for histrionics and unsubtle characterisation. Pity he didn't have a modern creative writing teacher to teach him the ropes. For all his talent, he really could have done with one here.
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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Jul 21, 2008 12:37PM) (new)

Kelly Wasn't this novel the one most colored by the tragedies in his own life? I've always thought that's why it was so over the top. You're justified in your criticism, and that doesn't make it any better. I just think he may have been.. trying to get some stuff out here.

Martine Well, that depends on what you mean by tragedies. True, Hardy's background was a bit like Jude's (his father was a stone mason and he never went to university). Like Jude, Hardy got estranged from his increasingly religious wife, and like Jude, he may have had a crush on a cousin. Are these tragedies, though? I suppose they might be. And I suppose they may have added to the over-the-topness of the novel. Personally, though, I think Hardy was so eager to demonstrate the cruelty of the marriage laws and of society (in general -- not specifically in relationship to himself) that he wanted to make his message clear and emphatic, and subtlety be hanged. And boy, did society prove him right with its response to the novel. But yeah, the fact that he had personal experience of the things of which he tells may have affected his writing style, as well. It definitely added the flavour of authenticity to the book.

What I'm wondering about now is whether Hardy's other novels are equally unsubtle. I don't remember them being that way, but then I didn't remember this one being so particularly unsubtle, either. I'm going to have to do some rereading...

Martine I love Jasper Fforde. I wish I'd found a way to incorporate what you just said in my review...

I think he's right, too. :-)

Orsolya I never really considered how Hardy over-describes characters but with your "show, don't tell" philosophy; I realize what you mean and view his works in a slightly new way.

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