Jude the Obscure. Thomas Hardy

 

“The small, tight, apple-like convexities of her bodice, so different from Arabella’s amplitudes”

Jude Fawley is a provincial stone mason with intellectual aspirations. Frustrated by poverty and his inability to make a success of himself at University in Christminster, hamstrung by a failed marriage, his only chance of fulfilment seems to lie in his relationship with his free-thinking, unconventional cousin, Sue Bridehead.  Refusing to be bound by religious convention, they live together but are shunned by society: harrowing tragedy piles on top of relentless misery and inescapable obscurity. As Robert McCrum writes in his brilliant 100 Best Novels series for the Guardian,

 

With brilliant economy, Hardy opens up three themes: the struggle of the poor and disadvantaged to make their way in a bourgeois world; the tyranny of marriage in the lives of women oppressed by a patriarchal society; and the stranglehold on English life inflicted by an established church, defensively circling its wagons in the aftermath of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

For Lionel Shriver, Jude is “a book about struggle and aspiration and frustration; these are themes that young people naturally respond to. i responded to a story about someone who struggles so hard and yet is constantly thwarted and that is the sensation of being young.” When Lionel Shriver was fifteen, she gave up her passion for science fiction to dedicate herself to reading the classics in a “quite systematic” way, making herself a reading list and ploughing through in the true spirit of a committed auto-didact. Having “an appetite for the sorrowful“, she read Dostoevsky and Faulkner as well as Hardy. As she says, “I think I just liked the sensation – it made me feel something and I liked feeling something. The sensation of sorrow in a book is more intense than joy. It’s very difficult to get across joy, it’s a lot easier to manipulate a reader into feeling bad…I liked that sorrow at one remove. That’s what makes it possible to read these books and not kill yourself, right, because it isn’t happening to you really.

Jude in particular made an impact: “I responded to Jude because it’s very anti-religious and it is suspicious of formal education and I’ve been chary about education, which I always found unsatisfying, and also very hostile to religion most of my life and it’s about a man who idolises formal education and has all these religious yearnings but the institutional response to these yearnings and to that idolatory is constantly throwing it back in his face. His life is miserable, he never gets anywhere, the love of his life ends up turning against him because she becomes very religious and feels guilty about the fact they’re not married. And so it’s a book that’s also suspicious of traditional morality and all the rules regarding sex and romance and those rules make everyone miserable in this book and since I was part of a generation that finally didn’t get hysterical about staying a virgin until you got married, I responded to that also. So in a way it’s also an anti-authoritarian book.”
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (Penguin Classics)

 

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