Obscure no more

When Professor Lesley Goodman left St. Paul to undertake her new responsibilities in the English Department at Union College, she left a long reading list of Victorian novels and modernist literature for me to continue my pursuits. I am slowly following up, though I greatly miss her helping hand. She is an inspired teacher of literature.

In her course on the Victorian novel at Macalester College I reveled in George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Middlemarch is one of the great novels of all time; Tess is one of the great characters of world literature. I highly recommend these novels to your attention.

First on Professor Goodman’s list for me was The Mayor of Casterbridge. I read it and wrote a brief account of the experience here. Next on Professor Goodman’s list for me was Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Once again I want to offer a few cursory notes on the novel for the common reader — “the common reader” whom Virginia Woolf found in Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Gray” — looking for a break from the news of the day.

In his useful summary, Robert McCrum ranks Jude number 29 on his list of the 100 greatest novels. At the risk of embarrassing myself, I declare that I don’t think it’s even Hardy’s best novel, or a particularly good one, yet it is an extremely interesting novel.

When she recommended it to me, Professor Goodman commented that Jude gives us Hardy’s (negative) view of marriage. I think this was one of the novel’s elements that aroused public opinion against it to such an extent that Hardy gave up the craft of fiction for the rest of his long life. From 1895 on, he devoted himself mostly to the revision of his fiction and to the writing of his widely esteemed poetry. Incidentally Paul Fussell begins the first chapter of The Great War and Modern Memory with one of Hardy’s prescient post-Jude poems.

At one point late in the novel, after the characters have debated marriage as an institution, Hardy comments: “The purpose of a chronicler of moods and deeds does not require him to express his personal views upon the grave controversy above given.” Hardy’s disclaimer only serves to emphasize the protest against traditional marriage implicit in the novel’s story and explicit in the novel’s dialogue. Jude disparages both the allegedly sacramental and inarguably legal nature of the marital union.

The novel demonstrates that nature and inclination bring us into conflict with the constraints of marriage. Hardy extends the critique of marriage to religion and to conventional morality generally. Hardy takes as his epigraph for the novel the phrase “The letter killeth,” from Second Corinthians. Hardy ingeniously sought to turn biblical text against itself. The reader cannot miss how deeply personal this element of the novel was for Hardy.

In the context of the campaign for homosexual marriage that has now culminated in its blessing by the Supreme Court, I found Hardy’s protest against marriage a refreshing change of pace. Yet we have lived to see every reform of marriage and liberation in sexual relations that Hardy would have desired. Indeed, they must exceed even Hardy’s capacious imagination. We are living, more or less, in the world that Hardy sought. We find that it has a few problems of its own. If Jude Fawley represents the world as it was coming to be, however, he is obscure no more.

The trouble with the novel, in my view, is the characters through whom Hardy tells the story. Hardy was a realist with tendencies toward naturalism, yet the protagonists here — Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead — are unbelievable. There never was such a man as Jude or such a woman as Sue. They are impossible characters. And in the person of the character called Little Father Time, who appears late in the novel, we have a risible character. Time’s death brought Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens’s little Nell to mind: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

As McCrum notes, Jude exists in a variety of editions. I read an old Signet Classics version with a good afterword by A. Alvarez. Signet Classics gives it in the Wessex Edition of 1912. I think in every edition Hardy works with subtlety and restraint in his portrayal of Jude’s consummation of his relationship with Sue. If you blink your eyes, you’ll miss it at the end of a key chapter:

“There; and there; and there!” He kissed her on one side, and on the other, and in the middle, and rebolted the front door.

This is great stuff and Jude opens a window on to Hardy’s deepest feelings about life and love. Nevertheless, I think Jude is something less than Hardy’s best. I urge interested readers not to miss Tess.

The next novel on Professor Goodman’s list is Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. I love Trollope. The Way We Live Now, however, is a double-decker novel of nearly a thousand pages in the Oxford World’s Classics edition that I chose. This will be my last book report for a while.