Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (4/5)

The back says: ‘You are Joseph the dreamer of dreams, dear Jude, and a tragic Don Quixote. And sometimes you are St Stephen, who while they were stoning him, could see Heaven opened. O my poor friend and comrade, you’ll suffer yet!’

Jude Fawley, a stone-mason, has already suffered. His academic ambitions were thwarted by his poverty and class: trapped into a loveless marriage, he is now alone but not free. He comes to love his cousin Sue who, seemingly emancipated, is herself miserably married. Sue’s words to Jude are prophetic, for although together they defy conventional morality to seize the chance of happiness, they are ultimately defeated by both circumstance and flaws within their own nature.

Thomas Hardy’s last novel is focused on the themes of sex and marriage. The tragedy of Jude’s struggle for happiness is intensified by the lack of opportunity for the ordinary man to improve his lot, despite the change and developments of Victorian society.

I say: I will start this off by saying that Thomas Hardy is one of those Brits that I simply cannot get the hang of. His writing just rubs me the wrong way and it doesn’t help that he is incapable of creating characters that I don’t want to slap. However, having said that, I must concede that Jude the Obscure wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The writing flew along nicely enough for the most part, and there weren’t too many long and excruciating painful detailed descriptions of nature, so that wasn’t an issue. This was Hardy’s last novel and it was nice of him to go out with a bang.

And what a bang it was.

Where to even begin with this mess of a novel?

The characters, Jude and Sue in particular, are so foolish and selfish I can’t even know what to say. None of them ever think of the consequences of their actions, and when they arise are quick to blame everybody but themselves. It was so tedious reading about them and I’m inclined to equal it to watching a car crash; you would much rather just walk away and yet a part of you wants to stay put and stare. I know that a lot of people commend him for his ‘realistic portrayal of rural England’ (I have no idea where I even read that), but I cannot for the life of me understand why he chooses to focus on these inane idiots when everyone else appears to be a lot more interesting – and less annoying. Granted that everyone in this novel is selfish, but Phillotson is at least somewhat noble.

Prior to reading this my two least favourite female characters in literature were Tess in Tess of the D’urbervilles by (surprise, surprise) Hardy, and Bella Swan in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Now I think I may have found a character to rival both – at the same time – squared – to the second power – Sue.

She is the eternal victim. Even when she is to blame, she will pretend to own it, but actually lays it all on ‘her nature’ and therefore manages to shift the entire blame out of her own reach. All the world and heaven are conspiring against her/them, and they, the poor souls, “are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men!” (p. 410).

For eff’s sake!

The plot, I hardly even want to think about. In short, Jude wants to go to university but is too poor, meets women (one of them being Sue), works as a stone-mason all over Wessex due to his own stupidity. Just when you are convinced that things cannot possibly get any worse – they do. Of course. And all by the characters’ own doing. If they could only stop and think before they act, half of their problems would never have existed.

But then this novel would be a mere pamphlet.

Having bashed it to pieces said all that, Hardy does bring up a lot of modern dilemmas/issues, like living together without the benefit of marriage, divorce, people staying in the sphere/class in which they were born. I’m actually a tad impressed that he handled the issues with such care and intelligence respect.

Now to conclude, here’s the thing about me and dear old Hardy – or, rather me in particular. I love to hate things and I love to love the things I hate. It’s a thing, I’ll speak to someone about it someday soon, I promise. I don’t like this novel; the characters piss me off, the plot was a mess, the writing was Hardy and yet, I recognise that it’s a good novel.

It’s weird, right!?

Would I read it again? Yes, I would. But only to piss myself off – and that, in itself, is a testament to why I need (more) professional help. Thomas Hardy is my eternal literary nemesis. He is the Voldemort to my Harry Potter. Or maybe he’s the Potter to my Mort. However that works, Jude the Obscure gets a 4/5 because as much as I hate it, I also love like it, and I’d encourage absolutely everyone to read it (especially those in need of punishment).

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