“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!”
– Sue, in a letter to Jude in Jude the Obscure
This timeless classic happens to be Thomas Hardy’s last prose. It was first published, in an abridged form, as a series in Harper’s Magazine, in 1894, drawing a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. Leaving aside the complex characterisation and strange thread of relationships that Hardy had sewn together, the critics were hung up on the fact that the protagonist falls in love with his distant cousin.
Jude, as most of Hardy’s hero, remains a failure; but a dreamer nevertheless. You may never find another author with more respect for potential than accomplishment. As most of the classics of this era, it is a masterpiece, to be read and re-read. However, in my view there are two things most distinct about this one – the characterisation of the female protagonist, i.e Sue (ably played by Kate Winslet in the movie format) and the dream that used to be Christminster.
Sue remains, in my view, one of the most complex female characters in literature. Readers may find it difficult to reconcile her contradictory moral positions. Perhaps, the reason being that she is a character portrayed way beyond her times, and therefore keeps succumbing to the failings of her era.
Hardy travelled way beyond any author of his time in writing the last part of the book, “At Christminster Again”. He is aesthetically and painlessly interwoven so many themes into this part, that in the first reading, one misses it completely. Without ever being preachy, keeping intact all the essentials of popular fiction, he ventures into ideas as deep as existentialism.
One of the underlying themes of the novel, and probably the one that caused all the scandal and misgivings, is Hardy’s take on the institution of marriage and the Christian dogma. With all the pretensions of secularism, liberty, and free speech of our age, this book is as relevant to us today as it was to the English society at the beginning of last century. However, thanks to these pretensions, there is no scandal anymore.
Disappointed that both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and then Jude drew more the attention of moral critics than literary, Hardy never wrote anything but poetry after this book. Jude remains dear today, to all its readers, for the sheer passion of dream that Hardy so beautifully shares with them.
“But I feel I could do one thing if I had the opportunity. I could accumulate ideas, and impart them to others. I wonder if the Founders had such as I in their minds – a fellow good for nothing else but that particular thing?“
– Jude in Jude the Obscure