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on Jude the Obscure- A Young Man's Struggle


Thomas HardyJude the Obscure subtitled The Letter Killeth, is the story of a young man's struggle to balance the demands of his physical and spiritual natures. Paradoxically, this seeker of knowledge is only dimly aware of the real world obstacles that block the path to fulfillment of his dreams. He seems to lack the common sense necessary to succeed at what he undertakes. Within him, the spirit and the flesh are perpetually in conflict, and his beliefs constantly bring him into conflict with the conventional thinkers around him. If he were to wholeheartedly support one side or the other, that side would prevail. As he lacks the insight to do this, and lacks the stamina to sustain the spirit and the flesh , he "dies a virtuous victim . . . by marriage is his end brought about."(1) He curses the day he was born and he perishes.

Our first introduction to Jude takes place in the village of Marygreen. He is a kind- hearted boy of eleven, who has been orphaned through the deaths of his parents, and who now lives with a curmudgeon of an aunt. We learn of his kindheartedness and latent spirituality when he suggests that the teacher, who is leaving for Christminister, store his piano in the boy's aunt's fuel-house until he is ready to send for it. "'A proper good notion', said the blacksmith."(2) We learn of his physical strength when he brings water from the well, for "Slender as was Jude Folly's frame, he bore the two brimming house-buckets to the cottage without resting." (3)

We learn more from the aunt of Jude's scholarly potential and of his future affinity for Sue when his aunt says, "The boy is crazy for books, that he is. It runs in our family rather. His cousin Sue is just the same. . . ." 4 Though a child of the working class, Jude dreams of attending college at Christminister, Hardy's literary Oxford. He demonstrates his intellect by studying Greek and Latin on his own. As he grows older, he combines work with study. In his mid-teens, he reads Latin while driving a wagon to deliver his aunts baked goods. His inability to see practical matters is evident when he concentrates so hard on his reading that he runs other people off the road. Thus, even at this early age, this unconventionality puts him in conflict with those around him, "a private resident of an adjoining place informed the local policeman that the bakers boy should not be allowed to read while driving, . . . The policeman thereupon lay in wait for Jude, and want day accosted and cautioned him."(5) Growing older, to support himself and his studies, Jude apprentices as a stone mason. Stone Masonry requires a man who is strong physically and who as some artistic talent. (Perhaps the perfect occupation for a working class man with a bent for learning.) The robustness of his physical health and of the health of his ability to dream and imagine, are further illustrated by his later entry into Christminister--he "was now walking the remaining four miles rather from choice than necessity, having always fancied himself arriving thus."(6) The physical and spiritual aspects of Jude's life are also represented symbolically by the two main female characters of the story, his wife Arabella, and the woman he really loves, Sue Bridehead.

Sue and Arabella represent Jude's spirit and flesh. "Allegorically we can see Arabella as flesh and Sue as spirit, with Jude caught in between."(7) According to Alvarez, physical desire for Arabella leads Jude away from the things of the spirit (learning, Latin, the NewTestament): conversely, the spiritual side of Jude's relationship with Sue is threatened by her lack of sexual drive."(8) Because of his inability to balance the two aspects of his life, symbolized by the influence of these two woman, he is twice thrown off from pursuit of his proposed careers. Because of his disastrous marriage with Arabella, into which he was trapped under false circumstances, he sees his academic career derailed; and because of his enthrallment with Sue, he has his pursuit of a religious career brought to an end. Jude says, "Strange that his first aspiration--- towards academical proficiency- had been checked by a woman, and that his second aspiration--- towards apostleship--- had also been checked by a woman." 9

Sue and Arabella entwine Jude throughout his adult life. "Sue and Arabella are in fact like the white and black horses, the noble and base instincts, which drew Plato's chariot of the soul"10 The spiritual, represented by Sue, seems the dominant in Jude, or at least it is the part he tries to emphasize the most. The affinity between Jude and Sue is obvious to Sue's lawful husband, Phillotson, who says "' I have been struck," he said, "with . . . the extraordinary sympathy or, similarity, between the pair. . . . they seem to be one person split in two."(11)

Jude's love for the ephemeral , and its affect on practical matters, is foreshadowed in the scene from his childhood where he loses employment by a neighbor farmer. The neighbor has hired him to drive away the birds that come to eat the farmer's grain out of his fields. Rather than chasing them away, Jude sympathizes with them, seeing them as "gentle friends and pensioners". The farmer returns in time to hear him say, "Eat then my dear little birdies, and make good meal." After beating him, the farmer pays him off and dismisses him from service. This sets the pattern for his entire adult life. Sue herself is referred to as a little bird, and throughout the story, Jude sets aside practical concerns for the sake of his relationship with Sue.

Sensuous Arabella, first seen with the most self-indulgent of barn yard animals, the pig, wakens Jude to an awareness of sex and sexuality. Ever practical, she wants a strong man, a good provider, to look after her. She cares nothing for the ephemeral, she is only interested in meeting her needs. As a practical consideration , she traps Jude into marriage by claiming to be pregnant. She has absolutely no use for Jude's intellect or his sensitivities, and intends to dispose of his scholarly pursuits at the earliest convenience. After she wakens the earthly side of Jude's nature, Jude quickly finds his interest in higher pursuits giving way to the urgency of Arabella's sexual appeal, "Arabella soon reasserted her sway in his soul. He walked as if he felt himself to be quite another man from the Jude of yesterday. What were these books to him? what were his intentions? . . It was better to love a woman than to be a graduate, or a parson; ay, or a pope!"

Jude is unable to find a balance between his spiritual and physical needs. His sensitivities, as represented at his occasional efforts to return to his books leads him into conflict with the necessities of the flesh and practical considerations. This conflict is shown when the time comes for them to kill and butcher a pig they had raised. He kills the pig in a manner that allows it to die quickly and with less suffering; but which makes the meat worth less than it would have been had the pig bled to death slowly. The next day, he becomes livid with anger when she announces she was "mistaken' about her pregnancy, and their first marriage ends (unofficially at least) with her going to Australia with her parents. He has turned out to be less practical than she had thought. After she leaves, he acts as if he was never really in love with her at all, else he would have been more forgiving when he learned she "mistaken" about being pregnant. In the first weeks of their separation, he has many opportunities before she leaves the country to try to reconcile with her- but, he does not. Instead, he "strolled in the starlight along the too familiar road towards the upland whereon had been experienced the chief emotions of his life. It seemed to be his own again."(12)

Arabella returns again years later to wreak further havoc in Jude's life. At the time of her return, he has had a rarified, spiritual and intellectual union with Sue; but, no physical union. Sue from the first brought a different sort of rapture to Jude than that of Arabella; a knowledge of the mind, rather than of the flesh. His love for Sue begins in a purely intellectual manner. At first, he is in love with her picture, with the idea of her. Later, he goes to Christminister with dreams of what it will be like to meet her. After he finds her, he watches her and goes to the same church as she, but doesn't introduce himself until later. In the first church service he attends at the same time as she he feels the highest sense of ecstasy and oneness, just knowing they are listening to the same music.

The immediate affect of Arabella's return is that in order to hold onto Jude at all, Sue yields to him sexually. Thus the element of the flesh enters what has been an idealized relationship. Although she surrenders to his pleas for a physical union, she "isn't a woman at all, but a fey, a kind of sprite." Sue loves the idea of marriage, of the idea of her oneness with Jude. Before the return of Arabella, they have had a Platonic relationship; "she is the untouched part of him, all intellect, nerves and sensitivity, essentially bodiless."13 She is loathe to consummate this relationship physically or to solemnize it in any conventional way, and argues that a lawful wedding would be "destructive to a passion whose essence is its gratuitousness."(14)

Less immediate is the overall affect the return of Jude's fleshly aspect , in the person of the son of Jude and Arabella. Arabella had apparently left Jude and England not knowing that she really was pregnant. Her son, called "Father Time" because of his dour disposition, enters Jude and Sue's life together at its high point, and presides over the decline of their lives, ending with his suicide after killing the children of Sue and Jude "because we were too menny."(sic) (15) During the years Jude's son is with them, at Aldbrickham and afterward, they 'have returned to Greek joyousness, and have blinded ourselves to sickness and sorrow." (16) Before his son's arrival, Jude's livelihood has consisted mostly of stone work on the churches in the town. Father Time's appearance with Jude and Sue, and their failure to abide by convention, makes Jude and Sue's relationship notorious in the town of Aldbrickham. Their notoriety grows because they have never married in the eyes of English religious and governmental officialdom. Though they actually start down the aisle from time to time, Sue always backs out and Jude always agrees with her reasons. "The unnoticed lives that the pair had hitherto led began, from the day of the suspended wedding onwards, to be observed and discussed by persons other than Arabella." (17) Eventually, their unconventional union alienates the conventional people around them to the point where no decent person will have anything to do with them- or give Jude work. "From that week, Jude and Sue walked no more in the town of Aldbrickham."(18) They travel from town to town for years, until at Kennetbridge, Jude's health breaks down and he resorts to baking cakes shaped like landmark buildings of Christminister to earn enough to live on.

Even after so many years, "Christminister is a sort of fixed vision with him."(19) And he decides to return there. At last, with Father Time and their own two children in tow, Jude and Sue return to Christminister on its busiest day, Remembrance Day, or as Jude puts it, "humiliation day for me."(20) The pull of the old dreams, of the old colleges, proves irresistible to Jude. Rather than securing lodgings, he stands, with his wife and children in the rain, to watch the graduates march by, . He pauses to deliver a final harangue, or homily, or eulogy, describing for the gathered crowd how he has not met the goals he set for himself so long ago. He lingers outside after the graduates have passed into the church, to catch a snatch of Latin during the service. Postponing practical considerations in order to ruminate over lost opportunities proves to be a catastrophic mistake, because by the time they set out to find lodgings, it is too late too find a place that will accept the whole family, and Jude seeks lodgings apart from the family. This upsets Father Time to the deepest level of despondency. He believes he and the other children are to blame for Jude having to look else where for a place to stay; and, he is mortified to learn that Sue is going to have another child. The next morning, Sue leaves the children alone to have breakfast with Jude and make plans for the day. When Sue and Jude return to the children, they find them dead, Father Time having hung the smaller children and then himself. The deaths of the children cause the final collapse of Jude's world.

Jude's love for Sue remains undaunted by this tragedy, and he is able to go on despite their loss. The erstwhile logical and passionless Sue, on the other hand, seems devastated. Jude tells a friend, "bitter affliction came to us, and her intellect broke, and she veered round to darkness."(21) Despite all previous professions of the rightness of her relationship with Jude, she now claims to believe that the deaths of the children are some form of divine retribution for the life Jude and Sue have had together, instead of the lives they'd have had with their former spouses. She goes so far as to embrace the conventional view that she is still married to her divorced husband and that Jude is really still married to Arabella. This final abandonment of reason for hysteria in the name of convention is a blow from which Jude can not recover. Rejected by Sue, he is again deceived by Arabella into a drunken marriage, and suffers a further physical breakdown.

After his remarriage to Arabella, Jude remains in Christminister, surrounded by the city of his dreams. Despite severe physical illness and debilitation, Jude's love for Sue remains undaunted. He still loves her and believes that their marriage, the union of their spirits, remains a true marriage despite their legal remarriages to people they detest. He describes his remarriage to Arabella as, "immoral, degrading, unnatural."(22) For Jude, conventional marriage, by the letter of the law, is "acting by the letter, and ' the letter killeth'".23 He makes a final plea for Sue to leave with him, saying, "--you call yourself Phillotson's wife. . . . You are mine.. . . Let us shake off our mistakes and run away together."(24) In his heart, he believes a true marriage is one between the two participants inwhich they know with every fiber of their beings that they are one. He insists to Sue afterher return to Phillotson that whatever the marriage documents say, they are man and wife. He has gone to her through a pouring rain to plead his case before her, knowing that if she spurns him, the exertions of the trip through the rain, to and from Marygreen , will kill him. His final appeal to reason, goes unheeded. He returns through the rain and the cold to Arabella.

Throughout the novel, the characters views of marriage remain fairly constant. Sue sees marriage as a prison or punishment. She likens it to crucifixion and mutilation. Arabella sees marriage as a means to an end, a contract to ease one through the business of living. Arabella is "the Flesh . . . merciless calculation as to what will be profitable to herself" (25)

Jude held two contrary views of marriage at once- as his heart told him marriage should be and as he found it was with Arabella-- an inconvenience at best and a trap at worst. Though in Jude's hopes he views marriage as an exalted state, where spirit and flesh are met and two souls become one, he finds himself frustrated in seeking this union by his inability to balance spirit and flesh. Throughout the novel, he is "tossed like a puppet between the two women- one ready to gratify him whenever they meet, the other holding him on the tip toe of expectation."(26)

Jude is intoxicated before both of his marriages to Arabella. Before the first marriage, he is intoxicated by the urgency of his sexual longing for her; in the second marriage she has gotten him drunk on despair and alcohol, to cloud his reason and trick him again into a sham of a marriage. The only hint of legitimacy in either marriage is that they were presided over by duly appointed representatives of conventional society.

Because each of Jude's choices have led him to infamy, loss, and finally death, it would seem he is totally unaware of the practical aspects of life. His perception of marriage, that the letter killeth, is contrary to the conventional views of the people of the city of Aldbrickham and of the University city of Christminister, and call into question his ability to reason. Seemingly, only a fool would alienate everyone in every town he travels, knocking from pillar to post on a matter of principle. As a matter of principle he and Sue have gone years without marrying, having two children along the way. As a matter of principle, everyone who suspects their fornication refuses to give Judea work. However, Jude is not a fool. A fool could not exhibit his artistic talents, as indicated by his attempted profession and shown to be at full power at Kennetbridge, where he and Sue make a living selling their Christminister cakes. His intellect was and is still powerful.

Intellectually, he is not far removed from where he was when he and Arabella killed their pig, so many years before. After their remarriage, Arabella says to Jude, "you are as bad as when we were first married."(27) While he bungles killing the pig in a profitable manner, it was not for lack of dexterity or because of stupidity. He places the knife exactly where he wants it, so that the poor animal can die quickly and painlessly. Nor would a person of less than average sensitivity have looked on the pig's blood as "a dismal, sordid, ugly spectacle."(28) He would simply not have possessed the imagination to see such a spectacle or to see any other existence but to remain as a slave to Arabella's sexual allure.

A man of average intelligence would have appreciated Arabella's practical side. Everything she does is planned, from catching Jude, to keeping and leaving Jude to finally preparing for Jude's death by setting her sights on Vilbert. Such a man may have felt for the pig about to be butchered, but would not have let these feelings interfere with the business of killing the animal in a way that would bring the greatest profit, and without spilling the blood on the ground that could have been used to make blackpot. Nor would the average man have sacrificed a normal sexual relationship (or perhaps above normal) for a rarified existence with the spritely Sue. Yet Jude is patently impractical.

Only a genius could see life as Jude sees it and be so enthralled with principle and a highly intellectual existence, at the expense of everything he has, including, ultimately his life. His final thwarted, attempt at spiritual union wrecks his already precarious health and leads to his death. Intellectually, he is far beyond the conventional wisdom of Kennetbridge and Christminister and has no place in the social setting of his day. Jude predicts that their unconventional sort of marriage, though shockingly at the time the novel was written, would eventually be commonplace, saying, "Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.

And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessness and ruin on me!"(29) Jude sees that there is no place for him and his views in conventional England. He quotes Job, not only cursing the day he was born, but looking forward to the place where" ' the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. . . .The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master."(30) He then dies, seemingly to the cheers of the Christminister Remembrance Day crowds. 

Works cited

1.Oliphant, Margaret. from Blackwood's Magazine. Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pg. 382

2. Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure, Signet ClassicNew American Library. New York. pg. 14

3.IBID. pg.16.

4.IBID pg 17

5. Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet Classic. pg.37.

6. IBID. pg. 80.

7. Butler, Lance St. John. Thomas Hardy. Cambridge University Press. 1978. New York. pg.121.


9.Hardy,Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet Classic. pg. 215.

10. Alvarez, A. The Poetic Power of Jude the Obscure. Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pg. 421.

11.IBID. pg. 416.

12.Jude the Obscure", Thomas Hardy, Signet Classics pg. 77

13. Alvarez, A. "The Poetic Power of Jude the Obscure". Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pg.417.

14. Hardy,Thomas. Jude the Obscure. signet classic. pg. 268.

15. IBID. 331. 16. IBID. 293

17. Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. signet classics. pg. 293.

18. IBID. 364.

19. IBID. pg. 308

20. IBID. pg. 318

21.Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet Classics. pg. 394.

22.IBID. pg383.

23. IBID.

24. Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet Classics. pp.384-385

25.Oliphant, Margaret. from Blackwood's Magazine. Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pg.383.

26. IBID, pg 382

27. Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet classics. pg.394.

28. IBID. pg.69 29.Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Signet Classic pg. 395.

30. IBID. pg. 398.

Alvarez , A. "The Poetic Power of Jude the Obscure". Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pp.416, 417, 421,

Butler, Lance St. John. Thomas Hardy. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1978. pg.121

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure, Signet Classic. New American Library. New York. pp. 14, 16, 17, 37, 69, 77, 80, 215, 268, 293, 308, 318, 364, 383, 394-385, 394, 395, 398

Oliphant, Margaret. from Blackwood's Magazine. Jude the Obscure, A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Norman Page. W. W. Norton & Company. 1978. pp.382, 383