Jude Fawley has dreams of Making It Big in the Big City. He's going to shake the dust of his village off his feet and move to the (fictional) city of Christminster to go to college and become a great minister. Along the way, though, he suddenly finds himself in a good old Boy meets Girl story—a surprising event for a kid who initially wants to be a priest. Yep, the plot of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy sounds like a modern chick flick when you summarize it this way—like something straight out of Love Actually but with fewer Christmas carols.
The catch is that Jude the Obscure first got published as a complete novel in 1896, over a hundred years before modern romantic comedies. And Hardy takes risks with the themes of this book that you don't find much in movies now, let alone in novels back then. For its time, Jude the Obscure was incredibly controversial. Hardy's approach to subjects like love, marriage, class, religion, and sex didn't jive with the views of a lot of The Powers that Be, and some of those Powers weren't above banning or burning the book.
As proof of the novel's outlaw status early on, Jude the Obscure got heavily censored during its 1895 pre-book run as a serial in a magazine (which is like the Victorian version of HBO's multi-episode miniseries). The magazine version was a lot tamer than the final novel edition, with the two lovers at the center of the book living in houses next door rather than sharing a place. The harsher, more straightforward version of Jude the Obscure that we read today only came out in 1912, after some of the scandal of the novel had died down (source).
Sure, Hardy was writing at the end of the 19th century, but he could clearly see a lot of issues coming his way that would be huge in the centuries to come. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy tackles the moral and legal status of marriage (hello, 2013!) women's liberation, loss of religious faith, and problems of conformity and social isolation way before most British authors would dare take them on.
Consider, for example, his main woman character Sue Bridehead: she rejects a lot of broader Victorian assumptions that women should be wives above all else. She also frequently criticizes the Christian Church and its strict views on sexual morality and the sacredness of marriage.
As we come to admire Sue for her freethinking ideas and her efforts to build a life for her family outside of Victorian social norms, we also have to cry for her as she suffers horribly for her unpopular social attitudes. Sue Bridehead is a great example of a square peg in a round hole: she just doesn't quite fit in anywhere—something we've all felt at one time or another. This book presents a brutal picture of what happens when an individual goes up against larger, accepted social standards. Hint: society totally wins—at least according to Hardy's dark worldview.
Along with that other, equally grim major Hardy classic Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure stands as one of Hardy's most important works of social commentary. This one does not get quite as much press as Tess, perhaps because of its darker, more complex, even bitter treatment of morality and injustice. Tess may be tough to take emotionally speaking, but Jude the Obscure really takes the cake in the Misery Olympics.
Like Tess, Jude explores essential Hardy themes such as gender in Victorian England, the disappearance of rural life, and the emotional and social problems of trying to find someone to love in this crazy world of ours. Jude also provides an in-depth look at Hardy's later views on marriage, the Church, and middle-class morality more generally.
And while we keep ribbing on Hardy for the doom and gloom of his portrayal of these themes, we have to give him credit: Jude the Obscure is a fabulous, engaging novel that makes us really care about the characters in spite of—or perhaps because of—all of the terrible things that they face.
We all make plans for how things are supposed to go. Maybe we have a particular job we want to do, a place we want to travel, a special someone we want to stay with forever. But in a lot of cases, what's supposed to happen is precisely the opposite of what does happen. And sometimes—maybe even most of the time—in real life, what does actually happen has some value. Failure can teach us a lot about how to bounce back from our bad luck and from our mistakes.
But Thomas Hardy isn't so interested in stories about the redeeming value of making things work against all odds. He's more of a glass-half-empty kind of guy. For characters in Jude the Obscure, when life gives them lemons, they make poison. One of the amazing things about reading this novel is that, whenever something can go wrong in this book, it really, really goes off the rails.
So, we start out with Jude Fawley, a young guy with scholarly ambitions who gets married early to a girl who is clearly wrong for him. His wife Arabella runs off, leaving him for Australia, and Jude hooks up with his soul mate Sue Bridehead. The thing is, Sue is also already married. And the 1890s were not a great time socially speaking to Live In Sin with someone who happens to be married to someone else. Jude and Sue's decision to pursue the life they want together leads to desperate, poverty, betrayal, and even murder (cue dramatic music).
We all know what it's like to fail: it's horrible. And sometimes, when we are feeling kind of down, we like to grab that box of Kleenex and curl up with a truly over-the-top melodrama that'll remind us that, hey, things could be a lot worse.
Jude the Obscure is a perfect choice for that kind of blue mood. It includes lots of philosophical Deep Thoughts and social criticism, but at its heart, it's about a terrible personal tragedy. And reading about the doomed struggles of Jude and Sue makes us glad that we're living our lives in the here and now—and that our failures, in comparison, seem thankfully small.