jueves, 22 de diciembre de 2011

Marriage under scrutiny - A review of Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

In the postscript to the preface of Jude The Obscure, Thomas Hardy quotes a German reviewer of the novel. Sue Bridehead, the heroine, was described there as “the first delineation in fiction of the woman … of the feminist movement – the slight pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualised, emancipated bundle of nerves” that modern conditions were producing. The book’s reception ‘cured’ Hardy of the desire to write another novel, and all of the above happened before the dawn of the twentieth century.

Jude The Obscure is a novel about relationships within marriage. Hardy’s opinion was that legal ties between men and women ought to be breakable once the union had achieved dysfunction. It was an opinion that differed from that expected by the age. It prompted a bishop to burn the book, rather than the writer, who was unavailable at the time.

Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley was adopted into a baker’s family, and harboured an ambition to self-teach himself into a classical education in Christminster’s learned colleges. His schoolmaster, Mr Phillotson helped a little. Jude’s ambition was always somewhat far fetched, though he applied himself diligently to his studies and achieved a great deal. In his formative years, he also learned the stonemason’s trade to allow the earning of a living. On a country walk he then took up with Arabella, the daughter of a pig farmer. Having found himself stuck, he tried to learn how to stick real pigs but somehow the penetration never came easy. The couple parted, apparently childless.

Sue, Jude’s cousin and thus a co-member of a family reputed for its marital failures, was always a soul mate for the young man. But she never quite seemed up to the task of giving herself, giving of her self. Thus, when she married Phillotson, the much older, staid and perhaps already failed schoolmaster, his lack of demands on her fit exactly with her assumptions about how married life would progress.

Sue certainly knew what she wanted from life and did everything in her power to secure it. Safety, security, respectability, perhaps property were top of her list. Arabella, the pig farming barmaid who lured the naïve Jude, was similarly single-minded in pursuing her own, rather different interests. After leaving Jude, she takes up with a new man and hops it to Australia, apparently for good.

Sue and Phillotson finally dissolve their marriage by mutual consent to allow Sue to pursue her desires. She and Jude, who love one another dearly, then make their lives together. They do not marry. They live as brother and sister, with lust on one side of the bed and revulsion on the other. A child arrives by train. The wizened-looking boy is Jude’s, Arabella claiming she was pregnant before the couple separated. Sue and Jude offer a home for the waif, and then two more whose family fortunes have fallen on bad times.

And then tragedy appears. Their world falls apart. Sue craves the responsibility of marriage, perhaps merely for the respectability she has lost, so she returns to a new marriage with Phillotson. As before, it’s just for the show of it. Jude develops consumption.

What happens in Jude The Obscure is the meat of the book. How it happens is less important than how the characters justify their actions, effectively their reactions to what life offers in response to their imagined aspirations. How these people seek to justify themselves tells much of what they think is expected of them by others, by the society at large. Thus the novel appears to be a study – even a treatise - in selfishness melded with self-obsession, but this is always shrouded in a coded justification that cites the need for social, societal, even sanctified heavenly approval.

In many ways, Jude The Obscure’s men are its victims, its women coldly triumphant, its tone vaguely misogynist. It has little time for the establishment, which is often portrayed as a conspiracy to promote misery. Christminster, Oxford in other words, is thought of as a great centre of high and fearless thought. But in reality it is “a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.” The alternative, self-congratulatory selfishness did not appear to be much better. Thus Jude The Obscure has much to say about our own time, about public virtue and the need to live according to the socially expected.

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