"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. Oh, my poor friend and comrade, you'll suffer yet!"
Had I read this novel at the time of publication (1890s), I probably would have been involved in the outcry in some way. This novel was often referred to as "Jude the Obscene," which in my 21st century reader mind, I find a little exaggerated. But, had I been a normal, everyday reader in Hardy's society, I would have been shocked at the turn of events that take place in the second half of the novel.
Where the first half of the novel meandered through the beginnings of Jude's life and his troubles, the second half rages on, throwing Jude, Arabella, and Sue into a whirlwind of dramatics and intrigue. The pastoral descriptions of the landscape and cities seems to disappear as the characters begin and continue to push the boundaries of acceptability in their communities.
It is hard to talk about the ending of the novel without talking about the shock value Hardy seems to employ. And while I do think he pushed his characters and their situation to the edge and beyond of what was deemed acceptable for society, I don't think he did it just for shock value. I believe, based on my readings of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure, that Hardy simply does what his character desire him to do. In Mayor, he has a man sell his wife in the opening pages. But that is what is needed to propel that character forward into the actions later on in the story.
So when Hardy pushes the limits in regards to marriage, sex, class, and society in Jude the Obscure, he does it because it fits the characters. Jude is a poor man who works for everything he does have. And in that time period, class mattered when it came to religion, education, and societal views. I really do believe that as a person in the lower class and in poverty or slightly above, you are looked down on MORE for doing things against societal norms. But that also ties in issues of education and opportunity as well.
But as an individual on the bottom tier of society, and for being slightly different, Jude has to battle things that others in wealthier positions do not. He must also battle the negative legacy of his family. And I strongly believe that Hardy knew that. He had to create a character that had demons to fight, as well as a man who would push the boundaries of societal expectations because in his heart, he felt it was right to do so. This is where the novel excels. Not only does Hardy show a man purposefully going against what society wants and demands, he does it with the knowledge that he is right in doing so. That is powerful, especially for a novel written in the 1890s.
As for the two female characters, I feel the same way. While I really cannot stand Arabella, she is necessary to Jude's development. How else would he push the boundaries of marriage if his first hadn't started in a sham and ended so ridiculously? It had to be so for Hardy to explore what would happen to Jude later on. Sue, on the other hand, is so much like Jude. I really loved her, but her decisions drove me crazy throughout. As a female, she had more to deal with than Jude. When she was kicked out of school for not sleeping there one night, you have to think about the double standard that would exist (and does so prevalently today).
However, more than anything else in this novel that pushes the boundaries, it is what happens in the last 50 or pages or so that led me to finishing the book with my mouth gaping open. While I would love to just discuss it, I know I can't because you need to experience the sorrow with the characters. I was shocked. It also broke my heart. The complete meltdown of everything...it will simply shock you.
I finished this book with a sense of awe and respect for Hardy. I can certainly understand why after the public outcry of this novel he wouldn't write novels any longer. I can imagine how his readers in the 1890s would have felt getting to those last pivotal scenes. I can imagine how they would have felt to read about different attitudes towards marriage, love, and happiness. Overall, though, I left feeling like I completely understand the need to let characters experience and live in the way they needed to. Jude had to live his life in a certain way, and Hardy fully accomplished letting Jude do so.
More than anything, I really want to pick up another Hardy title off my shelf and dive in (although, I honestly don't know if any could beat this one). In fact, I want to read all of his novels, to savor his words and the way he constructs such marvelous stories. I think it might be safe to say that Hardy is a new favorite. :)
"But no one came. Because no one ever does."