Saturday, September 15, 2012

Book Review: Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)


Sorry, but this might be the only 19th century novel I've read that not only do I not recommend, but I did not enjoy reading it and don't care to read it again.

Jude the Obscure received such a trouncing by critics that Thomas Hardy never wrote another novel.  As much as I love Hardy's earlier work, I have to say I'm not sorry if this is what he planned to shovel out.

The main problem with the book is the main characters are unlikeable.  I could not relate to them, and I could not understand them.  They did things that were stupid with very little reason given.  They did things that hurt their family, their children, and apparently did them for some personal reasons that were never quite explained.

The story is very much against marriage.  Hardy makes that clear.  He believes marriage to be a terrible "institution" and his characters refuse to participate in it.  That's fine as far as it goes.  The problem is he never does anything to convince the readers of this.  He doesn't show a big lead up of married people acting differently than single people.  He just "tells" us that marriage is bad.  And his characters, who have no chemistry, won't get married.  Oh, wait.  I meant they won't get married to each other!  But they will marry other people whom they don't love!

I know!  It's crazy!  Every step of they way I was scratching my head over the things these people did.

One of the main themes that Hardy tried to bring out was that an intelligent man, Jude Fawley, is unable to attend college.  Instead, he has to stay in his own class and be a stone mason.  Yes, that's a good theme.  That's worth investigating.  That's definitely worth the price of admission.

The problem is that becomes a side note in this whole mess.  Instead, we're focusing on Jude marrying someone he doesn't love, then leaving her and shacking up with someone he does love.  Well, we're told they are in love.  I don't feel it.  And I have little sympathy for either of them.

Jude reads books, gets all smart, and decides he wants to be a college boy.  So what does he do?  He writes a letter to a professor.  The End.  That's right, that's the end of that story line.  When he gets the equivalent of a rejection letter he no longer pursues that dream.  Really?  I mean, he spent his whole young life hoping to go to college, to be a "learned" man, to hang out with smart guys and talk about smart stuff, and that is the only attempt he makes?  No.  Way.

Sorry, not buying it.  Hardy should have shown that struggle, and left the whole marriage thing alone.  Not that I mind a good social commentary against marriage, but at least make it real.  At least show it to me, give me good reason to believe it!  Instead, he turns the whole focus of this book towards how mean everybody is to them because they aren't married, despite the fact that no one could possibly know they're not married!

This book has so many flaws but I'll just list a few.

Jude meets a frowsy, country girl who does not love him.  He has the hots for her but does not love her, either.  So the natural thing to do is get married, right?  No one forced them into marriage, and they didn't seem to like each other much.  She was looking for a husband, but he was definitely not her type.  She wanted the big, strong country bumpkin who knew how to slaughter a pig.  The whole thing made little sense.  The book took such a downturn near the beginning when they hooked up.

He falls for his cousin, I guess, sorta.  But Hardy forgot that whole chemistry thing.  He forgot to expound on her character, he forgot the whole give-and-take, romance thing.  They together.  We are told they ended up in love, or something.  At no point did I feel any sympathy towards either of them, or passion, or love between them.

Sue Brideshead (gotta love that name) married someone according to convention and it didn't work out.  Fine.  But that has nothing to do with marriage.  That's just a bad decision of youth.  Why blame marriage because you married the wrong person?  I don't blame cars because I bought the wrong one.  I don't say "cars are evil and they should be banned from society".  I mean, she was able to get out of that marriage, and she was able to remarry if she chose.  But she was apparently as against marriage as Jude was.  Why?  Hardy forgot that tidbit.  To explore marriage and its role in society is a good thing.  Any exploration of why we do what we do can make a wonderful novel.  But if you're going to be so utterly against marriage, at least try to bring the reader along with you.  Try to make me feel something about how you feel.  Show me, don't just tell me.  Heres the first example:

" a family like his own where marriage usually meant a tragic sadness, marriage with a blood-relation would duplicate the adverse conditions, and a tragic sadness might be intensified to a tragic horror"
This is the kind of thing that Hardy tells us but we as readers never feel it.  He doesn't "show" us.  How are we supposed to sympathize with these people if they're doing something unconventional and we aren't made to feel for them?  They're afraid they might have a "tragic sadness".  Really?  Like what?  It seems to me all their misfortunes are their own fault.

When they find lodging at a house, the landlady notices Sue and Jude act kind towards each other and becomes suspicious.  Because in Hardy-Land that's not how married couples act.  Apparently married couples hate each other.  So she comes up to Sue and asks, "Are you really a married woman?"  You see, she just senses somehow that they are not married.

Hogwash.  Just plain hogwash.  Hardy was trying to make some point that marriage changes people in a way others can see - a point he failed to make.  The idea that this couple shows up and the woman just "senses" they aren't married?  Give me a break.  That's the exact problem with this whole book.  Everywhere they go, people just magically know these two aren't married?  How?  Well, that is a mystery.  They say they are married, they have kids together, so how do these magical Victorians spot the evil sinners?  That is left unanswered.

Why did Jude remarry Arabella?  They didn't love each other.  They didn't even like each other.  Arabella tries so hard to get Jude back.  But as soon as they're married she doesn't even like him anymore.  It makes no sense.  Hardy is trying to show that marriage somehow did that to them.  Really?  And how did that happen?  It is completely nuts that these two would want to remarry, or even be together.  That Hardy puts them together is contrived, and just another fatal flaw in this whole mess.

The worst part, and I mean the absolute worst part, is the children.  First of all, if you've got little children dependent on you, there's not too much you won't do to take care of them.  This brain-dead couple is so against marriage that they're willing to let their children starve?  You know what?  If it's my kids, I'll do whatever I have to do to earn a living and put food in their mouths.  No real parents are going to forego marriage for principle, at the expense of their children.  That was stupid.

But by far, the bottom of the barrel part of this book is when the children die.  That Hardy had to put that in there was despicable.  It was horrific.  I won't go into details.  It was one of the worst scenes I've ever read in any book.  Plus it was so pointless.  The parents were idiots and I have no respect for them and very little sympathy.

When it's all said and done, after all they've learned, they do the stupidest thing they can think of.  They go back to their previous spouses and live miserable lives for no reason at all.  And don't give me all that mumbo jumbo of how society imposed this or that blah blah blah.  I'm not buying and you shouldn't be selling.

For the book to be against marriage is a wonderful exploration and had so much potential.  Readers of today can certainly look further into this than readers of the 19th century because society is more open to diverse ideas.  But if you want me to believe, and I mean believe in what you're saying you've got to show me.  I'm not going to be led by the nose to any cause you choose.  The reader wants to believe, that's why we're here.  Show us!  But Hardy never does.  Marriage might be a terrible, evil thing, but Hardy never shows us that.  He shows us that marrying the wrong people is bad.  But he tries to apply a universal truth based on that.  It's weak.

Sorry Hardy, but this one was a real stinker.

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