Monday, January 13, 2014

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

2013 Reread #10

Well even though I technically didn't finish rereading this in 2013, I started it last year, so am counting it as my final reread in my 2013 project. I did save the tougher classic for last knowing it wasn't going to move quickly.

I read this book initially for a class in college and was so affected by it that I obtained a first edition copy from a dusty, old bookshop in London. I've read a lot of Hardy since as well, but this one is still my favorite. It was so ahead of its time and so critical of just about everything that my satirical college brain loved it. I don't think the book moved me as much this time around although I do still feel its greatness in the ideals of the time it goes against and the social standards the book explores.

Hardy dared to posit that radical conventions (for the time) in love and life could lead to happiness of only the world would stop being so judgmental. He calls out everybody and uses this book to show the preconceived notions of society that hold people back really drive them to sorrow. Almost all of the characters here end sadly - broken down - through the corruption of their radical thoughts by the modern mundane. They give up on being different and so suffer. Jude, our lead, wants to learn and go to college but can't because society says he's too poor. So, he turns his attention (eventually) from lofty ideas of education to living a more conventional life where he's tricked into marriage and left shortly thereafter by his wife. He finds real love in Sue, an unconventional girl in her own right, who shrugs off the expected bonds of marriage and a the woman's place to unite in happiness with Jude. But, their happiness in life together is frequently overshadowed by the fact that they never marry and the scorn of the people around them wears them down to a point of despair that only brings on great tragedy.

In the end they both give up trying to live differently than status quo suggests. They're both miserable in their minds and hearts while living "right" by society. Jude dies alone in a most depressing scene. Is that the "normal" he should have spent his whole life working toward? If he and Sue had been strong enough to fight the societal norms he would have died loved, happy and cared for and it's a huge commentary by Hardy on life in the 1890's to set the scene in the way he does. It hit such a chord and public response to this book was so severe it drove Hardy to permanently stop writing fiction for the rest of his career.

Reading classics for fun is hard and I know a lot of people don't do it often, but the perk of reading a classic is already knowing the impact the literature had. Reading books like this is important because of the window into history they give us, because it's comforting to know there were always radical thinkers out there brave enough to tell a story that stirred the pot, and because it helps put life today into perspective to see the things that caused an uproar in daily life in the past and how we've possibly overcome those obstacles in modern times.

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