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Tackling the Obscure

August 1, 2011

*Even if you haven’t read this month’s Maladjusted Book Club pick, read on. You can still participate in our discussion about marriage and relationships!

First, let me congratulate you Maladjusted Bookclubbers on this episode of Reading Survivor. If you’re here, I’m assuming you survived, or at a minimum, you haven’t gone blind.

Jude the Obscure was not the most engrossing read, but it has stayed with me long after I finished. (For two whole weeks.)

Thomas Hardy is adept at depicting the tragic hero or heroine—a sensitive, naive person—who has unfortunately been plopped into the middle of an inflexible Victorian system. That element alone is cause for a good story. How does a philosophical human spirit thrive in an environment of rigidity and narrow-thinking?

Not well, apparently.

Jude Fawley is bright and doe-eyed, eager for the new experience of education to help him escape life as a workhand. He works hard toward his goal until he is distracted by Arabella, a young woman who realizes she can seduce him, fake a pregnancy, and convince him to marry her. I was slightly annoyed with this age-old depiction of the cunning woman who traps the innocent man with the lasso of her fallopian tubes, because (dammit!) men are just as responsible for the consequences of sex as women are. I have no pity. But this situation played out a little differently. Throughout Jude’s life, he was dutiful and good toward Arabella, while she consistently lied to him and used him to further her own selfish desires.

Sue Bridehead is certainly the foil to Arabella, but no more sympathetic as a character, in my opinion. She vacillates too much, cannot seem to make a decision between marrying the schoolmaster, whom her society would deem suitable, and a man she feels passionate about. She, too, uses Jude, who is also her cousin. At first, she is oblivious to his affection for her, but once she realizes his feelings are unrequited, she still compels him to give her away at her wedding, and she frequently escapes for illicit meetings with him. This girl wants her Victorian cake and to eat it, too. And Victorians won’t let you have too much cake. It might lead to sex. Poor Jude ends up tossed about by Sue’s indecision about whether to marry him or remain his girlfriend and a virgin, or have sex with him out of wedlock despite the stark admonishment of her culture. She settles on the latter, though it isn’t easy. When a horrible tragedy befalls the couple (spoiler alert: the death of their children), Sue sees it as the divine hand of justice punishing her for her sins. She goes back to her first husband, a milquetoasty old man who would still like to slip his wrinkled hands under her nightgown, much to her disgust. Jude ends up dying a lonely man, all of his dreams unrealized.

Take that for a summary, SparkNotes!

The theme that interests me most from this book is the question of marriage. Jude and Sue go to the county office several times with the plan of getting married, but they can’t bring themselves to make their union official. They strongly believe that by joining under law, their relationship will suffer; instead of being special and mystical, it will become as loveless as their previous marriages. Marriage is an institution; true love should not be, goes their logic. This principle, however, causes much strain for the family. They become outcasts wherever they live, and because their union is deemed illegitimate by their peers, Jude cannot get work to support his growing family. Hell, he can’t even get a room at the inn. (I am probably not the only one who noticed Hardy’s connection of Jude and Sue to Joseph and Mary. Surely, the long panties of Victorian critics are still trying to unwind themselves from that tizzy.)

What are we to make of this? Does a relationship suffer when it is institutionalized? Does marriage feel closer to bondage than love? Perhaps Jude and Sue would not feel this way if they had chosen each other first, had not been married before. But if they were to marry again, would they be essentially devaluing their union by giving their new love the same name as the old?

I don’t really understand the logic that a piece of paper can destroy the love two people have for each other. But I suspect a failed union can destroy a person’s faith in the magic or validity of that piece of paper.

The tragedy of Jude and Sue is that they seem destined for a future time. I am not a historian, but we are all at least subtly aware that a marriage from the late 19th or early 20th century would not hold the same principle of equality and mutual appreciation many of us hold dear today.

Questions for discussion:

With so many failed marriages, does the ideal of marriage hold much weight anymore?

What cultural notions do we still carry about the meaning behind words like “husband” and “wife”? Do we feel an uncomfortable tether to a person we’re married to that we might not feel otherwise?

If you are in a long-lasting, loving relationship, why did you decide to marry or not marry?

In Jude the Obscure, Sue and Jude resist marriage because they believe it will dampen their love for each other. As Sue says:

“It is foreign to a man’s nature to go on loving a person when he is told tht he must and shall be that person’s lover. There would be a much likelier chance of his doing it if he were told not to love. If the marriage ceremony consisted in an oath and signed contract between the parties to cease loving from that day forward, in consideration of personal possession being given, and to avoid each other’s society as much as possible in public, there would be more loving couples than there are now…. Fewer women like marriage than you suppose, only they enter into it for the dignity it is assumed to confer, and the social advantages it gains them sometimes—a dignity and an advantage that I am quite willing to do without.”

(It doesn’t help that there is a curse on their families regarding marriage.) Today, gay couples are fighting to be respected and given the right to marry. Does this suggest that the institution of marriage has drastically changed? Or is it part of an endeavor to continue to effect change when it comes to old-fashioned notions of marriage?

(For the record, I am happy to be married, and I strongly support gay marriage.)

So go on…discuss!

*Subscribe to the comments feed to keep abreast of each addition to the discussion. Remember, this is a book club. All respectful opinions are welcome!

Read more about The Maladjusted Book Club here.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy August 1, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Okay – being a huge supporter of your book club and wanting to see it continue, I’ll offer my opinions on a few things here.

First, I could not finish the book. I tried and tried. It just couldn’t hold my attention. I liked it in the beginning but then Jude just started to appear too weak of a character and I couldn’t sympathize with him. I was disappointed with his naivety with Arabella. Through all his readings you’d think he’d know a little about the stereotypical guiles of women. I guess it just goes to show that the stereotypical “men often think with the wrong head” holds true as well.

When Jude started becoming interested in his cousin, that lost it for me. Call me old fashioned or whatever, but chasing after a woman you are related to is not appealing to me. It also further exemplified the weakness of his character in that he allowed himself to be toyed with and manipulated by Sue.

As for marriage in general, I love being married and am glad I did. I did it very young in life (22) when I didn’t have much time to think there were other options. I was a product of my traditional upbringing – I just thought it was natural that one would marry the person they love, not necessarily because of any social implications good or bad for doing one or the other.

I like the institution of marriage. I sometimes wonder, however, if it is not a concept that is unrealistic in this day and age. Life expectancy has increased exponentially since the institution came to be – is it realistic to think that one would spend their entire life with a single other being? I look at the rate of divorce and think perhaps it is an institution that is outdated. Still, there must be something to it – the public and official declaration of your love for another – it is highly romantic.


Jana August 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm

It’s funny that you call it romantic. I think Jude and Sue thought it was the opposite of romantic, and I suspect Sue was kind of a feminist in a time where feminists kill themselves. There was no Valium.

I agree that Jude was annoying at times because he let himself be pushed around by the women in his life. He is truly a gentle soul, incapable of hurting anyone. (Which is unfortunate for him, because he should have put himself first more often.) I wonder, though, if you or others might react more negatively to his gentle nature because he’s a man, and that is not typically the way we think of men?

Kidding aside, I recognize this was a tough book and I have a ton of good recommendations, I can assure you. When I was typing this post yesterday, I thought, “Why, oh why, would I do this to myself? To my readers?” But then I thought it was a good way to challenge myself, and I can’t say I regret reading the book. So I’m grateful for your participation! Keep the faith. :)


Kerri August 1, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in marriage. Like Cathy, I see the wedding as a beautiful and public announcement that two people will care for each other forever. Weddings make me optimistic, plus they are great excuse for a party. Signing a piece of paper, on the other hand, won’t cause two people to love each other nor should it keep spouses together who no longer love each other. In a society where some people can’t even commit to watching a thirty second commercial on TV before changing the channel, is it realistic to expect two people to spend the rest of their lives together? I hope so.

Difficult as it was, I tried to put aside all my 21st century judgments about cousins marrying and women being portrayed as wishy-washy wimps, and I discovered that I actually felt bad for the characters, even Arabella. I’m not sure that today we can truly appreciate the ways the characters are bound by their class and gender. Add to this all the factors that seem to be working against Jude (a curse on his family, lack of money, being stuck in a Thomas Hardy novel where no one actually gets to make a choice, etc.) and it’s amazing Jude ever leaves Marygreen at all. I found myself rooting for him.

From such a young age he’s clearly a sensitive young man. Early in the book the narrator says, “…at length his heart grew sympathetic with the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world which did not want him.” This is true for the rest of the book. Jude’s desires to be first a scholar and later a clergyman come to unfortunate and inevitable ends. With no nurturing from his family or his community, how can Jude achieve what he truly desires from the start, a life of the mind? Is the sensitive soul of the philosopher or writer any more respected today than it was then?

In the same way that so many forces are working against these characters, I wonder what forces are working against us today. We all like to think we have free will and that we choose the roles in which we find ourselves. But how many people have married simply because that is what everyone expects of them? How many people have children because that is what one does after marriage? How many people choose careers exclusively for financial reasons? How many of the decisions we make about the directions our lives take are actually decisions?

I have no regrets about finishing the book. Sure it wasn’t exactly a light summer read, but it does draw great comparisons to our times and the choices we (supposedly) make.


Cathy August 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Your second to last paragraph is really profound. I “decided” to go to college. Following that, I “decided” to get married and then “decided” to have children a few years after that. In hindsight a few years ago I realized that all those decisions I made were really just pre-programmed what-I-should-do items from how I was raised and the associated social norms. The thought, for example, of staying single and traveling for a few years never occurred to me – that is what other people do but not something for me for no good reason.


Jana August 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm

It is definitely interesting to think what paths we might have taken if we did not care or even know about the pre-programmed ones. In my family, college was the road less travelled, and it has certainly made all the difference to me.


Jana August 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Wow, Kerri, you have brought up some intriguing points. I wonder if you teach for a living?

I find it interesting that you were able to sympathize with Arabella, because I thought she was just purely awful. She wasn’t bright, sure, and maybe because of her social system, she had to rely on a man. But she deliberately and repeatedly manipulated Jude. She could have at least treated him with a little more regard than to plan her next marriage while he’s in bed, dying.

I was rooting for him as well. I love the way you draw a connection to the lack of support put in place for sensitive souls, like philosophers or writers. I do not know if those groups are given more respect now than they were then. Surely, poor Thomas Hardy could no longer write novels because his unique visions did not jive with his contemporaries. Today, if you want to be an artist, you have to embrace near-poverty. Or marry someone who makes more money. Or teach. :)


Kate August 1, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Okay, I didn’t even open the book (though I read part of it a decade or so ago), but Jana, your questions about marriage and Kerri’s comments on choice are compelling.

I think class and gender norms still play a huge role in our lives. I am happily married, and I would do it again, but I’m pretty sure we did it because that’s what you do. And I wanted kids, and you get married first. (Heck, for my in laws, you don’t live together or have sex first.) But, in truth, no piece of paper is essential for love, nor do I think it creates shackles. However, I am certain our experiences create expectations. Is it easy to trust an institution that has let you down? And along those lines, has being institutionalized ever really helped anything?

A friend of mine referred to his lady-love as his partner, and it made me stop. Husband and wife convey status, expectations, and positions of power without our even thinking of it. I prefer to have a partner.

The Victorian mindset is terribly strong. My grandfather was raised by two Victorians, and the keeping things just so has taken generations to mellow out. I am shocked that the story had a couple with children and no marriage! I clearly didn’t get that far the first time.


Jana August 1, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I remember that at my part-time job in college, a coworker of mind referred to his girlfriend strictly by her name. He never said “girlfriend.” Even if he didn’t know the person, it became clear he was talking about his significant other. For me, even the term “girlfriend” had an idea attached. Someone wispy and beautiful and uncomplicated. The same goes for when we refer to “husband” and “wife,” I guess. Once I was married, I was really worked up about the idea of changing my name, and so many people didn’t understand why it bothered me. It was those age-old ideas of what a woman must give up to have a family. I also didn’t like the idea of being called a “wife,” which transplanted me right back to a 1950’s kitchen, a pot roast in my hands.

Maybe as a small rebellion, I’ll work on referring to my husband/partner by his name from now on rather than assuming certain roles.

It really is hard, isn’t it, to go against the grain? It takes a significant amount of courage. And so this I’m thinking anew about Cathy’s response to Jude. While he may have seemed weak, he was willing to incur the disdain of his culture for something he believed in. I don’t know that many of us could do the same.

(Thanks for participating Kate, as evidence that you don’t need to have read the book to have a meaningful discussion!)


Cathy August 1, 2011 at 8:34 pm

I will let you in on a secret. I accidentally bought the “notes” to the book. (It’s true. I thought I was buying the book until the Notes version showed up.) I’ve been reading the notes.

Anyway, the analysis speaks of how Hardy’s version of marriage contrasts between other Victorian novelists (Bronte for example) and even his earlier works and believes it’s a result of his own difficulties in his first marriage. Does that make sense?


Cathy August 1, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Wait! I need to tell you that I actually did buy the book too but after I struggled with it, I thought maybe the Notes would be easier.


Jana August 1, 2011 at 8:38 pm

All will be forgiven if you admit that my summary is more fun than the “Notes” version. Also, I have to admire your dedication.


scott August 2, 2011 at 12:01 am

Marriage is work, period. Non-stop work. The thrill and the excitement of “falling in love” is fed by all that is new to be discovered and learned about the person that has caught your eye. In a lot of marriages I have seen, as soon as the wedding occurs it is as though the couple looks at that document as the end of the process. And that’s when they stop trying to learn and grow together. I believe that many of the couples of the failed marriages we see today would still be “together” had they not made it official. As Sue said, tell me I can’t have it and I will continue to try to acquire it. However, if I have it will I still feel the need to want it?
I’m like Cathy. I was only able to make it through half the book though I did enjoy the writing. It is a book I intend to finish (despite having the ending spoiled for me) at some point. Maybe once the summer sun wains and the heavy autumn skies bring about a more appropriate state of mind. I enjoy the precarious position Hardy has put these characters in though I too could do without the Kissing Cousins aspect established between Jude and Sue. Arabella? What a user!


Jana August 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I wonder why people think so much about the wedding and not about the marriage. This is surely why weddings are such a multi-million dollar industry. Maybe this country is just full of romantics? (Or romantic movies, perhaps.)


Vanessa August 4, 2011 at 11:54 pm

I was just thinking about the discussion thus far about whether a piece of paper/making a marriage legal/ institutionalizing relationships seems somewhat pointless in regards to Jude (and I don’t mean this as a criticism to anyone because I was considering my own point of view to write a response when this hit me). Either way, his legal marriage to Arabella or his unofficial marriage to Sue, he still ended up unhappy and longing for something more. Could that be Hardy’s point? What makes one relationship work and another fail? The answer, is in fact, obscure. Each relationship is different because each person is so different and the combinations that abound are numberless. That’s where we fail. We think a relationship should be one way and when it isn’t or it changes we don’t often want to work to find what that magical element is, especially if it takes a long time. Marriage can and is a mystery; sometimes we lose the key to unlocking the mystery in our junk drawer (aka hate, mistrust, boredom, hurt feelings, etc) and instead of testing each unmarked key we just change the lock. Anyone following my analogy?

P.S. I love Kerri’s comment about how people can’t even commit to a 30 second commercials without changing channels. How true! Makes me wonder if we are creating unhealthy patterns that are far more reaching than we understand or can see?


Jana August 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I think Jude knew what he wanted from the beginning. He wanted to be a scholar. He wanted to read and philosophize and write. He let the women in his life hold him back from that. He was trying very hard to do the “right” thing with Arabella, who lied to him about a pregnancy. (In modern times, their sex life would have been given more detail, and we would know whether something actually occurred or Jude was completely oblivious to how babies are made, like that kid in Glee.) He also wanted Sue, and he let her stall him over and over again. He should have just let her stay with her old man and tried to find another woman not his cousin to date and possibly marry. In some respects, I think we can see this book as Hardy’s condemnation that men let their higher ideals get pushed aside when it comes to their um, lower ideals. Jude sure was a trooper with Sue, though!


Denise Nielsen August 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

LOL – Loved this asssessment Jana… “This girl wants her Victorian cake and to eat it, too. And Victorians won’t let you have too much cake. It might lead to sex.”

Okay – I am late to the party because I was boating all week. But there are some great points to which I want to respond.

Marriage as an outdated institution…Logically, I can nod my head at this, but the romantic in me rebels. I want the happy ever after, I think marriage is a commitment for life, and I think people give up on it too easily because it is work. At the same time, having one life, who wants to spend it in a bad relationship, as Jude and Arabella’s and Jude and Sue’s certainly were… My sister and I talked about this this past week. As she celebrates her 3rd wedding anniversary, she is joking about how she feels a sense of let down, that marriage is harder than she expected, and we talked of how our society doesn’t really prepare you for that, that all we ever see at the end of popular movies and books is the beginning of a relationship.

Jude – I pitied him. He was a man with hope whose dreams were thwarted one by one. It depressed me. I was struck by how the choices he made (and this comes back to what Kerri said about decisions) seemed to send him, instead of ahead, on an ever inward spiralling pathy where his options became more and more limited. There was optimism but no real hope for Jude at the beginning, and pessimism and no hope at the end – it seemed to be a pattern in his life, and it got me thinking about the recurring patterns to our own lives and whether or not we are even aware of them.

Finally, because this is already long enough, this was my second time reading Jude, and I found it tougher, in part because I read differently now and have different expectations; in part because I could not warm to Sue or Arabella, though I did feel Hardy did a great job of portraying the lives of that class of women in that society; and in part because the story had no redemption and remained a cautionary tale with no glimmer of light at the end. However I thought there were some excellent springboards for thought, many of which have been touched upon here. Glad I re-read it.


Jana August 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I agree that society doesn’t prepare people for marriage. I guess that is where churches come in, because I do think many of them try to help. (They may be the only thing we can call a community center.) And unfortunately, going to marriage counseling is seen as a failure rather than a strength.

One thing we haven’t talked about, but which I think is poignant, is that neither Jude or Sue (I think it was this way for Sue) had a relationship to model themselves after. Because they had a family curse and knew that the marriages they came from were broken, they didn’t know what a true, long-lasting relationship was supposed to look like. This, of course, makes it harder. I do think that Jude and Sue had a solid relationship near the end of the book, though. The problem was of course the tragedy, and the fact that she thought God was punishing her. Otherwise, they seemed like they were actually doing okay.

Is this idea of a family curse meaningful or just silly? It was something I pushed past in the book, not giving it much thought. But look at The Kennedys!


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