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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!

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Read more about The Maladjusted Book Club here.

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