Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There may be a powerful ending in Jude the Obscure that I haven't reached yet because at this time I still have about 20% to go. But I've reached what was clearly a climax in the relationship of Jude and Sue and I've certainly read enough to talk about the book.
This novel was published in its entirety in 1895, although it ran as a magazine serial prior to that. According to Wikipedia, Thomas Hardy started working on it in 1887. The work does what I love fiction to do. It presents ideas that are thought provoking. Its ideas were controversial at the time it was released, but there are enough universal themes in the work to make it relevant for today's readers.
Jude is a young man living in Marygreen England in the late nineteenth century. He is living with his aunt and working in her bakery. He is an excellent student at a time when physical skills are more appreciated than scholarship. But he admires his teacher and longs to learn as much as possible with the goal of eventually becoming a member of the clergy.
Jude is seduced by a local woman who tricks him into marriage. Their union lasts a short time and the two go their separate ways. But Jude is now burdened with an attachment that interferes with his desire to marry Sue Bridehead, his cousin with whom he falls in love. The novel follows their relationship as they try to deal with the dictates of nineteenth century England.
The ideas in Jude the Obscure are critical of organized religion and of the institution of marriage as it was in the 1800's. But it is also a story about gossip and people who are not allowed to live their lives the way they've chosen because of the society around them. It's also about insecurity and overreaction, making the characters universally human.
One of the aspects of the book I found most interesting was the way the relationship of cousins was treated in that era. It seems much more complicated than I had realized. Jude and Sue were allowed to marry at that time and no one seemed to frown on that. But they could also be treated as if they were brother and sister, if they wanted to be. It seemed odd that in a time when there was so little acceptance of differences in lifestyles people were allowed to define their relationships with their cousins.
Hardy often tells the reader what his characters are thinking through their dialog rather than showing through their actions. At times that feels a bit stilted, but there are enough subtleties in the story to compensate for that. It's a good read and the Kindle version is free on Project Gutenberg.
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