Jude the Obscure | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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Jude the Obscure | Context


Autobiographical Elements in Jude the Obscure

Hardy's disappointment in his marriage and his inability to matriculate at Oxford inform the plot of Jude the Obscure, as does his involvement with the building trades. While Hardy had more choices than Jude and became a greatly admired and widely read author, he did have to put aside the dream of becoming a university graduate because of financial prohibitions. Moreover, Hardy's own agnosticism and atheism surface in Jude's change of heart regarding religion. The loss of his faith and his wife's change from agnosticism to fundamentalism reflect in some ways the spiritual journeys of both Jude and Sue as the main characters in their search for meaning in life.

Significantly Hardy did not show the novel to his increasingly fundamentalist wife, Emma, while he was writing it, when previously he had been in the habit of sharing works in progress with her. When she finally read Jude the Obscure, she hated it for its attacks on the Church and marriage, which she took personally. Other details of Hardy's biography can be aligned with aspects of the novel, but perhaps most important is how the author's personal experience of class prejudice, religious disillusionment, and clerical and social moral hypocrisy form the visceral thematic core of his relentless tale of love and loss.

Marriage and Divorce in 19th-Century England

Marriage is debated throughout Jude the Obscure, particularly the role of women within the institution. They had been treated as property for thousands of years in most parts of the world, including Great Britain. A woman passed, in a sense, as property, from her father to her husband, hence the custom of "giving away the bride" for whom the husband takes responsibility after marriage. The character of Sue asks Jude to do the honors after she "looks into" the marriage service, since her father seems to have disowned her. She sarcastically notes in a letter to Jude that while a man chooses freely, a woman is given, like "a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal." For centuries worldwide almost all girls received little education and could not attend college or engage in professions. A woman could not ask for justice from a court if a crime was committed against her unless her husband pursued the case. Any property she had inherited automatically became her husband's upon marriage, and her body belonged to him as well—as she vowed in the marriage ceremony to obey him. Her children were also his property, as were any wages she earned.

Women began to obtain some rights in the second part of the 19th century. In 1882 Great Britain passed the Married Property Act, which allowed women to retain their property after marriage, sue, incur debt, and buy and sell property.

Ending marriage through divorce was nearly impossible before the mid-19th century unless a person was rich. In England a divorce decree that allowed remarriage had to be granted by an act of Parliament—only for adultery and only by the husband. A woman could ask for a divorce only if she were enduring adultery and physical abuse that threatened her life. A divorce also was expensive. In 1853 divorce became the province of a special court. The Matrimonial Causes Act, passed in 1857, allowed divorce only for adultery, and in the case of wives, for adultery compounded by bigamy, incest, bestiality, sodomy, desertion, cruelty, or rape. As a result women were much more restricted than men in their ability to undo the marriage bond.

By 1873 women's rights to their children had been further expanded in the Infant Custody Act, allowing custody issues to be decided according to the needs of the child. Thus women could petition for custody of or access to their children below age 16, but not in all cases. Women who were physically abused in their marriages were given some protection under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1878, allowing them to separate from their husbands and get custody of the children, but not a divorce.

While Hardy does not provide a timeline for the story, readers of the novel can assume Jude and Sue's relationship takes place after the passage of these pieces of legislation that gave women more breathing room. Nevertheless, as a proto-feminist, Sue has good reason for concern about turning herself over to a husband with jurisdiction over her body and life. Although a single woman could be physically or financially vulnerable if not under the protection of a man, she would have freedoms a married woman would not.

Marrying First Cousins

As another issue, marriage between cousins, even first cousins, was a common practice in Europe and the United States until the middle of the 19th century when progress in transportation and communication created greater mobility in populations and access to a greater variety of marriage partners. Family size also declined, resulting in fewer possible relatives to marry. In reaction, early scientists mistakenly believed the practice could cause people to regress to a savage state; thus marriages between relatives were generally discouraged. Although most states in the United States do ban marriage between first cousins, the practice is not banned in Europe and is not uncommon even now in some parts of the world. Americans and Europeans generally think a high risk of birth defects occurs in the offspring of first cousins, but in fact, risk increases only about three percent, the same risk factor for pregnancies in women age 40 and older.

The characters of Jude and Sue are first cousins, and their Fawley parents ended their marriages—not a common occurrence in those days. With this unhappy history, Miss Fawley, their great-aunt, tells them they will be compounding their error by marrying a relative supposedly genetically allergic to marriage. While today's geneticists would disagree that attitudes toward marriage are hereditary, depression is thought to run in families. Jude's mother kills herself, as does Jude's son, and Jude attempts to kill himself twice, succeeding, if indirectly, the second time.

University Education

Christminster in the novel is the fictional equivalent of the University in Oxford, the most famous of British educational institutions and among the most prestigious universities in the world. With roots in the 12th century, the university's original areas of study were theology, law, medicine, and liberal arts, although today it has a typical wide-ranging curriculum encompassing the arts and sciences. Oxford is made up of self-governing colleges that, in Hardy's time, trained sons of the upper classes and clerical families. The curriculum emphasized the classics, and about two-thirds of the university's graduates went into church careers. In the mid-19th century, Oxford began to serve sons of the upper middle classes but retained much of its class snobbery through the early 20th century.

The university had become the center of religious controversy beginning in 1833, when the Oxford Movement worked to re-establish Catholic practices in the Protestant Anglican Church. John Henry Newman, leader of the movement, and his followers were called Tractarians, after the tracts (documents of belief) that Newman published. Newman converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. In the novel Jude is enamored of the Tractarians, and when he first gets to Christminster and fancies the scholars of the ages passing along the streets with him, he thinks especially of this sect.

The University Act of 1854 allowed non-Anglican students to attend Oxford. Although the act increased student diversity, through the 1870s and 1880s Oxford remained accessible only to the elite in general. In 1899 Oxford established Ruskin College to provide a university education to the working classes. In his postscript, written in 1912, Hardy notes Ruskin College has solved the problem of at least some of Jude's ilk who until then could neither generate the money needed to finance a college education nor qualify for a scholarship given to the best-prepared students.

Early Feminists

Hardy was very interested in female characters and their actions. Early British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Frankenstein's Mary Shelley) had argued in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that women were equal to men but simply had been deprived of education. The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women in 1869 and was the first in Parliament to advocate for women's right to vote. Schooling became compulsory for both boys and girls in 1880, at least until the age of 10, and an agricultural depression brought both men and women to the cities to take advantage of new opportunities created by science and technology. These and other factors contributed to women's changing roles.

In Jude the Obscure, the character of Sue Bridehead is a "new woman," living independently in Christminster after her father returns to London. Hardy mentions in his second preface (called the Postscript) that one reviewer identified Sue as a "bachelor girl." The opinion may be somewhat exaggerated, for it seems to go too far or applies to a time somewhat later when such independent women lived in apartments or boarding houses, were more visible in increased numbers at the beginning of the 20th century, and likely had more freedom than the female characters in Jude the Obscure. Although Hardy rightly had reservations about categorizing Sue as a bachelor girl, he does not dispute she is a feminist: "No doubt there can be more in a book than the author consciously puts there," he says. Hardy was attuned to the "woman question" and supported female suffrage, although he thought it might rob women of some of their traditional protections.

Anglican Ministry

Jude the Obscure deals significantly with religion. The Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England, was founded by King Henry VIII in the 16th century after he broke from the Catholic Church over the issue of divorce. As a result, the Anglican Church is headed by the monarch of England, who oversees two archbishops. The Anglican Church is rather close to the Roman Catholic Church in belief and ritual, but Catholic priests must remain celibate whereas Anglican priests may marry. Altogether there are approximately 108 bishops and dioceses throughout the world, subdivided into parishes headed by priests. High-ranking bishops have seats in Parliament. Each diocese has an archdeacon who acts as a liaison with the outside world. Vicars or rectors in a parish are educated, ordained priests; curates in parishes are lower-ranking priests in training.

Jude's role as a licentiate would have been similar to that of vocational deacons in today's Anglican Church. They have the same responsibilities as curates in transition to full priesthood, but they are not seeking priesthood. Although deacons are full members of the clergy, they may not perform all of the sacraments of the Church. Jude initially planned to attend a theological college and obtain a license in theology after a few years of study. His loss of faith by the end of the novel is very significant given his initial beliefs.

Teacher-Training Colleges

In the novel Sue attends one of the new teacher-training colleges that were part of England's push to professionalize teaching and improve education beginning in the first half of the 19th century. Teachers were trained primarily under a pupil-teacher system, as evidenced in Sue's first interactions with Phillotson as his student teacher. On completion of an apprenticeship a potential teacher could sit for the "Queen's Scholarship" to get a place in a teacher-training college and complete between one to three years of additional training. Most training colleges were associated with the Church of England. The strict religious affiliation of Sue's training college accounts for Miss Traceley's harsh discipline when Sue breaks her curfew.

Hardy's Wessex

Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels, of which Jude the Obscure is the last, feature a drawing in most editions of this partially fictitious region that is contiguous with an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Wessex strongly suggests the real landscapes of southern and southwestern England. Hardy did not mind if readers matched up real and imaginary places but cautioned them his landscape was fictitious and he would not guarantee the "details" to be correct.

That being said, Cedric Watts, in his critical study of the novel, paired the fictitious and the real: Marygreen with Fawley, a town where Hardy's grandmother had lived; Aldbrickham with Reading; Melchester with Salisbury; Shaston with Shaftesbury; and Christminster with Oxford and the University of Oxford.

Critical Reception of Jude the Obscure

Early reviews of Jude the Obscure were particularly virulent, but not universally so; some reviewers even called it a great work. The naysayers condemned it for coarseness and immorality; the author was called a degenerate in print and his novel labeled obscene. What infuriated some critics were his attacks on conventional views of marriage, sex, religion, and class. Yet even more radical and shocking than these—and something that did not escape all his reviewers—was his general indictment of God, who appears to be either absent in the world or present as a malevolent force, depending on how the novel is interpreted.

The critic Edmund Gosse, a personal friend of Hardy's, wrote "What has Providence done to Mr. Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his creator?" According to critic Adam Kirsch, who reviewed Clair Tomalin's 2007 biography, Hardy's novels "describe a world from which God has already absconded," which is a reason "he remains one of the most vital and relevant of English writers—more modern in some ways, than the modernists who succeeded and disdained him." Indeed many critics consider Jude the Obscure Hardy's best and most complex novel.
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