Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy
Neville Jason, Reader
(Naxos Audiobooks)
Jude the Obscure was published in 1895 to, apparently, everyone's disgust ... save the author's. It was seen as obscene and blasphemous. The Bishop of Wakefield wrote that he threw his copy in the fire.

Other critics said that it was "steeped in sex," "dabbling in beastliness and putrefaction" and nothing but "a stream of indecency," Oh that it were so lurid. To this listener, it is more a stream of wishful thinking.

Jude, who doesn't seem to be all that obscure --- although he comes to be quite notorious towards the end of this volume --- gets caught up early on with Arabella. When she isn't working as a barmaid, she does pigs. She raises them, chases them about when they escape, butchers them, and sells their parts to those who are looking for a good porkchop or a fat loin roast there in Marygreen.

She meets Jude over by the creek by tossing a pig's "pizzle" at him. The young man picks it up, returns it promptly --- he is a polite sort --- and that's it for him and his virtue. After a few wet walks in the Wessex countryside, Arabelle begins to show him the facts of life, and as soon as he is sufficiently steeped in that diabolical lore, she announces to him that she is in what we in the old days used to call "the family way." After their marriage, she then announces that it was all a mistake. She was obviously looking for any way out of her drunken father's house.

No matter, Jude is in love with another. In another city, too. He's but a simple stonemason, but has taught himself to read Greek and Latin --- oh the English! --- and the city of his dreams lies just over the next hill to the north from Marygreen, called here Christminster but, critics tell us, presumably Oxford. After getting out from under Arabelle and her piggy pizzle-works, he sets up shop carving tombstones --- a cheerful bunch, no? --- in Christminster. There he falls for Sue Bridehead.

Bridehead! Hardy chooses his character's names carefully, so you can guess what she and Jude are up to. You got it; it's love at first sight --- but with a twist. Unlike Arabella, Sue confesses fairly soon that she is not interested in pizzles, pork or otherwise ... so Jude, smitten with her comely and retiring beauty (and to prove his gallantry), takes a vow of loveless love. They then proceed to track each other over the Wessex countryside, heavy with passionless passion. Sue manages to win the heart of Jude's old country-school teacher, Mr. Phillotson. Much to his sorrow, Jude lets her know several dozen times (it's Hardy's way to be a bit repetitive) that her happiness is all important to him, so he agrees to give her away at her wedding, which he promptly does.

Phillotson gets his come-uppance when he tries to be a practicing husband to Sue: she jumps out of the bedroom window and damn near crowns herself. The old school master gets the picture, and so now she can run away with Jude, much to the horror and delight of all the gossipy folk of Marygreen, Christminster, Melchester, and those other bleak townships scattered through Hardyland.

Somehow ... we are never shown exactly how, thank god, Jude and Sue reach some kind of consummation, for when we meet them further down the road there in Melchester, we find that they are parents to two girls, with #3 on the way. Also, in the baby department, Arabella chanced to produce an offspring of Jude's before she ran away to Australia. Arabella tires of the boy and ships him back to Jude.

He is a very odd little boy. They've named him, I am not making this up, "Old Father Time." At the age of eleven or so he has turned into a pale-faced little priss who --- as he tells his father and step-mother several times --- believes that there are just too many children in the world. Including himself. Furthermore, he thinks that children are usually responsible for destroying their parents happiness.

He's a sullen little squirt, one that you or I might have left on the fondling home's doorstep (or in Australia). Especially if we were pretending to be saintly like Jude and Sue.

Now, Jude often gets fired from this or that work because he and Sue are Living in Sin. When they're traveling between jobs, she and Jude are forced to stay at different rooming houses for the night because of all those babies and Sue, suffering from the usual logorrhea, lets the landlady know that she and Jude are just kissing cousins, certainly not married, even though there are quite a few children about or there in the toaster. When Sue goes out to find Jude, Old Father Time takes it upon himself to strangle his two step-sisters and then hang himself in the closet. That's when I decided to take my leave of Jude the Obscure.

Because I do believe in that old bug-a-boo consistency. Even after one makes up characters in a book and gets them to go through their routines (that you, the author, have crafted) ... even so, there are, I think, certain limits.

One is that you will not make your characters do something too odd, too uncharacteristic; that you will see to it that they stay in the bounds you have set up for them; that they will not be made to do something ridiculous ... if you have built them true-to-life, if you know what you are doing.

Thus we would not expect Hamlet to get drunk and throw up on the stage; nor would we expect Tom Jones to suddenly show an affection for ancient Greek history (or men); nor would we believe it if Jane Eyre was to turn, all at once, into a rowdy lady of the night.

The double murder and suicide of Old Father Time not only stretches the boy's character beyond the breaking point, it stretches the very limits of the novel itself. It violates the bounds that Hardy himself had craftily, set in place.

This one violent act turns a dramatic and not unworthy piece of fiction into a farce. And the conclusion gets to be even more farcical. Sue goes mad with religion; Jude becomes a sot, remarries the barmaid Arabella; and this reader vows to waste no more time reading --- or in this case listening to --- this nutcase novel.

We are here in no way faulting Neville Jason, the narrator in this Naxos version. His pacing and his sublime way with the dialogue cannot be faulted.

It's the author's novelistic derangement, plain and simple. Hardy has taken the reader for a ride.

Jude the Obscure was the last novel that he was to write. Some believe that his novelistic silence came about because of the reception from the good Bishop and his contemporaries. But I think there is a more believable reason. Jude was not the last of his writings. Hardy went on to write poetry for the next thirty-six years. But he knew on rereading this baby that the jig was up: that his plotting, character-building and story-telling ability had gone to rot; that it was a waste of time to try to produce any more pizzles like this one. So he didn't.

--- Leslie Seamens
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH