The Mr. and Mrs. Buce Readaloud Sodality has completed its perusal of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. I read it first a bit more thsan 50 years ago and it knocked me flat. I hadn't been back since. Mrs. B (who had not read it before) said it didn't sound much like what I had described and she is right: major events I had distorted and large parts I had simply forgotten.
I am nonetheless glad I read it the second time, and I still understand why I liked it so much at first, though I (and it?) seem to have changed some in the interim. Some of my understanding represents nothing more than an expanded sophistication. I don't think I grasped at first blush now much of a scandal this book must have been aat the time of its (last Victorian) publication. And I don't think I understood (or could have understood) Sue Bridehead as a new woman. I suppose instead that I concentrated almost all my attention on the title character, Jude, so full of aspirations, so ill equipoped to cope with the challenges of the world. That was certainly how I felt about myself at that point and I suppose there was some relief, along with shock and chagrin, to find myself as a literary type.
Apparently I also failed to notice--or had entirely forgotten how Jude, a compelling enough character at the beginning of the book, rather fades into carboard about midway as he becomes little more than a foil and sounding-board for two other characters who seemingly come to interest the author (and therefore the reader?) so much more. That would be the aforementioned Sue and her antagonist-competitor, Arabella Donn, the two captors of Jude's lust and the two conenders for his soul. I'm not at all sure Hardy intended as much, about the two of them rather run away with matters as the book goes on and present themselves as far more complex and plausible (which is not to say, entirely likeable) than the protagonist himself.
The effort doesn't work entirely. Hardy does seem to get his hands on more thematic material than he can handle. Not just lust and cluelessness here, but also the rigidity and authoritarianism of church and college; also celibacy; also the intolerance of small-minded neighbors. These themes can bump into each other sometimes, and in general, it isn't always clear when Hardy is treating them with irony, when not. One clue; the dialogue is more polemical than I remmber, more like a tract and less like a--well, less like a novel. This is particularly evident as the book draws to a close; indeed I think it "ends" a good eight or ten times before Hardy is finally done with it.
There are still a lot of reasons to love this book. For all its limitations, he does paint a convincing and comprehensive world view. Indeed I suspect that one of the main reasons for his enduring popularity, especially in England, is that there are still so many people in the country who really want to remember that there once was a world like the one he presents here, and that for all their present difficulties, they can still get in touch with it. But I suspect it works best on the young. As I said, I'm not sorry we read it now, and I'm glad I read it first when I did. And,; probably, glad that I didn't wait until later.