(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Jude the Obscure (1895)
By Thomas Hardy
Book #40 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Written right at the tail-end of the Victorian Age, Thomas Hardy's 1895 Jude the Obscure (originally published serially the year before) is a cautionary tale concerning the "Genteel" times just around the corner, the twenty-year period of conservative morality, ethical hypocrisy, and cultural stagnation that unfortunately marked the beginning of the 20th century, and that led directly to World War One and the explosive birth of Modernism afterwards. It's the story of one Jude Fawley, a nervy and shy country squire from a small village in "Wessex County" (Hardy's fictional version of the southwest corner of England), who obsessively dreams of becoming a Latin-spouting scholar at "Christminster" (Oxford), but whose finances and social standing constantly stand in his way; during his impressionable youth, then, he is snagged for marriage by the coarse and low-class local maiden Arabella Donn, essentially by following the unwritten two-step secret for landing a husband passed on to her by the village elders -- namely, offer up a little illicit sex to make him your slave, then fake a pregnancy scare to get that ring. But alas, the perpetually daydreaming Jude turns out not to grow into the fine middle-class provider that Arabella thought he would, so she absconds for Australia still legally married but in name only; and that's when Jude decides to go for broke and actually move to Christminster permanently, which is where he starts spending more and more time with his feisty cousin Sue Bridehead, an assistant to Jude's old grade-school teacher and engaged to be married to him, despite the decades of difference in their ages.
The majority of the novel, then, concerns the torrid "should they or shouldn't they" on-and-off affair between Jude and Sue, and all the obstacles that stand in their way -- including the social ostracizing, the fact that they're both still technically married to other people, and their growing suspicion that they might in fact be going to hell for their actions. I mean, it's hard to deny that they're in some kind of divine trouble, based on the almost cartoonish amount of tragedy that befalls the "living in sin" couple as the book progresses -- lost jobs, homelessness, illness, village scandals, endless broken hearts, even a freaking child suicide/murder pact. And thus does the book end in true tragic form, with most of the main characters either dying or already dead, and the few remaining stuck in loveless, soul-killing situations, all for want of the Victorian equivalent of "keeping up with the Joneses."
The argument for it being a classic:
Ironically, say its fans, the main reason Jude the Obscure earns its classic status is because of the hypocritically angry outrage it inspired among the very people Hardy accuses here of being angry hypocrites; it was in fact the first Great Banned Book of the 20th century, one that was even burned in public by various members of the British clergy, because of such "scandalous" details as an unmarried couple living together, an irony Hardy found so obvious and disgusting that this would be the last novel he'd ever write, spending the last thirty years of his career instead composing flowery love poetry. And that incidentally makes it a great historical record of its times, in that there were scads of young people at the end of the 19th century dealing with these very issues (including Hardy himself -- this is largely considered an autobiographical novel); for example, Sue exhibits nearly all the traits of the so-called "New Woman" or "Suffragette" from this period (independent, opinionated, politically active, with a low tolerance for empty appearances and a surprisingly complicated view of sex), while the entire concept of unmarried couples living together was one of the most hotly debated public topics of the day. And that leads to the greatest irony of all, say its fans: that despite being on the other side of the centennial fence, Hardy's work should actually be more associated not with Victorianism but with the great "Interregnum" writers of the early 20th century, people like Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson who were constantly pushing the boundaries of public decency during this so-called Genteel Age of the 1900s and '10s, but who had not yet adopted the experimental style that would become so popular with the Modernists starting in the 1920s. Add to this the simple emotional power of Hardy's tales, say his fans, and you're left with an indubitable classic that deserves to still be read by large sections of the general public.
The argument against:
"Jude the Obscure?" argue its critics. "More like Jude the Ridiculously Melodramatic!" And that's because, just like so many other novels after they reach their 100th anniversaries, this book is rapidly starting to show its age in about the worst way possible. Although not bad at all for the times in which it was written, which is why it's been revered for so many years, it's a fact that we now by the early 2000s find most of the tropes of the late Victorian Age to be inherently dated and passe, and unfortunately Jude the Obscure contains almost all of them -- the overly potboilerish plotline, the ridiculous amount of tragic events, the beaten-over-the-head subtlety of Hardy's points, even the angelic child characters who meet horrific ends. Although certainly still historically important, a book people should check out when specifically trying to learn more about its times, its critics argue that it simply no longer holds up as a decent piece of overall entertainment for a general audience, the criterion by which we are judging in this essay series a book's classic status.
One of the interesting realizations I've made while writing the CCLaP 100 is how surprisingly relative our societal opinions are at any given moment of what books constitute classics, and especially how that list changes relative to how much time has passed for any given generation; for example, how here in the early 2000s, there are still dozens and dozens of authors from World War Two to now who are still essentially household names, while well-known books from even 75 years ago are already starting to get whittled down in the public mind more and more, with only the Hemingways and Faulkners of the world now remembered by any random book lover out there. And so too was this the case in the Modernist days of the 1930s through '60s, when most of these so-called "literary canons" or classics lists started getting compiled for the first time (which of course is one of the other surprising things I've learned since starting the CCLaP 100, that it wasn't until the 20th century that people found it appropriate to make "classic novel" lists in the first place); and so of course such lists back then were going to carry an unusually large amount of titles from the late Victorian Age, which for them had just transpired 25 to 50 years ago, long enough to make some of the titles certainly a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, but not the historical anomalies and museum pieces they are to us. And that of course is why such canon lists are facing a crisis of legitimacy these days, and why I decided to do the CCLaP 100 in the first place; because it's tempting to keep these half-century-old lists carved in stone and forever unchanging, despite the fact that they were originally created in terms relative to their times, which is what we need to continue to do today to make such lists still relevant to our own times.
If you want to think of it in more modern terms, think perhaps of a writer like, oh, say, John Irving or Jane Smiley -- both of them fine authors, whose books are both popular and academically respected, but that ultimately never transcend the times in which they're written, providing great records of our current zeitgeist but eventually doomed to be forgotten by history at large. I feel the same way now about Thomas Hardy, to tell you the truth; and although it's true that he sows the seeds here that would eventually blossom into Early Modernism 25 years later, it's also true that this is a Victorian Novel with a capital V and N, a sometimes tedious and, yes, sometimes ridiculously melodramatic potboiler sermon, the kind of book we now mostly cite when gently poking fun of those times, not when wanting to reach for a great general piece of literature, like we do with, say, fellow Victorian potboiler but infinitely better book Jane Eyre. Although still recommended for those specifically studying that period of history, as well as those looking for a good cry, I find Jude the Obscure to be finally slipping these days beyond the boundary where we mark classics, and therefore do not recommend it to a general audience just for the sake of reading it.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
The Plague, by Albert Camus
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbohm
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)