A couple of summers ago, I went on a Thomas Hardy jag. (Can you use "Thomas Hardy" and "jag" in the same sentence? I guess you can if you make an appropriately meta and self-deprecating parenthetical remark immediately afterward. At least, I hope so.) This surprised me - that is, it surprised me that I got so into Thomas Hardy - because the summer before my senior year of high school I had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge for AP English, and it took me all summer and I hated it and I almost gave up on serious books for good and I spent the next fifteen years bellyaching about Thomas Hardy being the most boring writer in the world. But: as it turns out, I was an idiot, and Thomas Hardy is one of the greats. One of the stalwarts, fighting the good fight down there in the trenches with the words and the feelings and the ideas.
I started with Jude the Obscure (1896), and here's what I wrote about it then:
Another lunch-break library book [ed.: I was doing dissertation research in Japan at this time, and strayed into the school's small selection of English literature in English, and ended up spending a lot of lunch hours reading]. We watched the film version, with Kate Winslet, and the next day I saw this on the shelf and picked it up. I couldn’t believe I was reading a Thomas Hardy novel—reading The Mayor of Casterbridge the summer before my senior year of high school was one of the most annoying experiences I’ve ever had with a book. What’s even more unbelievable is how much I loved this one.
Jude Fawley is an orphan in a village in Wessex who dreams of going to study at Christminster (Oxford) and then entering the ministry. Of course, in his day this is impossible for anybody born poor like him, but he doesn’t realize it, and sets himself to studying on his own. When he become a man, he picks up a trade (stonemasonry), and is saving up to go to Christminster when sex intervenes. He’s seduced by a local girl, Arabella, and she tricks him into marrying her by saying she’s pregnant. It’s an unhappy marriage, and when he finds out he was tricked they argue, and she then leaves for Australia with her parents.
He goes to Christminster. Here he meets his long-lost cousin Sue Bridehead, also an orphan, and falls in love with her, although because he’s married and bound for the priesthood and her cousin and they both come from families cursed to miserable broken marriages, he treats her as a friend only. But of course they’re both falling in love. She’s independent-minded— skeptical about religion and social mores. Meanwhile, he finally realizes that the colleges won’t have anything to do with him because he’s a working man. Meanwhile, she starts teaching for Phillotson, Jude’s old schoolmaster. Then she goes away to a teacher’s training college.
Jude visits her, and they go on an outing from which she’s late returning. They’re clearly falling in love, everybody around them can see it, but they don’t do anything bad. However, the scandal gets her expelled from the college. Then he tells her he’s married, when he finds out she’s engaged to Phillotson, and she’s so upset that she goes and actually marries Phillotson. But she doesn’t love him: she loves Jude.
Thus far, about halfway through, the book has this wonderful sense of tragedy: their love is evoked quite intensely, and the fact that they’re both married to other people makes them nicely star-crossed lovers.
But then their respective spouses actually grant them divorces: Arabella so she can remarry, and Phillotson because he pities Sue. This is an interesting turning point in the book, because now they’re actually free to legally marry. But they don’t—Sue is too delicate on the matter of physical relations, and afraid of the legal responsibilities that marriage will entail. She doesn’t want the law to force her to love someone forever. Independent-minded.
But from this point the novel ceases to be a tragedy of star-crossed lovers, really: they could marry, and thus legitimize their relationship and go on with their lives. But they don’t. But they have kids anyway (including taking on one that Jude had unknowingly fathered with Arabella). And every town they go to eventually chases them away as a scandal. Then the kids die (Arabella and Jude’s is preternaturally doomy, and kills himself and the others), and Sue takes this as God’s judgment on her. She abruptly abandons all her modern ideas, even as Jude has abandoned his beliefs, feeling that they can’t be true if they so conflict with his natural human impulses.
In the end Sue goes back to Phillotson and forces herself to endure physical relations with him as a penance. Jude is once again tricked by Arabella into marrying her (she keeps him drunk for a week), but once he learns that Sue has truly given herself to Phillotson he basically wills himself to die, and does.
Well, put like that it kind of sounds silly in places, but he pulls it off nicely. As I say, halfway through it ceases to be a tragedy of mythic dimensions. Instead, it becomes this fascinating character study. Sue is a woman the likes of whom I’ve met, and probably all men secretly fear women are: at the root of her modern ideas of love and marriage is the wish that sex didn’t have to enter into it at all. She’s ethereal, mental, even spiritual, but not sexual. As a result, her treatment of Jude is what we would now call a cock-tease. But Jude understands that she’s not trying to torment him, and he’ll forgive her anything. Both of them do what they do out of choice, which makes it not so much a tragedy as an inquiry into their psychologies, and into the social forces that make them both so wary of marriage in the second place. Of course it’s also an indictment of a society that thinks it’s anybody’s business what two consenting adults do in private.
Anyway, I really loved it. It reminded me a little, in the intensity of its anatomization of their emotions, of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow—I was happy to read somewhere that Lawrence liked this book.