Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Week 15, Thomas Hardy

General Notes on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Basic Theme in Hardy: Conforming to Conventions versus living in accordance with instinct. His framework is Darwinian and somewhat deterministic at times, thus accounting for his pessimism. What complicates things is that nature and culture aren’t exactly binary opposites—Phillotson correctly implies that culture is just as “red in tooth and claw” as the world of nature and instinct. Both nature and society are cruel, unforgiving, repressive. Trying to rise above them drains the energy from a person. There isn’t any room in this novel for the romantic and Rousseauistic notion that you can erase the corruptions wrought by civilization and get back to an original, purer self, one that will guide you through life. It is possible to fight against social constraints, but the cost is terrible—the world seems to be one big City Hall, even in the countryside: everywhere people form associations, conventionality rules, and the callous and the ignorant crush the life out of anyone who disagrees with them. As in Nietzsche, much of civilized life depends on “forgetting,” and those who unforget and denaturalize the operations of culture pay a heavy price for their rebellion. So Hardy isn’t a complete determinist, but he is a pessimist about the possibility of succeeding in one’s crusades against Mother Grundy, the Laws of Nature, or any other powerful shaping force in human life. In addition, not all of Jude’s rebellion is against “nature.” He is following his instinct for learning, which takes classical erudition as its object. He wants to reach a different place in his society, not to escape that society altogether.

Character Development: The characters are a mix, perhaps inconsistent. They’re not stereotypes generally, but often turn into short-order philosophers, mouthing Hardy’s own worst suspicions about the lot of us. Also, those who rebel sometimes end up conforming—witness Sue Bridehead, who goes back to Phillotson even though she doesn’t love him. She does this by adopting what she has come to see as an outmoded traditional notion: self-mortification, atonement—an idea that conflicts with her enlightened perspective on social arrangements and human nature.

Jude seems a mix from the beginning—look what a minefield his character is. He wants to escape from the rural constraints into which he has been born and to become a scholar, but then his body traps him into a marriage with a woman who possesses only animal cunning and healthy country-girl good looks. After being rejected as a scholar, he goes for the Anglican priesthood, and doesn’t get far with that either. Then he begins to lose his faith, and eventually sounds a great deal like the freethinker Sue, feeling that society has done him wrong and that he can’t abide by its harsh conventions, its cookie-cutter rules for human nature. Jude is a working-man who stands in symbolical relations to his age: he is riven by many of the same conflicts that made his era such a tumultuous one.

Gender Trouble: Arabella Donn (who takes on some conformist airs herself, by the way) knows that sex is a snare, and sets Jude up just like a rabbit. She has the low cunning of a country lass who has seen a couple of farm animals mating. One can use raw sexuality to secure a place in convention-bound social order. Once again, we find that nature and social convention are alike cruel, in their respective ways.

Prematurity: Little Father Time comes to symbolize everything that has gone wrong with Jude and Sue, and the whole group of adults, really. Unlike Wilde’s quip, to be premature is not to be perfect—see the point in the novel where Time commits suicide “because we are too meny.” He represents a type, the last man, perhaps—one whose imagination has been crushed by the weight of an unintelligible world. There is something of evolution in this character—civilization has got ahead of itself, producing such a pessimistic child who has skipped to the final stage of life before even having experienced the first ones. 355: “the coming universal wish not to live,” as the doctor terms it—sounds like Freud’s “Death Drive.” Hardy rejects the positive side of the evolutionist and sometimes vitalistic science of his day, which liked to talk about self-preservation, social instincts, and the life force.

Similarly, Jude and Sue’s revaluation of values is “premature,” and they suffer for it when the claws of a viciously conformist social system dig into them. At various points, they break away from and then partly return to the institutions that trouble them; they really can’t overcome them. In terms of character development, what defeats Hardy’s characters is their complexity, which is out of joint with the world’s imperatives. His characters are nothing like those of, say, Dickens, who are generally unitary in their makeup. Jude’s “heart” is complex; his identity and dreams are by no means simple or easy to achieve. (On page 22, he is characterized as a mixture of seasons, a description worth keeping in mind.) In the end, Hardy’s novel does not amount to an attempt to reflect or speak for the common classes of people. It is instead a disturbing attempt to show a system of values unraveling. Hardy’s plots don’t turn out well, and expectations of fulfillment are left frustrated. He shows people trapped by rigid social forms, but things are more complex than that because the oddness of his protagonists makes their lot all the more difficult.

Page-by-Page Notes on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

To be practical, Jude will become a stonemason, a trade John Ruskin would be proud of. Jude’s dream is to get a classical education in the religious city of Christminster, so he apprentices himself in Alfredston.

35. Just when he is forming his plans, the girls hit him with animal sexuality, as symbolized by that pig’s weenie they taunt him with. Arabella Donn is told that offering sex will win her a husband, and this advice turns out to be true, if disastrous. Jude is out of sync with his surroundings. Even his body pulls him down. He relives the body/soul dichotomy in his own person, and is riven by forces he doesn’t fully understand, trapped by circumstances and conventions. He tries to idealize the supposedly pregnant Arabella, but he knows this is only a ruse on his part.

60-70. Jude isn’t sure his seeking of knowledge isn’t conventional, and himself a type of what (following Antonio Gramsci) we might call the “organic intellectual.” The pig-killing episode is a transformative moment since Arabella is callous. She later tells Jude the Fawleys aren’t cut out for marriage.

85. Gothic Ruskin themes are apparent here, but Jude doesn’t yet see that neo-medievalism’s day has passed. Also in Christminster, we are reminded that Jude’s ideals are a mixture of Newman’s “life of the mind” and more practical preparation for the clergy. But of course social class is a hindrance in Jude’s case.

89-91. Sue Bridehead, Jude’s cousin, is an Anglican shop-tender. There are three reasons not to fall in love with her: they are cousins, there’s something of a family curse going, and he is already married. But Jude is an idealist and always wants to turn prose into poetry, so to speak.

110-20. Phillotson takes up with Sue in this section, and Jude is rejected by the Biblioll College (a fictional name) and told, more or less, to stay in his place. Jude is erudite, but he’s treated like Thomas Carlyle’s shoeblack in Sartor Resartus: he must reduce the denominator of his desires to zero if he wants to catch a hint of infinity. (As part of his rhetorical war on vanity, Carlyle’s Diogenes Teufelsdröckh says, “Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.”) Jude decides to become a minister, and sets off for Melchester to catch the train.

150-60. Sue Bridehead is a free, pagan or classical thinker, and a doubter when it comes to religion. She rejects the medievalism of Christminster. This aspect of her is troubling to Jude.

223-27. Arabella has returned by now. Jude kisses Sue after Aunt Drusilla dies. He realizes that his religious ambitions will have to go because they contradict his passion.

233. Sue speaks to Phillotson of her “theoretic unconventionality.” This is significant—she had made a promise and could not bring herself to break it.

236. Sue says that diversity is better than respectability.

240. Phillotson makes Hardy’s case, but the transformation isn’t handled realistically. Jude and Sue have not done him justice. It may be that instinct (as opposed to custom) is at work, just as Phillotson says.

253-70. Phillotson rejects custom still, and his supporters get in a scuffle with Mother Grundy (i.e. the force of custom and social expectations). Right thinking and generosity are not going to set everything to rights, given this pressure.

290. Jude sees futurity in little “Father Time.” Instead of a tie to the world, the boy is an abstraction. This whole section illustrates Ruskin’s principle that “there is no wealth but life.” Father Time succumbs to the dreary ideology of political economy, the so-called “dismal science.”

296. Family history is thwarted, overcome by circumstance.

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