*Warning: if you read this book, expect to be depressed for a minimum of two weeks*
This book is somewhat of a legend in my family. It began an undefined number of years ago when my mother was a child (my mum would kill me if I said how long ago that was!) and her best friend told her “only read it if you’re in a really good place in your life”. She has subsequently never read it, worried that even if she’s in a good mood, it will bring her down. Of course, I never heeded this advice, and read it at the ripe old age of seventeen. When I finished Jude that first time, I literally just sat for a full hour, staring at the walls. My brother walked in, saw my peculiar state and thought I’d completely lost it. He did not understand until four years later when he read it. Then he was left wandering the snow-laden streets of Jerusalem for about a week, weighed down by that same despairing novel, before he phoned me up to discuss it at length.
Because while it is the kind of book that tears at your soul, it is also a book rich in meaning and full of all the wonderful traits that makes Hardy’s novels so memorable. Like his other work, the atmospheric tension pervades the narrative. Wessex comes alive as a character in its own right. Against this backdrop, the characters take perfect poetic form, holding a dichotomy within themselves, whilst mirroring their moral counterparts perfectly. For every character trait there is a conflicting attribute and for every character there is a counterpart. So, not only is Jude an oxymoron of hope and despair, but he also emulates Phillotson in his ambitions. Likewise, both Arabella and Sue are both fakes- Arabella’s whole appearance is a sham and Sue pretends to be more “enlightened” than she really is. This is literary genius at work.
The images in this book are so powerful- I will always picture Arabella unwinding her snakelike hair whenever I think of phonies. Not to mention all the spoilery images that I won’t mention. There are so many subtle nuances in the book that make it not just an enjoyable read, but also well worth delving into and really exploring. The themes of failed aspiration and marriage were bold and really challenged conventions- not just contemporary Victorian conventions, but also the modern idylls of marriage and university that we hold dear today. The enduring nature of this book, not what it meant to audiences in the past, is what really makes this a classic.
I remember reading Hardy’s rebuttal at the opening, about how so many people missed the point when it was first published, and I remember thinking that was partly true. Yes, the story at its core is a tragic romance. But it is also designed to shock. And boy does it do that well. Some of the scenes in this book are still the most shocking I have ever seen/read- even the Red Wedding can’t compare. These scenes are not just shocking for the sake of causing a scandal alone however- no what is brilliant about them is that these scenes are crafted to drive home the message and horror of the story. It brings the consequences of social injustice into sharp relief.
Hardy’s hardly upbeat to begin with, but this is definitely his darkest work. Still, this is one of my favourite books and definitely my favourite Hardy. I don’t know what that says about me- but I just can’t help it. It’s just one of those books that no matter what you do, you will never get out of your head (and will probably leave you emotionally scarred to boot). So it should come as no surprise that I’m giving it…
(Just be careful with those banana peels- because one thing Hardy definitely taught me is that you never know what minor calamity Fate may seize upon to make you suffer!)