Jude the Obscure

I’ve long believed that great literature reveals what you already subconsciously “know” but haven’t yet been able to articulate on your own. A corollary to that might be that you can only get out of a book what you’re ready to get.

My Thomas Hardy project my senior English class was a life-changing event but I’m sure the novel I just finished is not the same novel I read in high school, though it’s the very same book. My senior year I was just beginning to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the private colleges that were recruiting me because of my advanced classes, good grades and high SAT scores. My parents couldn’t afford to help me pay for college, and if I moved away I’d never manage to get as good of a job as I had in Seattle, my only source of income. The thought of getting a “loan” never crossed my mind.

I don’t think I’d ever consciously thought about where I want to go to college before my senior year, but it was always a “given” I would go. I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college or what career I wanted to pursue, but I knew I wanted an “education,” what used to be called a “liberal arts” education.

I’d just watched my older brother drop out of college after a quarter, get married, and head for a divorce after marrying someone he had little in common with. My own hormones were in play, too, but when the girl I’d dated most of my senior year suggested we were “getting too serious” I dropped her like a hot potato, possibly right after I’d read Jude the Obscure. The only thing I was really serious about was getting through college, and I knew that would never happen if I got married before I graduated.

Small surprise, then, that the main theme I locked into in Jude the Obscure was the dashing of his life-long dream.

“It is a city of light,” he said to himself.

“The tree of knowledge grows there,” he added a few steps further on.

“It is a place that teachers of men spring from and go to.”

“It is what you may call a castle, manned by scholarship and religion.”

After this figure he was silent a long while, till he added:

“It would just suit me.”

Only someone who’d been denied the privilege of going to school would dream like this (I certainly never did) but like Jude I’d grown up believing college “would just suit me.”

And like Jude, or any teenage boy, for that matter, it was hard to resist sexual desires:

In short, as if materially, a compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of him–something which had nothing in common with the spirits and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his so-called elevated intentions, and moved him along, as a violent schoolmaster a schoolboy he has seized by the collar, in a direction which tended towards the embrace of a woman for whom he had no respect, and whose life had nothing in common with his own except locality.

Luckily, I hadn’t succumbed to those powers by the time I read this book, but Jude made me more aware of the dangers of premarital sex than the pathetic “Health” class I was required to take my senior year, a class that seemed more interested in describing human plumbing than having any kind of meaningful discussion of sex, or its consequences.

Despite the fact that no one in the family ever discussed sex with me, I never doubted that my family would expect me to marry the girl if I ever got one pregnant.

“You knew better! Of course I never dreamt six months ago, or even three, of marrying. It is a complete smashing up of my plans–I mean my plans before I knew you, my dear. But what are they, after all! Dreams about books, and degrees, and impossible fellowships, and all that. Certainly we’ll marry: we must!”

However, I don’t think I’d ever given the whole concept much thought before I read Jude. I’m sure it’s the first time I ever heard this social mandate questioned as it was when Jude is told that Arabella wasn’t really pregnant:

There seemed to him, vaguely and dimly, something wrong in a social ritual which made necessary a cancelling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour, of foregoing a man’s one opportunity of showing himself superior to the lower animals, and of contributing his units of work to the general progress of his generation, because of a momentary surprise by a new and transitory instinct which had nothing in it of the nature of vice, and could be only at the most called weakness. He was inclined to inquire what he had done, or she lost, for that matter, that he deserved to be caught in a gin which would cripple him, if not her also, for the rest of a lifetime? There was perhaps something fortunate in the fact that the immediate reason of his marriage had proved to be non-existent. But the marriage remained.

It had never crossed my mind that a girl would fake pregnancy in order to trap someone even though I had some vague notion that some girls used sex to trap a guy, and it was wise to avoid that kind of girl. The novel probably wouldn’t have had much impression on me, though, if it were only sex that kept Jude from reaching his dream. After all, I could control that.

What made the most impression on me was another wall that stood between Jude and the school of his dream:

It was not till now, when he found himself actually on the spot of his enthusiasm, that Jude perceived how far away from the object of that enthusiasm he really was. Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Only a wall–but what a wall!

Until high school I don’t think I’d been aware of class differences, or even intellectual differences. Those differences became clearer as college approached, and while some in my class talked of going off to Ivy League schools or choosing fraternities, others of us talked about forming car pools to commute to the local college. Until I read Jude, I’m sure I hadn’t given a second thought to those who couldn’t even afford to go to a local college.

Although my grandfather was a graduate of Harvard and MIT, he died quite young and none of his sons graduated from college, and none of my cousins appeared headed there, either. It probably wasn’t until the next year when I attended college that this passage really seemed true:

“Just what we thought! Such places be not for such as you–only for them with plenty o’ money.”

“There you are wrong,” said Jude, with some bitterness. “They are for such ones!”

Still, the remark was sufficient to withdraw Jude’s attention from the imaginative world he had lately inhabited, in which an abstract figure, more or less himself, was steeping his mind in a sublimation of the arts and sciences, and making his calling and election sure to a seat in the paradise of the learned. He was set regarding his prospects in a cold northern light. He had lately felt that he could not quite satisfy himself in his Greek–in the Greek of the dramatists particularly. So fatigued was he sometimes after his day’s work that he could not maintain the critical attention necessary for thorough application. He felt that he wanted a coach–a friend at his elbow to tell him in a moment what sometimes would occupy him a weary month in extracting from unanticipative, clumsy books.

It was decidedly necessary to consider facts a little more closely than he had done of late. What was the good, after all, of using up his spare hours in a vague labour called “private study” without giving an outlook on practicabilities?

I worked my way through college, often working 40 hours a week at my janitorial job. Working that many hours, it proved impossible to keep my grades as high as I had become accustomed to in high school. Despite a love of ideas, college was a grind, not the care-free years that they are so often portrayed as. That was reserved for rich kids whose parents could pay for college.

I found it impossible not to feel sorry for Jude when he realized after years of dreaming and studying by himself that it was nearly impossible for him to ever go to the school he now lives so close to:

Meanwhile the academic dignitaries to whom Jude had written vouchsafed no answer, and the young man was thus thrown back entirely on himself, as formerly, with the added gloom of a weakened hope. By indirect inquiries he soon perceived clearly what he had long uneasily suspected, that to qualify himself for certain open scholarships and exhibitions was the only brilliant course. But to do this a good deal of coaching would be necessary, and much natural ability. It was next to impossible that a man reading on his own system, however widely and thoroughly, even over the prolonged period of ten years, should be able to compete with those who had passed their lives under trained teachers and had worked to ordained lines.

The other course, that of buying himself in, so to speak, seemed the only one really open to men like him, the difficulty being simply of a material kind. With the help of his information he began to reckon the extent of this material obstacle, and ascertained, to his dismay, that, at the rate at which, with the best of fortune, he would be able to save money, fifteen years must elapse before he could be in a position to forward testimonials to the head of a college and advance to a matriculation examination. The undertaking was hopeless.

He saw what a curious and cunning glamour the neighbourhood of the place had exercised over him. To get there and live there, to move among the churches and halls and become imbued with the genius loci had seemed to his dreaming youth, as the spot shaped its charms to him from its halo on the horizon, the obvious and ideal thing to do. “Let me only get there,” he had said with the fatuousness of Crusoe over his big boat, “and the rest is but a matter of time and energy.” It would have been far better for him in every way if he had never come within sight and sound of the delusive precincts, had gone to some busy commercial town with the sole object of making money by his wits, and thence surveyed his plan in true perspective. Well, all that was clear to him amounted to this, that the whole scheme had burst up, like an iridescent soap-bubble, under the touch of a reasoned inquiry. He looked back at himself along the vista of his past years, and his thought was akin to Heine’s:

Above the youth’s inspired and flashing eyes

I see the motley mocking fool’s-cap rise!

It seems particularly disappointing that the only letter he gets back after asking for advice from teachers at the college suggests he stay at his trade, though, sadly, it may have been the best advice he could have gotten considering the alternatives.

Like Sue we may find ourselves asking:

“Why should you care so much for Christminster?” she said pensively. “Christminster cares nothing for you, poor dear!”

“Well, I do, I can’t help it. I love the place–although I know how it hates all men like me–the so-called self-taught–how it scorns our laboured acquisitions, when it should be the first to respect them; how it sneers at our false quantities and mispronunciations, when it should say, I see you want help, my poor friend! … Nevertheless, it is the centre of the universe to me, because of my early dream: and nothing can alter it. Perhaps it will soon wake up, and be generous. I pray so! … I should like to go back to live there–perhaps to die there! In two or three weeks I might, I think. It will then be June, and I should like to be there by a particular day.”

Unfortunately, we don’t always choose our dreams, sometimes they choose us.

Jude was meant to be a scholar, as he points out near the end of his struggles:

But finding himself the centre of curiosity, quizzing, and comment, Jude was not inclined to shrink from open declarations of what he had no great reason to be ashamed of; and in a little while was stimulated to say in a loud voice to the listening throng generally:

“It is a difficult question, my friends, for any young man–that question I had to grapple with, and which thousands are weighing at the present moment in these uprising times–whether to follow uncritically the track he finds himself in, without considering his aptness for it, or to consider what his aptness or bent may be, and re-shape his course accordingly. I tried to do the latter, and I failed. But I don’t admit that my failure proved my view to be a wrong one, or that my success would have made it a right one; though that’s how we appraise such attempts nowadays–I mean, not by their essential soundness, but by their accidental outcomes. If I had ended by becoming like one of these gentlemen in red and black that we saw dropping in here by now, everybody would have said: ‘See how wise that young man was, to follow the bent of his nature!’ But having ended no better than I began they say: ‘See what a fool that fellow was in following a freak of his fancy!’

“However it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten. It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one; and my impulses–affections–vices perhaps they should be called–were too strong not to hamper a man without advantages; who should be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig to have a really good chance of being one of his country’s worthies. You may ridicule me–I am quite willing that you should–I am a fit subject, no doubt. But I think if you knew what I have gone through these last few years you would rather pity me. And if they knew”–he nodded towards the college at which the dons were severally arriving–“it is just possible they would do the same.”

“He do look ill and worn-out, it is true!” said a woman.

Sue’s face grew more emotional; but though she stood close to Jude she was screened.

“I may do some good before I am dead–be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story,” continued Jude, beginning to grow bitter, though he had opened serenely enough. “I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness that makes so many unhappy in these days!”

“Don’t tell them that!” whispered Sue with tears, at perceiving Jude’s state of mind. “You weren’t that. You struggled nobly to acquire knowledge, and only the meanest souls in the world would blame you!”

Jude shifted the child into a more easy position on his arm, and concluded: “And what I appear, a sick and poor man, is not the worst of me. I am in a chaos of principles–groping in the dark–acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I cannot explain further here. I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas: what it is can only be discovered by men or women with greater insight than mine–if, indeed, they ever discover it–at least in our time. ‘For who knoweth what is good for man in this life?–and who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?'”

“Hear, hear,” said the populace.

Though he begins with this failed efforts to attain a degree from Christminster, Jude shifts to the larger theme in the tale he relates, one I was less aware of as a teenager. It is surely a tragedy that Jude was unable to attend Christminster, but the far greater tragedy, the one that occurs later in the novel, is the one that befalls he and Sue because they have challenged society’s “social formulas” and at least one of them is not strong enough to bear the burden of that defiance.

Since Hardy wrote the novel, education has come a long ways and poor students have an infinitely better chance of earning a college degree than Jude did, though I have to believe that there are still thousands of “Judes” in the world whose dream of academic success are thwarted. There’s no way to keep people from making “wrong” choices in their life, but let’s hope society finds ways to ensure that everyone who works hard to get a college degree can do so. When I see recent trends, particularly escalating costs, I fear that society may actually moving in the wrong direction, ironic when we consider society’s growing need for educated workers.