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Jude the Obscure (Dover Thrift Editions)

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy A sad song? You ain’t kiddin’. I don’t see how anybody is going to make all this better. The central story of this novel had to do with ill-advised, loveless marriages. Apparently (I say “apparently” because I read it in the book’s introduction. Does anybody else bother to read the introductions? I often do. Out of compulsion, I guess; I feel like I haven’t completely read the book otherwise.) Thomas Hardy took a lot of shit for writing so astringently about the institution of marriage, and all the customs of courtship which take natural tendencies towards love, and turn them into something else… something mandated, institutionalized, documented, and structured. Something less spontaneous; less joyful. More to the point: Hardy convincingly shows social conventions commandeering peoples’ lives and steering them to tortured ends which serve group interests, at the expense of the individuals. Similar commentary is presented in [b:Winesburg Ohio|80176|Winesburg, Ohio|Sherwood Anderson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170979482s/80176.jpg|191520], as well as the 1961 Natalie Wood film Splendor In the Grass. …and I liked those very much, but to tell the truth, that was not what impressed me about Jude the Obscure. The catastrophic marriages of Jude/Arabella; Sue/Richard; Jude/Sue; Sue/Richard (pt 2) and Jude/Arabella (pt 2) were so bleak, so unrelentingly despairing, so punctuated with over-the-top tragedy most depressing double murder/suicide story in recent memory that after a while, it got to be just too much, and the part that was supposed to be most devastating (see spoiler, above) I couldn’t even take seriously any more, like an ABC Afterschool Special which goes off the rails into insanity: a cautionary tale about the hard consequences of an unplanned pregnancy… which spins out of control, when butterfly effects cause said pregnancy to result in a double murder/suicide. Unplanned teen pregnancies can make things tough on a young couple starting out, but most of them don't end up quite that bad.…But I gave this book four stars, so I must have liked something about it, right? Hell yeah, I did. I loved the whole storyline about Jude struggling with his ambitions, his studies, and his dreams to break out of that sleepy rural town and make a better life for himself in the city. Remember how your heart ached for George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, when so many times he was on the verge of breaking free of little Bedford Falls, when some unforeseen circumstance would drag him back in? Well, that shit is REAL, and I’ve felt what Jude feels, and what George Bailey felt. Friends and family say I am too hard on my deindustrialized hometown in the Rust Belt of America, but Jude the Obscure put me right back there, to a time in about the 8th or 9th grade, when I came to define my ideas of future success and failure in terms of my ability to leave that town and not look back. But let’s not make this about me; all the immigrants who have ever come to America left places which- for one reason or another- they felt they had to get out of. I’m not equating the severe challenges most immigrants faced with the relatively mild ones I faced; I’m just saying that when you feel you’re trapped in a place that holds little promise for you, the drive to flee can be all-consuming. Jude climbs up on the neighbor’s barn on clear nights, just to see the glow of far-off Christminster, the college town where –with a little luck and perseverance- he might gain admission and take up a course of study that leads him to a better life. Lacking the money for a proper tutor, he teaches himself Latin and Greek… struggling after working hours with ancient texts by lamplight.Even if you’ve never felt that particular sort of longing, you know it is one of those elemental human emotions which has driven the course of history. All the extraordinary prosperity this country has enjoyed was the product of people fleeing stagnation (or worse) and seeking opportunities for advancement. And in places where those opportunities are removed, you have to build fences to keep people from leaving.So it was with a hard, sad, sick feeling that I had to watch obstacles arise to divert Jude from realizing his dreams. He’s got the robust energy of youth, and the singleminded focus to do whatever it takes to get into one of those colleges… but then the unplanned pregnancy comes up. And then the doomed marriage to Arabella quickly follows. Then, the harsh realities of poverty force Jude to defer his ambitions for a while, and take the position as a stonemason’s apprentice. How quickly it all comes to pass… compromise by compromise, tiny detours incrementally lead him off the road he knows his happiness requires him to stay on. It’s as if there are ironclad laws of “socioeconomic thermodynamics” which seem to govern his path of least resistance back to the generations-old pattern of backbreaking manual labor and barely-livable wages. And if all that isn’t bad enough, there’s that scene with the young students in the bar: Jude has been a stonemason now for ten years or so. He’s hung onto the dream of college with such obstinacy; he even wrote to the deans of several universities, explaining his situation and asking for advice; but these have either been ignored, or answered with recommendations to accept his station in life and forget about higher learning. Beaten down so, Jude finds himself drinking in a pub one night, when he sees a bunch of smart-aleky young students from one of the local colleges. They’re just immature children of privilege, hanging out having fun. They aren’t back in their dorms struggling through ancient classics, as he longs to be. Instead, they’re biding their time, it would seem, through an indifferent matriculation. College is a perfunctory stop for them, before they move on to the next step, to bigger and better things. They seem to have been born onto a path where the world and its treasures are there for the taking, but the ease of access to these is a matter of birthright, not hard work or innate talent. And do they see any of this, and bear it with humility? No. They laugh at his attempt to recite Latin. To them he’s a typical townie, stuck in a deadend life. Maybe he’s a little more humorous than most, because of his hamfisted attempts at Latin. “How cute; he’s trying to learn!” It tears at Jude, and it tears at me too. This is Hardy’s commentary on rigid class structures and the hypocrisy of a free market economy which gates opportunities for advancement on social considerations rather than merit. Of course it applies in present day as well. Just sticking with college admissions: it is a well-known fact that offspring of alumni enjoy an advantage in gaining admission to a school. It is difficult to reconcile that with the democratic and meritocratic ideals espoused by most schools. It is tragic to watch Jude’s obvious potential go unfulfilled. I was outraged to see conventions and expectations designed to maintain the socioeconomic status quo conspiring to inhibit Jude from overstepping his ordained rank in the grand order of things. It is disheartening to see his cheerful optimism beaten out of him, as he stepwise accepts a life of toil without any mental stimulation. Is Jude completely the victim? Isn’t his shortfall from lofty academic aspirations the result of choices he made (e.g. to have sex with Arabella)? On one level yes, but the system seems engineered to look on some members’ mistakes (e.g. the students in the pub) with much more forgiveness than others'. The fate of Jude’s childhood role model and teacher, Mr. Philloston, seems to support this.Maybe it is self-centered to like a book just because it tells me that stuff is important, which I already thought was important. Maybe it’s narcissistic to like a novel because a character’s particular struggles remind me of my own, but there you go. Hardy presented these things with believable clarity. Like I said, I feel for Jude, and it’s like this: every bird you see once emerged from an egg, but that shouldn’t make anybody conclude that breaking out of an egg is easy. There are some birds which don’t make it. Maybe nature didn’t quite apportion enough yolk to last through the entire gestation period. That can happen if the mother bird is undernourished at the time of egglaying. Maybe lower temperatures caused the little bird to burn through his allotted calories faster than anticipated, so when the time comes to crack that shell, he just doesn’t have the strength. It must be a cruel fate, to be cramped inside that dark, circumscribed place, and not quite have the means to break through to a life waiting on the other side… to instead be doomed to an asymptotic ebbing away of existence, unknown and unloved in that solitary space. To birds who have successfully hatched, it’s no big deal -just an eggshell- but Man, when you’re inside that egg, it’s everything.