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Jude the Obscure
7.16.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

When one thinks of the Victorian era in England one thinks of prudery, politeness, and repression. One thinks of the sort of people who say "one" a lot. Jane Austen is a good example of the literature of this era. The following is a quote from Pride & Prejudice, in which Jane reveals to her sister what she likes about the man she is going to marry:

When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed how very much she admired him.
"He is just what a young man ought to be," said she, "sensible, good-humoured, lively; and I never saw such happy manners! — so much ease, with such perfect good breeding!"

This is what people were supposed to be like in the Victorian era: sensible and good-humoured, with "happy manners" and "good breeding". But near the end of Queen Victoria's reign, there was a short period known as the Fin de Siecle, in which people started to get a bit naughty. You started to get writers like Ernest Dowson, who preferred getting drunk to being sensible. He was interested in "good breeding," but not in the sense that Jane Austen was talking about. In his poem, “Cynara” (in which he tries to persuade his lover that he's been faithful to her even though he just slept with a prostitute), he says, "I cried for madder music and for stronger wine." This sums up what people wanted in the Fin de Siecle, and who can blame them after a century of being sensible and polite all the time?

Thomas Hardy was also writing during this period. Jude the Obscure was first published in Harper's and Hardy had to severely censor it to make it appropriate for the family magazine. This was mainly because the book contained many shockingly unorthodox ideas (for instance, it portrays unmarried couples living together), but also because it's terribly, terribly depressing and Harper's didn't want their readers slitting their wrists after reading it.

The book starts with Jude as a young boy. Inspired by his teacher at school, Jude dreams of going to university at Christminster (a fictional university that represents Oxford), so he studies and works hard and struggles against all odds...and fails miserably. So he gets married instead...his marriage fails miserably. So he decides to have another shot at getting into Christminster and actually moves to the city to improve his chances. Again, he fails miserably. But in Christminster he meets his cousin Sue Bridehead and falls in love with her. Romance with Sue also fails miserably and she ends up marrying the teacher who Jude idolized as a child.

In case you haven't caught on by now, failure and misery are major themes in this book. There's a spark of hope, however, when Sue flees her crusty old husband and runs away with Jude. They almost get married dozens of times, but they've both become so jaded about marriage by this point that they never have the guts to go through with it. They live together anyway (gasp!) and have a bunch of kids. Their happiness is quickly destroyed, however, when one of the children murders all the others and kills himself. Jude and Sue separate and end up back where they started, their hopes and dreams shattered, their children dead, their lives ruined.

Yep, it's a depressing book, but if you're really jaded about relationships and university you'll love it.

The book comes down especially hard on marriage. In his description of Jude's doomed marriage, Hardy says:

"The two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore."

Unsurprisingly, Hardy himself had difficult marriages, and he fought to make divorce easier in England.

The views expressed in Jude led to much controversy. One bishop burnt the book; "probably in his despair at not being able to burn me," said Hardy. The book caused him so much trouble that he gave up on writing novels entirely.

So in short, Jude the Obscure is 450 pages of misery, depression, failure and death. Kind of like what I have to look forward to after finishing my English degree.

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