Top critical review
on 13 March 2016
Don’t read Thomas Hardy if you want to feel uplifted. Having said that, the two leading characters and plot in this are so implausible that it is difficult to feel moved by the tragedy that the story portrays. Most of the time I was so annoyed and infuriated by the illogical actions of both that the fact that the events contributing to Jude’s downfall are so contrived that I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.
Although Jude himself is at times treated badly by fate, the weakness of will he displays with regard to Arabella is beyond belief; his second and final entrapment by her being near to implausible. This weakness is also apparent in his infatuation with Sue Bridehead, and his steadfastness in this despite her infuriating fickleness in her affection for him. Her behaviour throughout the story would lead any rational person to conclude that she was mentally unstable, and yet he endures this when anyone else would have dumped her long before the almost inevitable conclusion and tragedy. It has been suggested that Hardy may have been trying to portray Sue as a forerunner of the feminist movement, but that’s no excuse for her contradictory and eccentric behaviour.
This infuriating story is a vehicle for Hardy to explore the three themes of marriage, thwarted ambition and, to a lesser extent, class. Through Sue, he challenges the concept of marriage, and when the book was written in the late 19th century, it was perceived as scandalous in suggesting that marriage was an artificial and unnecessary imposition. The story’s conclusion appears to bear this suggestion out, as it largely contributes to final tragic fate of Jude and Sue.
Hardy himself insisted that his main theme was thwarted ambition, and this is certainly the case for Jude. However, class, and thence lack of money and connections significantly contributes to this, and is underlined by his life in Christminster (Oxford), which starkly contrasts his struggles as an artisan against the privileged inhabitants of the gleaming spires.
Against all this must be borne in mind that this was written in 1894, and should be judged with that in mind. We've had 122 years of increasingly sophisticated literature since then, and so Hardy and his contemporaries can seem anachronistic. I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to Hardy. Try Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess first, although they too display Hardy’s tendency to subject his characters to often unlikely interventions of fate.