Jude the Obscure: Theme Analysis
Marriage and Sexual Morality
Hardy’s notes on the creation of the novel suggest that, though he had intended it to center on Jude’s desire to become educated, the question of marriage and sexual morality gradually became as central to the novel’s conflicts. Laws and social expectations are part of what he called “the tragic machinery” of the story. It was certainly the question of sexual morality that offended many of Hardy’s contemporary readers: One reviewer called the novel “a moral monstrosity,” and another characterized it as “a stream of indecency.” At the time of the novel’s setting, divorce was difficult and expensive to achieve; and marriages, for better or for worse, thus tended to be permanent. However, Hardy’s opinion, as he states it in a preface to the novel, is “that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties—being then essentially and morally no marriage.” Civil laws on marriage, he believed, should be “the enunciation of the law of nature.” Because they were not, the clash between the law of nature and the laws of society lays the ground for tragic results in the novel—for the long life of bitter duty that Sue faces at the end of the novel; for the deaths of the children; for the shattered dignity and reputation of Phillotson, who tries repeatedly to do the right thing; or for the pitying but broken heart that Jude suffers. And these results do not take into consideration the many lesser evils that arise because “the law of nature” is not reflected in civil law—loss of opportunity to work and lodge, to study with others, to attend church or go to market without fear of disapproving murmurs
Arabella’s actions provide a different critique of the institution of marriage. She approaches marriage primarily as a business transaction, and when it no longer benefits her, as when Jude’s apprentice wages are small, she moves on to the next deal. And even in that financially successful deal, Arabella faces her husband’s occasional physical abuse. Sexual attraction plays a role in Arabella’s choice of spouse once, when she marries Jude the second time; but her physical attraction to Jude causes her to ignore her business sense, despite her father’s warnings. As Jude’s health declines, Arabella is soured because he cannot pay her way as she expected him to. Sexual attraction, indeed, proves a poor indicator of marital success throughout the novel. It is what draws Jude to Arabella (and away from what really matters to him, his studies) initially.
Readers today may wonder why Jude’s and Sue’s divorces matter—legally, their first marriages are ended, and the matter should be closed. They may doubt that the intense speculation and disapproval that Jude and Sue’s relationship—what might be called today a common-law marriage—would really happen. Yet novels of this period often deal with sexual morality or immorality, generally praising the first and condemning the second. The issue is complicated by the fact that birth control and abortion were hard to obtain and considered deeply immoral. This meant that women rarely had control over their own bodies—nature would inevitably take its course. For women outside of marriage, sexual activity could be disastrous, and many a “fallen” young woman in novels of this time paid for her dalliance with her life. Even for a married woman, the inability to prevent pregnancy, and the common belief in the husband’s conjugal rights, meant that sexual attraction could pose a risk to health and happiness, as it does for Sue.
It is hard to point to a positive example of marriage in the novel, but perhaps Mrs. Edlin and her deceased husband comes closest. The widow remembers her husband, whom she married more than five decades ago, with fondness and is hard pressed to understand Sue’s feelings toward marriage. Yet the situation is not hopeless. Readers see, in Phillotson’s willingness to let Sue’s sensitivity postpone sexual activity for years, in Jude’s willingness to patiently wait on Sue, and in Sue and Jude’s happiness for a little while, a possible model of marriage or similar union. It is a marriage of minds, of sympathies, first—a union of friends before a union of lovers.
Class and Inequality
Some critics argue that Jude the Obscure broke ground at its publication in 1895 by having as its hero “a working class hero.” As with the question of marriage and sexuality, to truly understand this theme in the novel, readers must imaginatively place themselves in a society clearly marked by class exclusion. The consequences of this social arrangement are hinted at in the novel’s title. Jude is obscure—that is, hidden or unknown to the exclusive segment of university-trained men and their teachers. They hardly know of his existence, of his efforts since he was a young child to teach himself, of his native ability to learn, or of his death on the day when young men who are known among the upper class take their degrees, arrogantly assuming their superiority.
The assumption that the class distinctions that separate Jude from the Christminster undergraduates is unquestioned on both sides of the social divide. The college head who writes to Jude that he should stay in “his own sphere” assumes, even in the face of contrary evidence, that Jude does not belong at the university; the adults that the young Jude consults (the carter, for example) tell him that Christminster is not for him because he is poor and obscure. Yet Jude’s reading has brought him into contact with past teachers of the university, through their written words, and into contact with the teachers of antiquity. That he achieves intellectual intimacy with these men through their books suggests that Christminster is made for him.
Sue, too, though she never seeks college education, is subject to this class exclusion and to the assumptions that women do not need college education. They may be trained to teach children, but that is the limit of their educational needs. However, both Phillotson and Jude consider Sue more intellectually brilliant and better read than they are. But limited by both class and gender, Sue can only stand at the periphery of formal education: She has an odd affair with an undergrad who lends her books and conversation; she links herself to Phillotson as a tutor and mentor; and her happiest moments with Jude are when they are conversing. Jude’s unfulfilled struggle for education is at the center of the novel, but Phillotson is also forced to give up on college, and for Sue it is not even a possibility. Thus, the novel implies, the abilities of three promising minds—and, as Jude points out, the abilities of who knows how many more able—are not harnessed.
This is not to say that the novel glorifies the lives of intellectuals, however. The depictions of working people are often positive, in fact. Drusilla Fawley is a capable and prosperous baker; the various itinerant workers in Shaston bravely come to Phillotson’s defense after Sue leaves; and the stone workers do valuable work, to name just three examples of characters who successfully put their hands, hearts, and wits to work. The idea behind the novel’s critique of class is that people must be not just free but also encouraged to find the work they are suited for, be it baking, carving stone, carting water, teaching Latin, or any other worthy and needed task.
Toward the end of his life, Jude speaks of “schemes afoot for making the University less exclusive.” In fact, shortly after the publication of Jude the Obscure, in 1899, Ruskin College was established to open university education to the working public. Hardy writes in the preface to the novel that readers told him that Ruskin “should have been called the College of Jude the Obscure.”