Issue 3 September
The Tortured Form of Jude the Obscure
Norman D. Prentiss
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Colby Quarterly, Volume 31, no.3, September 1995, p.179-193
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Prentiss: The Tortured Form of Jude the Obscure
The Tortured Form of Jude the Obscure
by NORMAN D. PRENTISS
("At Marygreen," "At Aldbrickham
I titles indicating a geographic locationnovel into six "Parts," with the section and Elsewhere," etc.). But although the novel covers so much physical territory, N JUDE THE OBSCURE HARDY
the characters never escape each other, and they never escape embarrassing reminders of their past failures. Each of the sections professes to initiate a new beginning-Jude is "making a new start" at the opening of "Part Second: At Christminster" (I, 89); his move to enter the Church is "a new idea" at the start of "Part Third: At Melchester" (I, 153)-but these "beginnings" quickly collapse into repetitions of the characters' previous difficulties, reenacted in a new location or a new situation. Phillotson's return to Marygreen near the end of the novel, resuming his duties as schoolmaster, defines the structural pattern of this novel:
"You are keeping the school there again, just as fonnerly?"
The pressure of a sadness that would out unsealed him. "I am there," he replied. "Just as fonnerly, no. Merely on sufferance. It was a last resource-a small thing to return to after my move upwards, and my long indulged hopes-a returning to zero, with all its humiliations ...." (Part Fifth, VII, 382)
Phillotson's return to Marygreen is a debased return-he is a disappointed man, slipping back to a previous situation. "Returning to zero" might seem a synonym for a clean slate, a new beginning. But it is "a returning to zero with all its humiliations"-Phillotson's own memory, his awareness of his "long indulged hopes" and his subsequent failures, prevents him from being able to experience a fresh start. Phillotson remarks that things are not as before, that he is "on sufferance." Though "sufferance" refers specifically to the terms of his employment (his situation is far inferior to his position at the same job many years ago), Phillotson also puns on the word "suffer"-the awareness of his debased return is painful to endure.
Phillotson's position at the end of the novel, a weakened repetition of his starting point, follows the pattern of the entire book: the concluding section of Jude the Obscure displays the characters repeating their mistakes in a painful "returning to zero." As Jude's ambitions to become a student at Christminster break down into his selling of "Christminster Cakes" at local fairgrounds, as he and Sue renew their failed marriages to Arabella and Phillotson, the structure of 179
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Colby Quarterly, Vol. 31, Iss. 3 , Art. 4
the novel reaches full circle. Hardy underlines the significance of the pattern by having Jude and Sue return to Christminster on Remembrance Day, the graduation ceremony for university students. "My failure is reflected on me by every one of those young fellows," Jude remarks. "A lesson in presumption is awaiting me to-day!-Humiliation Day for me!" (Part Sixth, I, 390). The cycle of events that gives the novel its shape results in the characters' suffering and humiliation; the final section of the novel is only the culmination of a continuing series of painful repetitions. The sheer number of repetitions in this novel gives it a kind of perverse or grotesque unity; Jude the Obscure has the most tortured formal structure of any...