Jude the Obscure: Social and Emotional Confinement

Topics: Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy, Thomas Hardy's Wessex Pages: 5 (2062 words) Published: May 2, 2012
Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure was not intended to offend as many people as it did when it was published, but amid the social criticisms, frank descriptions of sexual desire, and a, extremely tragic and disturbing climax, the general public of 20th Century England was completely shocked. For years, critics and the public denounced Jude, while overlooking perhaps the most important conflict within the book. Thomas Hardy, in the introduction to the first non-serial edition of the novel, explains to readers that while the novel did contain many criticisms of socials structures in England, the main purpose of composing the book was “to tell, without a mincing of words, of a deathly war waged between flesh and spirit, and to point the tragedy of unfulfilled aims”. (Hardy, 3). As protagonist Jude Fawley works against some of the most sacred social institutions in England, he is forever battling uphill against society and fate itself. Jude, hoping to transcend his low social stature and break free from the contract of his marriage, is not only left with “unfulfilled aims” but is constantly confined; he cannot break from his marriage or from his embarrassing social stature. This idea of a person being confined or imprisoned by society and life itself contributes to the tragic nature of the novel, as Jude finds himself at the mercy of the world around him. Another example of confinement in Jude the Obscure is the institution of marriage. In the context of the novel’s setting and the period in which it was published, marriage, like Jude’s values and goals, are rooted in tradition while facing new values and ideas, some of which are hard to swallow for society and the citizens of Wessex. Many individuals were starting to question the contractual nature of marriage; “That marriage had become a problem, that somehow it was in crisis and need of reform was an idea very much in the air.” (Howe, 134). What Hardy believes to be the ideal structure for marriage is almost opposite what the church and law governed marriage to be. In the introduction of the original publication of Jude, Hardy outlines his belief that “a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties” (Hardy, 5); if marriage were this way, than the entire cast of characters within the novel would have been spared of numerous tragedies, as the binding nature of marriage has been “used in great part as the tragic machinery of the tale” (Hardy, 5). He and a host of other characters are trapped into a marriage that they are drawn back to, regardless of divorce or feelings for other characters. Throughout the novel, Jude feels trapped by marriage, and “[inquires] what he had done…that he deserved to be caught in a gin which would cripple him…for the rest of a lifetime” (Hardy, 63). When he is forced into marrying Arabella in response to her announcement of pregnancy, Jude is forced to give up his dreams of the distant Christminster and his future as a scholar, as he informs her that the marriage is a “complete smashing of [his] plans” (Hardy, 58). When Arabella reveals that she was not actually pregnant, Jude begins to believe that the marriage was a trick, to which Arabella replies with “What can ‘em do otherwise? Married is married.” (Hardy, 61) Throughout their time together, Jude concludes that ‘[t]heir lives were ruined…by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling” (Hardy, 71), and this contract continues to “ruin” Jude’s life even after Arabella departs, as Jude is still technically married to despite her departure from his life. A similar marriage befalls Sue, despite her cynical views towards marriage; she believes that “the social moulds civilization fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to the real star-patterns” (Hardy, 212), and therefore“[doesn’t] regard marriage as a Sacrament”...
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