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Commentaire – Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy Essay

Thomas Hardy described the novel in his preface as dramatizing “a deadly war between flesh and spirit”. This quasi reference to St Paul’s conception of human dualism goes far towards explaining the nature of Jude’s tragedy. This dualism appears also in the book. Jude The Obscure is the last of Thomas Hardy’s novels published in 1895: its critical reception was so negative that Hardy resolved never to write another novel. The passage under analysis is situated towards the beginning of the novel, at the arrival of Jude at Christminster (the fictional name of Oxford). He found a job at a stonesman’s to make a living while studying by himself to try and achieve his dream. Indeed, Jude’s first concern is a job, though his working is to be done only as a way of supporting himself until he can enter the university. Our commentary will fall into two parts. First we will study the isolation of Jude, and the opposition between Jude’s world and the world of his enthusiasm that is to say the world of Oxford students. Then, we will study the omnipresence of spirituality that contrasts with the materiality in the text.

As we have said before, this novel is the last novel of Thomas Hardy. This novel recounts the painful process of his disillusionment and his final destruction at the hands of an oppressive society, which refuses to acknowledge his desire. Even if this extract does not seem so sombre, and presents a real hope, we can notice that the theme of the contrast or the opposition exists all the text long. Thus it is interesting to underline that play of opposition which appears quite characteristic of the novel as it is implied by the sentence of Thomas Hardy that we have quoted in the introduction where he describes his book as “a deadly war between flesh and spirit”. In a strikingly similar vein, Hardy tells also that the ” ‘grimy’ features of the story go to show the contrast between the ideal life a man wished to lead, and the squalid real life he was fated to lead.”

There is a play of opposition and parallelism that exists in this extract that presents contrast also. The first opposition that can be noted is the opposition between Jude and the others. Indeed, there is a real separation between Jude and what he calls “his inmates” on line 11 or his “happy young contemporaries”. That is also obvious with the use of the pronoun. All the text long, and mostly in the first part of the text – when the narrator describes Christminster and the students – we can see appearing two different groups as clearly underlined on line 25: “Whatever they were to him, he to them was not on the spot at all; and yet he had fancied he would be close to their lives by coming there”. This sentence permits really distinguish the opposition between those to entity. This idea of separation exists in all the text, with different symbol of separation.

Thus we can say that even if the “Christminster ‘sentiment’ (…) ate further and further into him”, Jude is clearly not in the Christminster ‘way of life’. This situation of exclusion is described implicitly, by the narrator, as quite unfair, when he underlines for instance that “he probably knew more about those buildings materially, artistically and historically, than any one of their inmates. We could perceive this remark and all the text as an implicit criticism of the fixed class boundaries that exist in the Victorian society. Indeed, we know that Jude has a real willpower of being “someone”. He left his life in the country town to come into the big city in the hope of succeeding in life. But that society seems quite close as described by Hardy. That is probably why the narrator and Hardy himself insist on the separation of Jude, his isolation and even a sort of imprisonment. He is all alone, in a big city, living apart and a lot of elements in the text can induce this idea.

Firstly let’s notice the “echoes of his own footsteps”. Echoe occurs most of the time in big and empty spaces, thus using the world ‘echoe’ the narrator wanted to show the isolation of Jude. The adjectives “impish” and the comparison with “blows of mallet” are also relevant is that respect. The character appears then, at first sight, isolated, alone with some kind of harsh condition. The evocation of the “wall” is stronger in that respect. The wall is the symbol of separation, division and exclusion; and here this symbol is used several time as on line 10 “Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries” or on line 14 “Only a wall – but what a wall!” showing us the real feeling of exclusion of Jude.

This image is reinforced by the metaphor of the “gates” saying that: “For the present he was outside the gates of everything, colleges included”. Otherwise the gates can refer to heaven, as we will see later. This division appears also in the room itself, showing that it exists two worlds: “rigged up a curtains on a rope across the middle, to make a double chamber out of one”. As we have said, there is a gap between Jude and the rest of Christminster; it is also suggested with the world ‘antipodes’ used on line 21.

Nevertheless, it seems that Jude look like ‘their inmates’. The narrator on line 11 underlines it when he says ‘he shared a common mental life’ or on line 20 “they seemed oftentimes (…) to be particularly akin to his own thoughts”. The difference is then more a difference of wages, and not of cleverness or aspirations, we can thus see an implicit criticism of the system by Hardy: they are equal but separate, and they don’t have the same chance to succeed in life, and this opposition drawn by Hardy permits to understand that.

The picture painted of the education system is very bleak for the common man, who can study day and night, but will never walk through those great doors of learning. There is a dichotomy between manual work and intellectual work: the young workman in a white blouse vs. the young students. Jude seems to want to realize a synthesis of those two worlds as underlined on line 38: “He was young and strong, or he never could have executed with such zest the undertakings to which he now applied himself, since they involved reading most of the time after working all the day”.

Indeed this text not only presents this division between two worlds but also sort of hope concerning the future. The way of writing of Hardy permits us to understand Jude’s enthusiasm and his faith in future, and permits then to comprehend the mind of Jude: the landscapes of this extract is both Christminster and Jude’s mind: Christminster changes and evolves in Jude eye’s. . Even if Jude The obscure is Hardy’s most sombre novel, here, it is the beginning of the novel and faith and hope are still allowed. This hope appears on line 28 “But the future lay ahead after all (…)”. Desire and enthusiasm are perceptible in the text and particularly in the last paragraph.

However the last sentence permits to understand that the future will be more difficult than he probably thinks: “His desire absorbed him and left no part of him to weigh its practicability”. And Christminster will not be probably the city he was expected. Indeed, this text is situated toward the beginning of the novel when Jude has just arrived at Christminster. In that respect, he is still full of hope, and enthusiasm even if we can see that he realises “how far from the object of that enthusiasm he really was”.

But it is more a dream than anything else: indeed, Christminster’s phantasmal allure, glimpsed by Jude from the top of his ladder, becomes after his arrival in the city the sinister phantasm of feeling himself disembodied and different. This idea could be illustrated by the description of the Cathedral in the text with the insistence of the size (grandeur ??) of it on line 59 : “Tall tower, tall belfry windows and tall pinnacles”. The anaphora permits to show the discrepancy between Jude, alone and the big city, bigger than his country town where everything is closed for the moment.

But as we have said, there is still hope, and the reference to the Cathedral permits to underline another aspect of this extract, which is faith and spirituality as implied by the use of the word “faith” on line 61.

In Hardy’s book, Bible is omnipresent. The text is full of biblical allusion, so much that The Ecclesiasts are a privileged intertext. We can say that God is everywhere, and this extract presents us a lot of references to spirituality that contrasts with materiality of his life conditions. The use of Biblical analogy separates it from all the others novels of Hardy. In it Hardy traces the odyssey of Jude, showing that at important turning points in his life Biblical references serve as guideposts marking his direction. Christminster is tinted with spirituality and so does the extract under study. Firstly, we can point out the name of the city because even if Hardy refers to Oxford, he gives to the city a fictional name that is “Christminster”, mixing Christ, which is the title, also treated as a name, given to Jesus of Nazareth and “minster” which is a large or important church, typically one of cathedral status in the north of England that was built as part of a monastery.

So, it is a double reference to religion and spirituality. Then there are a lot of references in the text itself, and the place of Christminster seems impregnate with religion and spirituality, which are two notions not exactly similar. Indeed, religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, spirit; and spirituality is relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things. In those definitions, we can then clearly see that spirituality is opposed to materiality, which seems also the case on that extract. Spirituality or religion appears first throughout the abundant lexical field: “haunted” on line 1, “cloisters” (l.1), “God”, “Cathedral”, “Belfry”, etc. More of that, Hardy plays with the meaning of some words; firstly, with the meaning of the world enthusiasm. As we have said before, Jude’s enthusiasm is one of the major stakes of the extract. It could be understand as the intense and eager enjoyment or interest, which is probably the case.

But not only, enthusiasm has also an archaic and religious meaning: indeed, enthusiasm is a religious fervour supposedly resulting directly from divine inspiration, typically involving speaking in tongues and wild, uncoordinated movements of the body. This religious could also cast a different light of the expression “Christminster ‘sentiment’”. This sentiment could also be a religious feeling, a spiritual fervour that pervades Jude. God is thus present in the text, and Jude is not an atheist as underlined on line 30: “So he thanked God for his health and strength, and took courage”. The world courage is also relevant in that respect. Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. But In both Catholicism and Anglicanism, courage is also one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

With the gift of fortitude/courage, we overcome our fear and are willing to take risks as a follower of Jesus Christ. A person with courage is willing to stand up for what is right in the sight of God, even if it means accepting rejection, verbal abuse, or physical harm. The gift of courage allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are thus wisdom, understanding, wonder and awe, right judgement, knowledge, courage, and reverence.

And it seems that Jude possesses some of them, just like “knowledge, wisdom or understanding” as implied in the text, or at least that is what let us hear Thomas Hardy in some sentences as on line 29 “If he could only be so fortunate as to get into employment he would put with the inevitable” which shows the “understanding” of Jude for instance. It is also obvious on the end of the extract with the quotation of The Ecclesiasts “For wisdom is a defence and money is a defence; but the Excellency of knowledge is, that wisdom giveth life to them that have it”. We can see that God, spirituality and religion are everywhere in Jude’s life and in this extract. But this quotation of the Ecclesiast permits also to cast a light on a major opposition in the text between that spirituality and the materiality.

Indeed, Jude seems in a state of imprisonment also because of his lack of money. He is met with obstacles time after time, mainly due to his social station as a common stonemason. This lack of money is thus a real obstacle as underlined one line 49 “Having been deeply encumbered by marrying, getting a cottage and buying the furniture”. That sentence permits to see that those things of life are limited the freedom and the development of his mind. That is why there is real opposition between spirituality and materiality. In the same way poverty seems contradictory to wealth of mind: “After buying a book or two he could not even afford himself a fire”. Thomas Hardy gives details about the price of the lamp, in order to insist on this problem of money. Money problem seems to be an obstacle to think well as implied on the beginning of the text when the narrator says “men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”.

The real difference between Jude and his inmates is that, they don’t have to preoccupy about money, they are totally free of materialist preoccupations and thus, they only have to think, learn and understand. Their mind is not hobbled by money questions. Throughout this opposition, we can maybe perceive the denunciation of the author. Jude’s cousin Sue Bridehead describes his situation very succinctly few chapters later: “You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.” The image of the ogee dome can also be relevant in that respect. Indeed, the ogee dome is the dome of Tom Tower in Christ Church, and it was at one time the signal for all the Oxford College to lock their gates. We find back the image of the gates that could also by a symbol of the Gates of Heaven. But here again, they are closes, and locked showing how vain and difficult it is to try to penetrate in it.

Thomas Hardy touches on several socially relevant and subversive themes in Jude The Obscure: education, social ranks, and religion. Those themes appear in the extract under analysis. This one is particularly interesting because of Hardy’s craftsmanship. He uses a subtle play of opposition and parallelism that convey a peculiar atmosphere and permits to understand Jude’s feelings and situation. He seems thus alone torn between his desire of knowledge and his social condition, but also between spirituality and some kind of materiality inherent to his condition.

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