Themes & Motifs

Battle between Flesh and Spirit
Hardy himself states in the preface to the first edition of Jude The Obscure:

“For a novel addressed by a man to men and women of full age; which attempts to deal unaffectedly with the fret and fever, derision and disaster, that may press in the wake of the strongest passion known to humanity; to tell, without a mincing of words, of a deadly war between flesh and spirit; and to point the tragedy of unfulfilled aims, I am not aware that there is anything in the handling to which exception can be taken.”

Jude is a character of exceptional ambition and will, yet he is thwarted by the desires of his flesh once he meets Arabella. The sexual drive that allows their coupling to occur did not seem to exist in Jude prior to having met her. Here, the fleshly desires clearly won over his willful spirit and eventually results in the failure of his first goal of attending university.

He also has a desire for Sue later in the story, and it’s by his pursuing of her that his eventual loss of his second goal occurs, his desire to be a clergyman. True, his relationship with Sue could be on a higher level than mere “lust” or fleshly desire, it is another human and his desire to be with her that starts the ball rolling.

It’s hard to differentiate between the two themes, so I have combined them into one. At the very beginning of the novel, Phillotson the schoolmaster has a big piano he does not know what to do with. At one point he was quite excited to learn piano, but grew out of the phase and was then stuck not knowing what to do with the cumbersome object. The piano seems to symbolize what often happens in marriage. The couple might be excited in their newness but later might become disillusioned with each other and with the obligations they have in this union.

This is arguably the largest and most present theme in the book. By bringing the law into the love between two people, Hardy seems to suggest that the love will die. The obligations that come with this contract serve to deaden what was once very much alive, thus entrapping two people into a very difficult legal situation.

Arabella entraps Jude not just once but twice. First by a fictitious pregnancy, and then by alcohol towards the end of the story. Jude is trapped over and over just as the unsuspecting rabbit later in the story is caught in the jaws of a literal trap. Note that Jude puts the creature out of its misery by breaking its neck, perhaps foreshadowing tragedies to come.

The title page to Jude contains a subtitle in quotes that proclaims, “The Letter Killeth.” This is in reference to 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” The quote is most often interpreted as St. Paul’s critique of legalistic Christianity. Hardy uses it here to show that strict by-the-book adherence to this legal contract of “love” will indeed kill it.

Anti-Establishment/Societal Expectations
Hardy is very critical of the powers-that-be, and we find several threads of this in Jude. There are critiques of society and its expectations, the Church, the class-system, and even the educational system of the time. Jude is trapped (part of the first theme) by his working class upbringing, and can’t seem to escape his fate no matter how hard he tries. Indeed, if there is one thing Jude Fawley is not, it is lazy. With Jude, Hardy gives us a character with an impressive work ethic, who cannot, despite his best efforts, gain access to the world of education he so desires. It seems so backwards that a university would not appreciate someone with the initiative Jude shows, someone who could teach themselves Greek and Latin.

There also seems to be critiques of the Christian Church in Jude, primarily that the church keeps old-fashioned institutions well-established, even if those institutions do not serve man for the better. The class-system critique is also apparent, as Jude, despite his best efforts, can never rise above his working class background.

As a whole, this theme reminded me of the ideas Freud put forth in his book Civilization and Its Discontents. Jude, Sue, and Phillotson seem to be people who are ahead of their time, but are severely punished for their innovative ways by the “civilized” society. These individuals are basically forced into the moulds of convention, even if they are moulds that are outdated and no longer fit the people.

Hardy shows us, subtly, what love is and when it is something else–when it is masquerading as love but is in fact lust, duty, obligation, or something entirely different.

The love that Jude feels towards Sue is a true love. He loves her for everything she is and what she is not. He doesn’t seem to be projecting any ideal on her, though he does admit to being selfish in wanting her for his own. Similarly, Phillotson also seems to love Sue truly, as he is more concerned with her happiness than anything else throughout most of the novel. Yet, he too admits to being somewhat selfish in his desire to have her. These two men have much in common in this respect. They love Sue as truly as they are able to, being as human as they are.

Arabella seems incapable of true love and is instead purely motivated by lust and her desire for material comfort. Sue is frigid and neurotic, but we do get a sense that if she did in fact love anyone, it was Jude.

The sympathy and sensitivity Jude possesses serves not as a positive aspect of his personality. Throughout the novel he is harmed by his compassion for others, and in his awareness of things not being as they should be, he feels the pain of his circumstances even more keenly. Such a constitution, a sensitive one, coupled with the oppressions and tragedies he faced, served to throw him into even more obscure circumstances. The Displacement factor seems to be apparent with the moving around so often. Jude is never able to settle down and take root. He is constantly on the move, from place to place…becoming even more and more obscure with each of his failures.

I know there must be many more that I either did not see or am not aware of, so please, if you have read the story and have some insights, please share them! Thank you!

Published on November 3, 2008 at 5:25 am  Leave a Comment  

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