Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jude The Obscure

Andrew and I are relieved that the tax season is over, which has allowed us to decompress, at least a little.

I am doing something right now I very seldom do: reading a novel. I read constantly and widely in history, biography, political and world affairs, and philosophy, but I seldom read novels. In general, I do not find novels to be rewarding reading.

The novel I am reading, on Andrew’s recommendation, is exceptionally rewarding: “Jude The Obscure” by Thomas Hardy. Gloomy and troubling, it must be one of a handful of the greatest novels ever written, rich in texture and keen in psychological insight. I am two-thirds of the way through the book, and I am finding it to be an engrossing and luxurious, even overwhelming, reading experience. It almost makes me want to plow through the remainder of Hardy’s oeuvre, except that none of Hardy’s other novels is supposed to be as original or as compelling (or as bleak) as “Jude The Obscure”.

I am totally fascinated by the complexity of the character of Jude the stonecutter (surely a self-portrait of the author, given how multi- and deeply-layered is Jude’s psychological makeup), and I am equally fascinated by the stifling portrait of late-Victorian Britain Hardy creates.

Hardy worked as a laborer in his early years, and I remember vividly one of the results of his youthful handiwork during our visit last year to London.

At Saint Pancras Old Church, a 1,000-year-old church near Saint Pancras Station, the north side of the large churchyard contained an enormous and ancient tree around which were arrayed dozens of ancient gravestones. The gravestones had been placed there by Hardy, who had moved them from an ancient burial ground (dug up to make way for new rail tracks leading to the soon-to-be-completed Saint Pancras Station). Instead of discarding the ancient gravestones, Hardy had artfully arranged them in a dignified series of circles around the base of a tree in the churchyard, where they remain to this day.

That tree and the ancient gravestones, one of the loveliest memories I have of our trip to London, somehow embedded itself into my consciousness, and I think of Hardy’s act of simple respect constantly as I read his tale of another laborer who works with stones, Jude.

I have never read Thomas Hardy before. On the night of April 15, taxes done and mailed, I asked Andrew whether any Thomas Hardy books were worth reading. “Jude The Obscure. Jude The Obscure. Jude The Obscure” was Andrew’s answer, so we immediately went over to his parents’ house to retrieve a copy of the novel.

I have been reading it ever since.


  1. It's not as well known, but Hardy's Return of the Native is remarkable, too. It has been thirty years since I last read it, but the character Eustacia Vye stays with me to this day. For its time the book was pretty racy stuff, and so seems very modern.

  2. Thomas Hardy has been on my mind of late--my previous post was titled "The Return Of The Native".

  3. Further, Andrew mentioned to me tonight that the musical composition that composer Gustav Holst reckoned to be his masterpiece, the tone poem "Egdon Heath", was inspired by the opening scene of Hardy's "The Return Of The Native".