Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), a medical doctor who devoted his practice to treating the poor for little or no charge, made his living as the writer of a half dozen much loved novels and considerable poetry that is still admired. Hardy has the gift of making us fall in love with his heroines and heroes, because, like O’Henry, he can’t hide his love of mankind and Mother Nature and his acceptance of the cruelties of life, as bravely endured by his characters. He reminds us of great oil painters (e.g., Lautrec, Van Gogh, Harlamoff, DuBlass) who devote their portraits to glorification of the peasant class. With deceivingly simple tales of everyday life, we fall under the spell of his captivating descriptions, superb vocabulary and his pellucid prose, but, above all, it is the magnetism of his imperfect heroines that glues us implacably to his text, to linger over every word that Hardy will share with us.
In Jude the Obscure (JTO), he combines jewel-like language, philosophical profundity, a psychotically lucid understanding of the human condition and the way societies’ mores constrict and shape our lives; a mystical treatise on the nature of heterosexual love (without ever describing a sexual encounter). His metaphors always paint mesmerizing pictures: a road that “seemed to ascend and diminish until it joined the sky…the place of vanished dreams…the kettle sang with a satire in its note…that aerial kiss had seemed the purest moment of his fitful life…”
JTO gives us the commonplace story of “obscure” people, martyrs possessed by an earthly sense of the absurd, a story of star-crossed lovers but with great insights into the minds of both sexes, as they relate to each other and to the institution of marriage. Few male authors grasp and appreciate women to the level of Hardy. As much as he loves people, Hardy can never hide his displeasure with life’s inexplicable, random cruelties. “Mercy towards one set of creatures is cruelty to another…Nature’s logic is horrid,” he laments – recalling the poet’s Housman’s couplet, “Malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s way to man.”
In JTO, Hardy’s moral is an assault on the Victorian views and laws regarding marriage: He saw most marriages as ultimately unhappy (“a month’s pleasure for a life of discomfort”) and divorce as the only feasible escape. Yet, in the middle 1800’s (and for 100 years thereafter in some jurisdictions), in civil law, divorce required the consent of both, and society generally viewed divorcees as pariahs; indeed, many clergymen refused to preside at marriages involving a divorced person. Divorced spouses often lost their jobs, as well. As a result, rather than suffer society’s scorn, 99% remained in marriages, regardless. To be fair, from Moses edicts forward, the historical marital more of “Till death do us part” served to minimize promiscuous sexual liaisons and the spread of disease. The times, methods of prevention and cure of such infirmities have lessened the need for such inviolable contracts.
His lead characters in JTO, Jude and Sue, both of whom came from families with long histories of unhappy marriages, demonstrate (in their marriages to other people) that Iron Contracts tend to dissolve the tenderness between lovers. There is no worse feeling than being married to the wrong person, whose psyche cannot blend with yours. The marriage contract, ipso facto, IS The Problem; he says. Once people abrogate their individual freedom and rights, it eventually kills their love for the other. Conversely, if they simply live together as lovers by night and meet by day, the love can survive indefinitely. The man is not “the law” to the woman nor is he bound to be only with her, except of his own volition. Neither “owns” the other. Yet, to prove his point, when Jude and Sue live together outside wedlock, after obtaining divorces from their spouses, they had become such companions that they could hardly do anything of importance except in the each other’s company. They were proud of their relationship, two parts of a single whole.
Is Hardy correct? Do these “iron contracts” doom most marriages? In his day, under the laws that then existed, perhaps so. Today, divorce is de rigueur and carries little, if any, social stigma with it. The widely read JTO likely played some role in this change. The man is no longer “the law” to his wife, except in some religions (Muslim and Fundamentalist Christian). For others, the marital bonds can be a source of freedom to be absolutely in love and given to one person, free to love in all ways, free to share, free to be who you are, to combine your identities and, where it helps, to allow the strengths of one’s spouse and to eschew or correct their weaknesses. Aversion to marriage today, my wife observes, “is more prevalent among ‘the grass is greener’ set.”
Jude and Sue were “obscure”, in that they were unimportant people. This worked to their advantage eventually, because, after they both obtained divorces, they were not ostracized to the same degree as more prominent persons. They could even choose to “live together in sin” (outside wedlock) and not be totally ostracized. In his penultimate novel, Tess of the Dubervilles, Hardy struck a mighty blow against the mores that would view a woman as harshly as was Tess for the “sin” of conceiving a child out of wedlock. In JTO, his attack on “the iron contract” of marriage exposed its injustices and the cruel manner in which society then dealt with divorcees, rendering them social outcasts, denying them work and the casual societal greetings, such as a tip of the hat or a willing smile. Even worse, in JTO, his lovers suffered the loss their three children in a macabre suicide and fell apart, due primarily to Sue’s belief that God had punished them for “living in sin”, and both finally remarry their ex-spouses, leaving Sue and Jude no less in love and much more in agony, another very heavy ending for ever hopeful readers. Hardy’s plots trace life’s brutalities in all their ugliness, and make a heavy catharsis for readers. So, was JTO “a great book”? To this reader, it afforded an captivating expose of 19th Century England’s marital mores and Hardy’s ever fluid and musical prose, but it fell far short of Tess of the Dubervilles, and left me drained, in desperate need of a lighter book.