Jude the Obscure is indeed a lesson in cruelty and despair; the inevitable by-products of Social Darwinism. The main characters of the book are controlled by fate's "compelling arm of extraordinary muscular power"(1), weakly resisting the influence of their own sexuality, and of society and nature around them.
Jude's world is one in which only the fittest survive, and he is clearly not equipped to number amongst the fittest. In keeping with the strong Darwinian undercurrents that run through the book, a kind of "natural selection" ensures that Jude's offspring do not survive to procreate either. Their death by murder and suicide is but one of many grisly instances of cruelty in the novel, and there are numerous others (such as the cruel revelation that Latin is not merely "decodable" into English, which shatters Jude's naive pretensions about learning that language; and Jude's rejected application for university entrance, without even having the opportunity to be tested; and Sue's reversal of all her ideals and decisions upon the death of her children, which she sees as some sort of divine warning, and her subsequent return to Phillotson, to name but a few).
Hardy's view of all this cruelty is related with a grim irony that is evident in Jude's death scene. While the festival celebrations of the world outside continue in oblivious gaiety, Jude himself quotes morbid poetry:
"Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived."
This ironic comment on life's cruelty continues at Jude's funeral; Jude's aspirations to university education were never realised, yet as ...
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...s; they are at the mercy of the indifferent forces that manipulate their behaviour and their relations with others"(5). This manipulation by fate, and the resulting disparity between human goals and what is actually achieved, mean that the lesson taught in Jude the Obscure is very much one of the cruelty of nature and society.
(1) Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, p. 41 (I.-vii).
(2) Ibid., p. 426 (VI.-xi).
(3) Ibid., p. 430 (VI.-xi).
(4) Ibid., p. 65 (I.-x).
(5) Abrams, M. H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., Vol. 2., Norton, New York, 1993, p. 1692.
Abrams, M. H., ed., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., Vol. 2., Norton, New York, 1993.
Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.
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