Tag Archives: Jude the Obscure

Be It Resolved

I’m not a believer in New Years Resolutions.  A constant and critical self-monitor, when I notice a bad behavior I try to correct it right away.  Sometimes I’m actually successful.  Now that I’ve finally removed all books from the garage—some were being held high above the water-line on plastic boxes—I’ve started to sort through systematically what is beyond redemption.  A comment of occasional visitors, however, has goaded me into a resolution; you see, people sometimes ask “Are you going to read those again?”  While aching to address the mindset betrayed by that very question, I cede a point; if I’m going to the expense of replacing a non-reference book, I should want to read it again.  My resolution—when I buy another copy, I will read it then and there.

One of the stinging parts of this resolution is that some of the books were read by me just this past year, or even earlier this year.  Jude the Obscure, although I enjoyed it, cost me a quarter year of my life of evening reading time.  On that basis alone I should replace it, but if I’m not going to reread it why should I incur the expense?  (Moving is anything but cheap.)   I will also face rereading old favorites that have been put aside for a while.  No house, for example, should be without Emily Brönte’s Wuthering Heights, although I read it again just months back, or so it feels.  

This is perhaps a way of making lemonade from a cloud.  Or finding the silver lining on a lemon.  Whichever it is, I sense that it will figure toward my reading goal for next year.  As I’ve spent the rainy weekend unpacking books, literacy is on my mind.  For those who see my literomania as some kind of disease, I was cheered to note just how many of the books on display I had indeed read.  The same goes true for a number of the academic books in the study, but, I must confess, while pulling them from their boxes I thought how boring most of them are.  Boring, however, doesn’t equate to useless when it comes to books.  Given their price points some of them may take years to replace.  That’s the point of a resolution, in any case.  It can cause some pain.  As I stuff the moldy, distorted tomes into their body-bags I hope that rereading their replacements will bring them back to life.  After all, resolution and resurrection are not so far apart.

Hey Jude

Reading Jude the Obscure was, at times, like reading my own biography. Authors strive for that effect, to be sure, but Thomas Hardy hits close to home on this one. I don’t mean in the aspect of marrying the wrong woman and losing his true love, but rather in the sense of what Jude was meant to and couldn’t be. For any readers behind on their Hardy, Jude Fawley was an orphan who grew up with scholarly abilities but no connections to university folk. Teaching himself Greek and buying what books he can afford, he eventually moves to Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford) in order to begin his studies at the university there. His application is summarily rejected because he is a working-class nobody who would be happier not overreaching himself. He then decides to try to become a parson only to find that path blocked to him as well.

Okay, so that’s a bit brief for a 400-page novel, but you get the gist of it. Hardy, according to the introduction, added the university theme later since the novel’s main focus is on the hypocrisy of the church regarding marriage. Both Jude and his true love (and cousin) Sue end up marrying other people who make them miserable. They each separate and then live together and raise children until tragedy causes Sue to have a religious conversion and return to her first husband. Jude dies in obscurity, as the title warns. Hardy was famous for his anti-church sentiments and Jude the Obscure was one of his most criticized works. The university theme, however, was the part I just couldn’t let go.

Being from the working class you may not have any idea how higher education functions. Even with raw talent and ambition, there are so few places available that you can easily find yourself in the rejected pile. Jude fatefully moves back to Christminster, hoping on some deep level that he’ll be accepted. That never happens although his fellow stone-cutters know that he is just as learned as the professors who regularly parade through town. The author didn’t intend to write cheerful stories. The friend who first suggested I read Hardy’s work knew about that tendency. The world is a place of comfort for some and struggle for others. Like Jude, those on the outside just can’t see what’s wrong with their own earnest application to be counted among the educated. Like any country club, however, the real point of it all is to learn how to game the system. Like taking a sad song and making it, well, better.

Oxford Haunts

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When I travel, when I have time to plan, I like to visit the haunts of literary figures. It would be difficult to think of two more influential (or abbreviation-ridden) English writers than J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both Oxford men, they liked to drink, I believe, at the Lamb and Flag. I stopped by to see, but just in case it was actually the Eagle and Child, I back-tracked to see it as well. Post-war Oxford was a place for an academic to write, and C. S. Lewis has influenced an entire generation of evangelical fans who overlook his penchant for drinking, and J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have invented the perfect fodder for CGI animators. Perhaps there was something in the air. Although no less of a literary talent, it may be less common to hear Thomas Hardy’s name. He is rumored to have written Jude the Obscure, appropriately, mostly in this pub. Good to know there’s someone else so obscure, by definition. It’s hard not to feel scholarly in Oxford.

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I have to confess, I dressed the part. I wore my Harris Tweed jacket and my Edinburgh school tie. It was a beautiful spring day, the like of which were extremely rare in Scotland some two decades ago. Not knowing that my business trip would offer the opportunities to explore the city a little, I hadn’t done much homework. A colleague suggested I stop into St. John’s College to look at the gardens. They’re only open from 1 to 5, and I timed it right to get there shortly before closing. Students wandering out in jeans, staring at their smartphones, could have been students at any number of universities I’ve known. The setting was, however, quite beautiful. There seems to be evidence that they don’t walk on the lawn. Tradition is treated with considerable respect here. Although, upon closer look, graffiti does make an appearance now and again.

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As I was stepping out the door of St. John’s, a family from eastern Asia was coming in. It was near closing time. The father asked me if this was Oxford University. I explained that it was part of Oxford University, but that the university was quite large and was all around the town. As he pressed me for more information, I wondered why he was asking an American who’d only been to Oxford once before about the place; I hadn’t done my homework, after all. Then it occurred to me. I was dressed rather like a prototypical professor. The tweed, the beard, the glasses, the consistently confused look on my face—I’d been mistaken for an university professor. I stepped outside and looked around. In a different time, perhaps it would have been true. And maybe Tolkien and Lewis would have lifted a warm pint in a cold pub and we all might have learned something.