"He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honorable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences." - Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, Part First, At Marygreen, Ch 9.
Jude the Obscure was the last of Thomas Hardy’s novels, created at the peak of his literary powers. It is perhaps his most revered – and controversial work.
When the novel first appeared in 1895, its critical reception was so negative that Hardy resolved never to write again. ‘Jude’ savagely criticized the Britain he lived in: the education system, social mobility and the institute of marriage. The book introduced one of the first feminist characters in English literature the intellectual, free-spirited Sue Bridehead.
The eponymous Jude Fawley attempts to improve his lot in life through education but tragedy and misadventure thwart his every step.
The novel explores several themes of social unrest, especially concerning the institutions of marriage, Christianity, and the university. Although the central characters represent both perspectives, the novel as a whole is firmly critical of Christianity and social institutions in general.
Hardy claimed that "no book he had ever written contained less of his own life" but contemporary reviewers found several parallels between the themes of the novel and Hardy's life as a working-class man of letters. The unhappy marriages, the religious and philosophical questioning, and the social unrest of ‘Jude’ appear in many other Hardy novels and in Hardy's life. The struggle against fixed class boundaries is an especially important link between the novel and Hardy's life, especially concerning higher education and the working class.
Although Jude wishes to attend the university at Christminster, he cannot afford to pay for a degree, and he lacks the rigorous lifelong training necessary to qualify for a fellowship. He is therefore prevented from gaining economic mobility out of the working class. This theme of unattainable education was personal for Hardy since he, like Jude, was not able to afford a degree at Oxford or Cambridge, in spite of his early interest in scholarship and the classics. Several specific details about Jude's self-directed studies actually appear in Hardy's autobiography, including their late-night Latin readings while working full-time as a stonemason or architect, respectively.
Another parallel between the book's characters/themes and Hardy's actual life experience occurs when Sue becomes obsessed with religion after previously having been indifferent and even hostile towards it. Through this extreme change in the character of Sue, Hardy shows Christianity as an extraordinarily powerful social force that is capable of causing a seemingly independent-minded woman like Sue to be self-immolating and sexually repressed.
Like Sue Bridehead, Hardy's first wife, Emma, went from being free-spirited and fairly indifferent to religion in her youth to becoming obsessively religious as she got older. Since Hardy was always highly critical of organised religion, as Emma became more and more religious, their differing views led to a great deal of tension in their marriage, and this tension was a major factor leading to their increased alienation from one another.
Emma was also very disapproving of Jude the Obscure, in part because of the book's criticisms of religion, but also because she worried that the reading public would believe that the relationship between Jude and Sue directly paralleled her strained relationship with Hardy (which, in a figurative sense, it did).