Monday, August 1, 2011

Class and Social Stratification in Jude the Obscure

by G. Jack Urso

Thomas Hardy’s novels, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbenvilles, and Jude the Obscure all share a common element in the catalyst to the action in their plots  the strict social stratification of Great Britain. The major characters in these novels all struggle with the limitations of their social class and the resulting conflict contributes to the overall dark tone in these novels, not to mention Hardy’s own depressed psychological outlook.

Hey Jude

At the beginning of Jude the Obscure, Hardy introduces us to the village townsfolk, though not always by names. Instead, Hardy refers to some by their occupation, such as Phillotson, a major character who is introduced as “the schoolmaster.” In the first few paragraphs we are introduced to “the miller . . . the managers . . . the rector . . . the blacksmith . . . the farm-baliff,” and throughout the book a person’s individual worth is determined by the nature of their vocation. Indeed, it is Jude’s search for his ideal vocation that consumes his life for part of the novel.

Consider, for example, the letter Jude receives from Biblioll College in Christminster. Though brief, it is indicative of how much thought the “upper class” gave to people in the working class that Jude belonged. The letter states, in part, “you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your own trade than by adopting any other course” (Hardy 121). As far as the college is concerned, Jude has as much chance of becoming a scholar as the master of the college has of becoming a stonemason (Jude’s profession).

Within his own class, Jude could have established himself as an experienced master of his craft; as a scholar, Jude would always be considered an outsider by virtue of his class. Jude’s ideas, no matter how credible, would be dismissed based solely on his class alone. Hardy himself acknowledges this social stratification several paragraphs later as we follow Jude around the town as he deals with his disappointment, “It was literally teaming, stratified with the shades of human groups” (Hardy 121).

Jude expresses his anger at being shut-out of the lofty heights of academia by scrawling on a wall a verse from Job, chapter 12, verse 3:
“I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you; yea, who knoweth not such things as these?”

First published in 1895, Jude the Obscure was written while the British Empire was at its height and the reign of the Victorian Age’s titular queen nearly at an end. Wars of aggression in Africa and the Sepoy mutinies in India, exposed the dark under belly of the empire, which reached its heights by maintaining as firm a grip on the destiny of its subjects at home as well as abroad. Cultural imperialism is in its last years during Hardy’s lifetime. The oppressive atmosphere in Jude the Obscure is, in part, a symptom of a culture in its death throes.

Bridehead Revisted

Sue Bridehead is not my favorite character in the book. While I may share her disapproval of organized religion and her preference for ancient Greco-Roman culture, she seems a bit too self-prepossessed. Like Jude, she is seeking her own place in society and is likewise frustrated that her desires cannot be realized. Her dalliance with the undergraduate and her relationship with Jude pushed, if not violates, the boundaries that a young, middle-class, British woman was expected to stay within at the time. Sue’s relationship with Phillotson is appropriate because, despite the age difference, both are of the same class. Sue also aspires to the same profession as Phillotson and, unlike her and Jude, she and Phillotson are not cousins.

The training school Sue attends is the very model of Victorian social assimilation. There are restrictive rules, a repressed headmistress, and a curriculum designed to teach women their place in society; however, despite all that, Sue has a dissenter’s mind. She questions the absolute authority, and even the relevance of the church. While she stays overnight with the undergraduate, she does not have sex with him. This may be regarded as an innocent enough act today, in Hardy’s time this would have been absolutely scandalous behavior for a young, middle-class woman. Sue further sets her own rules by living with Jude, rather than marrying him, yet as she lives more and more as a free spirit, the seeds of her misfortune, and her eventual return to the embrace of class-consciousness, is sown.

The underlying message to the Victorian mind is that by not staying within the boundaries of the expectations placed upon you by virtue of your gender and class, you yourself are responsible for the consequences. Indeed, the death of the children, Sue’s continuing unhappiness, and Jude’s death all seem to be the result of their attempt to live outside their class and society.

In the hands of another author more conventional than Hardy, this story would surely end up as a cautionary tale, but that is not the thrust of message Hardy is trying to convey. He exposes the limitations and hypocrisy of Victorian society and how it seems to operate against the one basic need of all humans, the right to pursue happiness. To work at the vocation of your choice, to believe in your convictions, and love whomever you please, are not realities to Hardy, Sue or Jude. Rather than a cautionary tale of woe, Jude the Obscure is more of a treatise against the society that allows Hardy to pursue his vocation of a writer. Hardy clearly champions the cause of those from classes below his own; it is little wonder then that the book received so much negative criticism when it was first published.

Certainly, Jude and Sue are flawed characters. One wonders how this story might have ended up had the tale not been set in so rigid a society as 19th century England, if Sue was a bit more circumspect, and Jude a bit less so.

Hardy and Marriage

Jude’s relationship with Sue actually comes after his marriage with the course, pig farmer’s daughter Arabella. Jude’s relationship with Arabella is as earthy as his relationship with Sue is cerebral. While one may blame Arabella’s anti-intellectualism and coarse habits as being to blame for the end of the marriage, Hardy hints that it is Jude’s own sexual urges that compel him into such a loveless marriage. One wonders if it is not Hardy’s own relationship with his wife that manifests itself in this aspect of Jude’s character.

Hardy uses the institution of marriage not only to show the differences between the classes in general, but also Jude and women in particular. Primarily, though, I believe it is a reflection of Hardy’s own negative experience. While not distracting from the literary value of his work, Hardy’s novels can be viewed as personifying his psychological makeup in a kind of therapy. Hardy creates a place in his novels where he can give voice to his frustrations and fears. Of course, all writers do this. Indeed, it is for that very reason that many do take up the pen, to exorcise their own demons. One of Hardy’s legacies to modern literature is the way in which he used his inner struggles to fuel his stories.

In the end, both Jude and Sue go back to their first marriages. After so much misfortune, to return to the class from whence they came not only seems like the right thing to do, but just the ticket to get their lives back on track. Of course, it does neither. It seems as though Jude and Sue are born in the wrong time and in the wrong country.

Jude’s Child

Little Father Time, Jude’s child from his marriage to Arabella, is a reminder to Jude of his place in society. To Sue, the child is a reminder of how different are the classes she and Jude come from. While it was not a much of a social stretch for Jude, a stonemason, to marry a pig farmer’s daughter, one has a more difficult time imagining Sue marrying a pig farmer’s son. If both Sue and Jude cannot live in the netherworld between classes, outside societal norms, then what chance will their children have who will belong to neither class?

Little Father Time perceives what neither Jude nor Sue have yet to understand; there is no happiness or security in this world when you choose to reject the society you live in. The children are a burden, but only because Jude and Sue cannot make their way in society while ignoring the class structure. Sue appreciates this hard truth when she goes back to Phillotson, saying:
“I see marriage differently now. My babies have been taken from me to show me this! Arabella’s child killing mine was a judgment-the right slaying the wrong.” (344-346)
Sue, who Jude had considered his intellectual equal, abandons him. She runs back to the security of the conventional middle-class life with Phillotson. After having brought Jude about to her line of thinking regarding Christianity, Sue then seeks refuge in it. While she claims Jude does not see things as they are, in fact, he sees all too clearly. Unable to find his place in the world, in his society, he leaves it. His love of learning, of the Church, of Christminster, of Sue, all fall away. None have served him well.

Jude’s death at the end of the book is a type of crucifixion. As it has been pointed out, Jude could have simply decided not to waste away to death if he chose not to. In a similar manner, if Jesus was the son of God, why did he not just get down off the cross? The traditional response is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a final sacrifice, opening up a new era in the gospel of love and forgiveness. Likewise, it can be argued that Jude’s death was a sacrifice, opening up an era of new opportunities, regardless of class. Nevertheless, it can also be asserted that Hardy is simply showing that those who seek enlightenment, true love, and all the world has to offer, will forever be denied.

The Temple of God

The rigid structures that held Hardy’s society together were like the old Gothic churches on which Jude himself worked. Indeed, in the book, the churches, and Christminster itself are symbols of the society that rejects Jude and which eventually Jude rejects as well. The great irony is that Jude’s profession employed him in maintaining and repairing the symbols of the hierarchical society in which he felt trapped. That is the paradox of our existence in this world. The very same society that we criticize also created us, as we in turn inherit the world our children will one day also question and criticize.

Jude the Obscure is an allegory of existence in modern society. It is set amidst familiar surroundings (the locations are based on actual places) and features a range of social problems such as abuse, adultery, alcoholism, and suicide. Such societal ills have a melodramatic aspect, so at first we see Jude the Obscure as just another conventional drama, but it is more than that. It is an artistic criticism of Gilded Age values and a social record of the twilight of the Victorian class structure. Jude is a modern, doomed Everyman fated to seek a kingdom “not of this world;” martyred to an ideal of existence that our hearts dream of, but our hands cannot build.

Work Cited
Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: NAL Penguin, 1980.

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  1. Have to love the art, whether a book, a song, or a sculpture, that pours out of a society on the decline. Well done.