Three stars, read in May 2017.
Oh, Thomas Hardy.
Of his books that I’ve read, this is the one with the most blatant commentary on the oppression and arbitrary cruelty of societal conventions. It’s also probably my least favorite, though I’m not sure why; for some reason Jude and Sue never clicked with me as well as Tess, Eustacia, and Clym did. Sue, in particular, was just insanely frustrating: a person is supposed to go from mindless, self-negating conformity to radical, rational thought—not the other way around.
Essentially, the plot boils down to two characters who are in love but refuse to get married because they believe (for fairly silly reasons, but that’s neither here nor there) that marriage will ruin their relationship; and of course they live in Victorian England, so they can’t do what makes them happy without having their lives ruined by their neighbors. There are so many great discussions between Jude and Sue throughout the book, about the wrongness and absurdity of conventions that force people into conformity. The way they’re treated by townspeople is cruel, spiteful, and petty—and it’s not even because they know Jude and Sue aren’t married—it’s because they have room to suspect it, because it has never been publicly proven otherwise. As Jude says, “I perceive there is something wrong somewhere in our social formulas.”
“Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and nobody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best.”
I find it almost painful to see this philosophy articulated nearly 125 years ago; it only emphasizes to me how far we still are from adopting it on a large scale.
The book ends dismally, with even more upsetting deaths than I’ve come to expect from Hardy (I don’t want to spoil it but I also would have liked to be warned that some of those deaths are children, so there you are). If you want a literary examination of the shittiness of human society, this is your book.