(Notes on Irving Howe's chapter on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure).
When Jude appeared in 1895, Hardy was a moral presence affecting the lives of his readers. It was first a monthly serial in Harper's Magazine, suppressing Jude's submitting to sexual desire, of his child and Sue's (an adoption here) and of Arabella's night. A storm of protest when the book appeared. His aims were not to fight for divorce, or decide on moral problems, but to tell of a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit, and to point out the tragedy of unfulfilled aims.
Marriage as a problem in the late 19th c. This was the age of Parnell's case, of the plays of Ibsen. It is the age in which marriage ceases to be a sacred site and becomes a secular (and problematic) relationship. Life appears in Jude as a problem—it is a modern work.
Jude is a self-educated proletarian, a familiar figure in those years, and in the fiction of Gissing, Bennett, and D. H. Lawrence. Hardy looks on Jude's strivings for education with both sympathy and irony (the Credo in the tavern). Jude and Sue are successful psychological portraits. The novel is set in history. Nevertheless, it cannot be read as purely realistic fiction. It is a vision of modern deracination, a dramatic fable in whicvh the esthetic criteria of unity and verisimilitude are subordinated to those of a distended expressiveness.
In his previous novels, as in Fielding's, Jane Austen's, Thackeray's, etc., the characters' inner life is assumed to be deductibnle from their social life, and their role in the plot. In Jude, Hardy is halfway between this and the modernists. Character appears here not as a coherent force realizing itself in self-consistent public action, but as an amorphous arena in which irrational impulses conflict one another. The psychic shadows behind the events are the true 'action' of the book. Jude represents in part modern rationality struggling to become self-sufficient and thereby cutting itself off from its sources in physical life. His frustration does not come so much from a denial of his desires as from their crossing and confusion. Sue is Promethean in mind but masochist in character. She lacks in will and sex (she was masculine to D. H. Lawrence).
Plot in earlier novels is essential to convey meaning, but modernists question this. What matters in their novels is a series of situations (in Joyce, in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury). In Jude there is a tendency towards this. It is not a tragedy because the hero doesn't realize himself through action. The central action occurs in the psyche of the hero. In Sue and Jude we find the modern theme of the claustrophobic character of relationships. Howe criticises the botched execution of Father Time—a good idea but too much philosophic weight is placed on him.
Mixtures of psychological veracity and crude melodrama are characteristic of Hardy, and Jude is better in parts than the whole.