- Pohl, Frederik — Gateway (278 pages)
- Clement, Hal — Mission of Gravity (193 pages)
- Benford, Gregory — Timescape (499 pages)
- O'Hare, Mick (editor) — Why Don't Penguins Feet Freeze? and 114 Other Questions (232 pages)
- Dos Passos, John — Number One (218 pages)
- Heller, Joseph — Catch-22 (457 pages)
- St. John of the Cross — Dark Night of the Soul (119 pages)
- Day, Dorothy — The Long Loneliness (286 pages)
- Allen, Ted, Kyan Douglas, Thom Filicia, Carson Kressley, and Jai Rodriguez — Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Fab 5's Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better, and Living Better (250 pages)
- Whittemore, Carroll E., ed. (William Duncan, illus.) — Symbols of the Church (59 pages)
- Hardy, Thomas — Jude the Obscure (507 pages)
Page count: 3,098 of targeted 12,500.
I have fallen so far off my stated goal for the year that nothing short of a miracle—or speed-reading lots of trashy fiction—will get me there. I refuse to sacrifice quality for quantity, though. I am not going to shy away from these longer, slower reads that are so rewarding just to pad my stats.
As you no doubt remember, Jude the Obscure was quite an unintentional choice for next novel. I gave you a choice, and you chose To Kill a Mockingbird. However, when I left for my four-day holiday in Spain with two books, I did not realize it would turn into a month-long exile requiring a third book. I found an English-language bookstore in Barcelona (containing very little of interest) and reluctantly purchased a novel. Finding Jude was fortuitous, because I had recently mentioned to surrealestate that I wanted to re-introduce myself to Thomas Hardy and that Jude was a frontrunner. The only previous Hardy I had completed was The Woodlanders my freshman year at Amherst, and I remembered liking it so much that during the summer I began to read The Mayor of Casterbridge; however, in those days I rarely finished what I began. Thus, Hardy thrust himself back into my consciousness this spring quite by chance.
The lengthy introduction to the Penguin Classics edition did its best to turn me off to the novel. Someone needs to explain to the editors at Penguin that an "Introduction" is meant to introduce the featured work, not present an exhaustive (and spoiler-full) literary criticism which assumes the reader's familiarity with the work. Indeed, by the end of nearly thirty pages of analysis, I was quite informed as to the novel's plot essentials and driving dramatic conflict. To add to my frustration, the annotations throughout the text rarely but pointed out textual differences between versions of the novel. This experience only further validated my thought that, if one desires additional material to enrich one's reading, Norton Critical Editions are the only way to go.
The "Introduction" further does a disservice by getting it all wrong. It paints a picture of innocent Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead pitted against evil and scheming Richard Phillotson and Arabella Donn. It further describes an itinerancy of thesis, making Hardy sound like someone who has overcomplicated his story with so many philosophical meanderings that the central idea of the narrative is lost, or that in fact there is none.
The novel itself reveals the editor to be one of those academics who likes the sound of his own voice and prefers to obfuscate what is admittedly complex but not impenetrably so. The characters are not at all black-and-white. Indeed, the only character who is truly despicable is Arabella, who is constantly meddling in Jude's life out of some twisted sense of entitlement and retribution. Her callousness and self-servitude at the end is particularly appalling. Until the very end of the novel, when he makes a selfish but understandable choice, manipulating Sue's desire to expiate her guilt and ultimately driving the final nail in Jude's coffin—though he gives Sue every opportunity to back away from the precipice—, Phillotson does nothing but act with the utmost generosity towards Sue and Jude. And Sue, though she always seems to act according to her sense of right, is far from the innocent victim, vacillating nervously from one conviction to another and leaving several lives ruined in her wake. Only poor, obscure Jude can innocently wear the victim's mantle throughout, from his first to last appearance.
As for the central idea of the narrative, it can be presented in one statement: social constructs (such as class/privilege/rank) and (legal/religious) institutions foment ideas which work to level the loftiest ambitions, to unravel any tapestry that stands out from the social fabric, in order to keep life artificially stratified.
The tragic flaw that drives the events in Jude and Sue's lives is a misunderstanding of the bonds they have made and broken. They feel stigmatized because each entered into a marriage that was inadvisable. Though their marriages were legally dissolved and they could have avoided scandal (notwithstanding the cousin bit, which is downplayed) and disrepute by themselves marrying, they felt an abstract fear throughout that binding themselves to each other through matrimony would be an affront to their mutual love, or perhaps to their previous marriages. The belief (held by Sue at the end and alluded to througout) that they were bound under God to their first spouses displayed a profound misunderstanding of sacramental marriage. (Of course, I'm working under Roman Catholic assumptions, and Jude and Sue were Anglicans, but I don't believe the Anglican and Catholic viewpoints on what constitutes Holy Matrimony differ significantly.) So many of the problems in Sue and Jude's lives arose from the fact of their first marriages. Though they were legally granted divorce, they clung to the belief that the courts cannot undo what God has made. That is essentially correct. However, legal as the first marriages might have been, they were not valid by Church standards. Had they applied for annulment, their petitions would likely have been approved. Certain conditions have to be present for a marriage to be deemed sacramentally valid. Jude married Arabella under false pretenses in order to do the honourable thing, believing her to be pregnant with his child when she was not. Sue married Phillotson to gain respectability that would help advance their teaching careers and as a reaction to the news that Jude, whom she loved, had been previously married; her marriage to Phillotson was never consummated, nor did there seem to be any desire to do so. Both marriages were shams, and no ecclesiastical court would hold Sue or Jude bound to them. However, the pressures of societal conceptions of propriety, rather than an acknowledgment of their guiltlessness and freedom to act according to both the laws of the world and of God, impelled them to tragic choices. The only character who seems to grasp this essential tragic point is the Widow Edlin, whose desperate objection that Sue's "reparations" at the end constitute the real sin falls on deaf ears.
Jude the Obscure is a brilliant novel: thought-provoking, evocative, and entertaining—and free of the pomposity I've so often encountered during other forays into Victorian literature. I get the feeling, though, that mine is the minority opinion amongst my friends when it comes to Hardy. I find that he has an ease with language and narrative that is delightful to read and that he has the ability to thrust the reader vividly into the moment, capturing the crux of the drama as well as the incidentals that bring the scene to life.
Speaking of incidentals, one of the appendices mentions sketches by William Hatherell. These sketches were drawn for the (heavily bowdlerized) serial that anticipated Jude's publication in novel form. Curiosity drove me to look them up online. There are twelve, coinciding with each installment (but the first) to help the reader remember previous events. I found a site which shows them all, beginning with the first, which appeared in the second installment. I think they do an amazing job of capturing key moments in the narrative, especially the last one, which perfectly expresses the depths of Jude's suffering and rejection. If I were a book editor, I would try to get them published in future editions of the novel. They do far more in twelve little illustrations to enrich Hardy's text than all the analysis and annotation of the Penguin edition.
Tangentially, in response to some book stuff in ayelle's journal, I decided to join Library Thing and catalog everything I've read since I started making annual reading goals and documenting my progress slightly over two years ago. My catalog and profile, along with my ratings for each book and numerous fun statistics, are publicly accessible. If any of you (besides, obviously, ayelle) are members (or if you have any ideas what I'm supposed to do with this site beyond cataloguing), please let me know.