Jude the Obscure will stay with me longer than any book I read this year. Its opening scenes, in which the poor country boy becomes obsessed with the fictional city of Christminster, shimmering in the distance, promising the elevations of knowledge, are as engraved in my mind as the harrowing final ones. Tragedy is what the reader sees waiting in the distance for Jude, yet the route there is unpredictable, and so compelling. The plot is full, especially near the end, of excessive twists, absurd coincidences, and an occasional staginess. It doesn’t matter. Jude is a page-turner that made me think harder about the conventions of marriage, the meaning of morality, and the permutations of faith than any recent contemporary novel. It’s a story – a fable, almost – of passion and ideas, and both figure in the ill-fated relationship between the cousins Jude and Sue. Jude is doomed as much by his best qualities – his desire to find something admirable (a university, a woman) to anchor himself to; his noble aspirations, so discordant with his class; his refusal to conform; an overly tender heart – as by his ostensible worst, said to be his love of drink and women. Sue, mystifying, mercurial, and modern until she isn’t, manages to be convincing as both Jude’s soul-mate and his ruin. It’s awe-inspiring to think how bold Thomas Hardy was for his time.
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