This is a difficult book to review, as it’s not usually considered Hardy’s most popular, most significant, or most highly regarded. Yet it rates a “five” because, as a significant author, Hardy does one thing well: He illustrates the challenge of the desire of the human race to break free from old ideas and traditions, and to define and live out new, more satisfying and productive ways of living. He would say that the individual person should have the freedom to decide one’s destiny, not the rules defined by society or religion. In a sense, Hardy would be at home, a kindred spirit, in the discussions of the meaning of life carried out in a variety of complex ways by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, or Camus.
“Specifically in the novel” (says Cliff’s Notes), “Hardy depicts characters who raise questions about such things as religious beliefs, social classes, the conventions of marriage, and elite educational institutions and who feel in the absence of the old certainties that the universe may be governed by a mysterious, possibly malign power.”
We who live in the 21st century face this constantly. An ongoing debate continues between liberal and conservative views of religion. Liberal Christians, for instance, have no difficulty accepting both scientific discovery and thought, while conservative ones conduct a constant battle against new concepts. Some will even insist on a narrow, literal view of Biblical Creation, instead of accepting the ongoing new discoveries of astro-science. Political contests abound in which those of progressive, liberal views, compete against candidates of conservative, even regressive views. Every new election in almost any country is an example of this tension. Keep the old way, or throw it out. Adopt a new way, or reject it. The recent U.S. election is the most visible illustration of this. Politicians will characterize their opponents as evil, even the devil incarnate, whether true or not, while offering themselves as the new savior, the new knight in shining armor who will ride in on a white horse and make everything right again (Translate, “Make America Great Again”).
Jude the Obscure is an excellent example (even the best example) of the author’s “gloom and deterministic” philosophy of life. Optimism never appears on the scene, while tragedy dominates the narrative. The negative gets worse and worse as all sorts of situations block Jude’s desire for happiness.
The book is really a post-modern, 21st century novel in the disguise of one written in a Victorian environment. Hardy’s treatment of marriage is quite akin to our contemporary context. In this regard, he was well ahead of his time. Further, he did not hesitate to depict the tragic, the horrific. The scene for example, of the deaths of Little Father Time and the younger children (Sue, who lived with Jude unmarried, expecting their third child, found Little Father Time had hanged the two babies and himself, after which Sue collapses and gives premature birth to a dead baby), were certainly shocking to Hardy’s contemporaries of the 1890's. However, they could fit in quite well with the novels, screenplays, and television dramas of today.
So the five star rating comes from the unique parallel that Jude the Obscure has with the second decade of the 21st century. To put it another way, Hardy is a secular prophet in his own right.