In Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy brings to light issues of gender and social class and their effect on obtaining formal education and financial success. Since the writing of Jude the Obscure in 1895, social mobility has been made somewhat easier, but it is still very limited and inequality still persists. Many would argue that today there are far greater opportunities to achieve “success” than in the past, but I’d like to argue that though more opportunities are available, upward social mobility is still incredibly difficult since the gender and social class you’re born into greatly affect your socioeconomic status throughout life. Jude the Obscure highlights how much who you are at birth truly affects who you’ll become.
Hardy’s controversial work was one of the first modern novels as it had recognized that “life [had] become inherently problematic” (Howe). What makes Hardy’s Jude the Obscure differ from so many other works at the time is the social commentary within the text and how it’s written into the story. The modern novel was one that departed from tradition and was self aware. In its narrative structure, the plot wasn’t nearly as important as specific situations and moments. Characters were no longer just characters, but representations of certain ideologies. Through his well-developed characters, Hardy criticizes society’s long-held beliefs about women, education, and social class.
Both Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead are characters who venture outside of the norm of society of the time. Sue is described by Irving Howe in “A Distinctly Modern Novel” as the modern woman and a feminist of the time. Jude is a lowly farm boy who is passionately interested in attaining a formal education, which is unheard of for people of his class. Their surrounding society views them as outsiders, and there’s a disconnect between the mindset of society and the values and ideas that Jude and Sue hold. Much of their lives involve their alienation from society. In looking specifically at Jude, he is unable to get a formal education even though he has the potential to do very well in university. Not only is he denied schooling because he cannot afford it, but also because he lacks the prestige necessary to attend. In the same sense, education was regarded as an institution only for the privileged and those lower on the rungs of society were considered not to have the capacity to retain knowledge. Because of these ideologies, formal education is purposely crafted to be exclusive. Ultimately, Jude in no way achieves his dream of becoming a scholar at Christminster. Through Jude’s character and the challenges he encounters, Hardy intentionally aims to make an argument about the limits placed on Jude’s circumstances that don’t allow him upward social mobility.
Many people at the time that Jude the Obscure was written argued that Jude should have been more practical and should’ve realized that his status and class would never allow him to move up or become anything greater than the stone mason that he already was; his aspirations were out of reach, and he should’ve been realistic. Even today, similar comments are made concerning Jude, yet at the same time, many believe that there are far greater opportunities for upward social mobility today. Although times have indeed changed since the writing of Jude the Obscure, this inequality and extremely limited social mobility is evident.
According to the United States Department of Labor, in October 2014, 68.4% of high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities, so it is obvious that education is more attainable for students of any background. But viewing that statistic alone doesn’t at all prove that social mobility is any more possible or that there are greater strides toward equal opportunity. By taking into consideration debt, quality of education, privilege, and popular ideologies, among many other factors, we can see that society has not progressed as much as we’d like to believe since Jude the Obscure’s publication. In the twenty-first century, poverty still remains the strongest factor in determining whether or not a high-school graduate will attend and/or stay in college after the first year. Wealthier high schools had higher rates of their graduates attending and graduating from college. This phenomenon parallels the context of Jude the Obscure. Overall, the possibility for American students to attend college is greater, but the opportunity to attend college isn’t equal.
Taking a step back further into the funding of America’s schools explains how poorer neighborhoods are set up for failure. The United States is the only developed country that funds public schools based on local wealth. Because of this, those who live in poorer neighborhoods have a poorly funded education, while those who reside in wealthier areas receive a better education. Though it’s easy to assume that people from the ghettos are stupid, we can see that those from poorer areas may have the potential and capacity to excel academically but never get the opportunity to discover whether or not that’s true. Similarly, Jude was self-taught in classical Greek and Latin and displayed immense potential academically but could not achieve his goal of becoming a scholar because of social conventions. Jude could have been the most intelligent, successful scholar to have ever come out of university at Christminster, but no one would ever be able to know because society restricted him from pursuing a formal education. The difference between this past and the present day is that formal education is required by law up until a certain age, but if Jude were transplanted to today’s modern world, his circumstances would end up in a similar way. Jude would have lived in a relatively poor neighborhood with his working-class family and received a formal education in a poorly-funded public school. The quality of his education due to lack of proper funding would not have aided Jude’s being able to reach his full academic potential, and the chances of his going to university would still remain slim.
Though it would be possible for twenty-first century Jude to earn scholarships and take out loans to attend college, these improvements still come at a cost and in actuality don’t make a significant difference for the majority. In 2007-2008, 0.3 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges received scholarships that covered the entire cost of attendance, and only about 10 percent of undergraduate students won private scholarships, averaging only $2,800 a year. Scholarships may contribute to covering costs for tuition but do not make a significant difference for the vast majority; only a fraction of students actually receive this type of financial aid. Student loans offer another type of problem; though it’s possible to attend school solely off borrowed money, students graduate in debt. While a college degree will lead to better paying jobs, many graduates worry about paying off loans well into their adult lives. In the end, students are taking out loans to go to college so that they can earn a higher salary to pay off their student loans. College students are graduating with more and more debt each year, and this poses another limit on their goals towards social mobility. These limits keep people in the same positions and social classes as they’ve always been. Because of these reasons, social mobility has remained the same over the past decades while inequality continues to increase. It seems as though many people are unaware of the systemic problems that keep the impoverished poor, generation after generation. Many literary texts draw on these ideas in an effort to bring attention to this issue, just as Hardy did with Jude the Obscure.
Sue Bridehead, Jude Fawley’s cousin and wife, is another nonconformist in the novel. She stands out against her female counterparts and is an early example of the modern woman and feminist. Like Jude, Sue holds values that challenge the ideals of everyone else in society. She questions the institutions of religion and marriage and challenges patriarchy. In Jude the Obscure, it’s obvious that women like Sue who value intellect are ostracized, and in 1895 a woman’s place in society was in the home with the role of mother and wife. Nearly 120 years later, women are still challenging these same social roles. Gains for women were made through women’s suffrage and at the time of the Civil Rights era, but inequality between men and women still remains. Women have been able to create names and success for themselves in politics, business, and other areas in the professional world, but there is still progress to be made. Women still get paid lower wages than men. Female politicians in the public eye are criticized for qualities that have no relevance to their intellect or competence. Women work what is called a “double shift”—going to work but then also coming home and performing the primary role at home.
If Sue was living in the twenty-first century, she wouldn’t stand out from the women of today as much as she does with those of her own time. It is more common for women, along with men, to not be religious. In her time, Sue shows traits and characteristics that aren’t traditionally or stereotypically feminine, and Sue is proven to be more than just an ordinary, submissive wife and mother as many others were. She questioned her surrounding society and strongly voiced her opinions with little concern regarding others’ judgements—she represents the women and feminists of today. In no way was Sue a perfect character modeling everything the modern woman should stand for or be, but she provided an example of a woman who was aware and constantly challenging the norm. More and more twenty-first-century women are questioning their places and roles in society and are boldly arguing their cases. For Sue, she believed that a woman has a right “to undo what one has done ignorantly” when it comes to marriage. Her notion of being able to leave a marriage for any reason was absurd at the time but is generally accepted today. Nowadays, a twenty-first-century woman may be a single-mother raising her children alone or a full-time employee with no intentions of ever having children at all, and there are no clear cut definitions that women are conforming to anymore. Men and women alike may not understand and still place stigmas on women who don’t conform to the traditional housewife role, but these different types of modern women are becoming more common. Sue was a woman who was way ahead of her time, and without knowing it, Hardy created a character who would be representative of what a woman is like today.
Though strides have been made for women’s rights and though “woman” takes on a much broader definition, sexism is still an issue that is being dealt with. For many, the word “woman” alone seems to hold a negative connotation and is often associated with weakness and incompetence. This is seen every time any male athlete is offended when a coach says he’s “playing like a girl.” This association of women with incompetence and weakness isn’t as obvious as it was in the past, but can be examined through looking at how much fewer opportunities are afforded to women. 298 of the total 12,107 people (0.246%) who have ever served in Congress were women; women earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man; and one in five women are sexually assaulted on college campuses. Women are less likely to be offered opportunities for advancement and less likely to receive high salaries and benefits. Demographics show that women tend to make up the lower rungs on the ladder in the professional world (i.e. being teachers in a school), while males are those who occupy the higher up jobs (i.e. being superintendents and principals of schools). So while Sue may fit into the twenty-first century, she’d still be a modern feminist with many more questions and opinions on the constructs of society.
In comparing the situations of Jude and Sue when placed in both the 1895 England portrayed in Jude the Obscure and America and other industrialized countries in the twenty-first century, the situations and outcomes of these characters’ lives might be very similar. As long as there is classism, sexism, or anything else along the lines, Jude the Obscure will be a novel that will compare to society no matter how many centuries have passed. Hardy’s characterization of Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead and his social commentary shape the novel into a text that is almost universal. Its relevance to society 120 years later isn’t a simple coincidence. Hardy originally intended to bring to light the problem of society at his time, but perhaps Jude the Obscure shows us today how little we have actually progressed since that time.
With Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy joined a long-lasting trend of books that challenge societal constructs. Books such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, George Orwell’s 1984, or even Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games all provide the author’s social commentary. Interestingly, because they challenge ideals just as Hardy’s novel does, efforts have been made to ban these books from many school and public libraries. All of these modern novels are created with a purpose. Even years before the modern novel, William Wordsworth’s “keen interest in contemporary society and politics” was present in his work in the late 18th century. Nelson Mandela noted that “as long as poverty, injustice, and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.” Books and other texts such as Jude the Obscure will continue to be published by authors who write to prove a point about the wrongs of society and the people who continue to be enslaved by systematic injustice.
Barnett, Rosalind Chait. “Ageism and Sexism in the Workplace.” Ageism in the New Millennium Fall 2005: 25-30. Online.
“Class in America: Mobility Measured.” The Economist. N.p., 1 Feb. 2014. Web. 3 May 2015. <http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21595437-america-no-less-socially-mobile-it-was-generation-ago-mobility-measured>.
“Get Real on Scholarships.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 03 May 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/get-real-on-scholarships/2011/03/08/ABM4LfR_story.html>.
Halmi, Nicholas. Wordsworth’s Poetry and Prose. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Hardy, Thomas, and Cedric Watts. Jude the Obscure. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 1999.
Howe, Irving. “A Distinctly Modern Novel.” in Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. W. W. New York: Norton & Co. 1999
“Poverty the Strongest Factor in Whether High School Graduates Go to College.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 3 May 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/14/poverty-college-enrollment_n_5978646.html>.
Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 261: British Literature II