A Trace of Modernism in Thomas Hardy’s Work – Jude the Obscure

One of Hardy's foregrounding attempts to pose as a modernist thinker is to put the truth under the question


The term modernism is widely used to identify new and distinctive features in the subjects, forms, concepts, and styles of literature and the other arts in the early decades of the twentieth century. But especially after World War I .The specific features signified by “modernism” (or by the quality modernist) vary with users. However, but many critics agree that it involves a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases not only of western art, but of western culture in general. Important intellectual procedures of modernism, in this sense, are thinkers who had questioned the certainties that had supported traditional modes of social organization, religion, morality, and also traditional ways of conceiving the human.

Modernists wanted to create art which intersected with the world in new, strange and disturbing ways. Indeed, they wanted their work to basically rebuild new concepts about the world and the way human beings experience it. Modernist writers saw themselves as estranged from their world, the sense which led many of them to be exiled or alienated from the societies in which they had grown up. In the following parts, there will be a focus on a number of key areas which were influential in remaking the world in radical ways. These key texts have been used to show how the society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shaped modernist works.

Thomas Hardy Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Hardy
Wikimedia Commons

In the recent novel of Hardy, Jude the Obscure, the characters are in an everlasting illusion about truth and their language is not only a transparent means of communication but a kind of obstacle to perceive each other’s meaning. On the other hand, by generating a new sense of religious faith he demolishes the traditional idea of faith and Christianity and let the characters and especially women breathe under the given liberty which is achieved by this loss of faith and moreover captured in a loneliness that is the direct outcome of the new philosophy. All Hardy’s desires are encoding new moral standards within the society which is bound to traditions.

The first difficulty in understanding the novel as a Victorians buildung novel is thematic and stems from the portrayal in the text itself of misreading that have been done by Jude. Jude sees in Christ minster and its university the image of an achievable ideal world. His desire for this ideal vision involves a rejection of reality. For his own occasionally controlled and some times partially understood world, he substitutes the image of a unified, stable, and understandable world. Delighted for his desire for order, he starts by studying language with two purposes one as a means of entering to university life and as a possible way of establishing a firm character.

Jude feels betrayed. Consequently, in his attempt to learn Latin he finds that “there was no law of transmutation, as in his innocence he had supposed” (Nineteenth century fiction. p, 31). Jude’s desire of “law of transmutation,” the “secret cipher” to a system of translation could exist only if a prior permanent code existed to allow a free substitution of signifiers for one autonomous signified.

The metaphor of translation at this early point in the novel is very interesting. It both reveals that Jude’s desire for an unexcited frozen text that its content might be transported without change or harm in to the element of another language. This will continue to be decisive issues throughout the novel. At this point , Jude has no doubt that the voice of nature can be read and translated, for example when he ” addresses the breeze caressingly,” it seems to respond: “suddenly there came along this wind something toward him- a massage… calling him,’ we are happy here!'(Jude, I.iii.22). However, very soon perceives that language is not a fixed system through which meaning can be transferred from one system to another. Yet this is exactly why Jude refuses to reply to his other readings of the world around him.

As he travels in to countryside where signs of indirect limitations imposed on his life stand to be decoded, Jude’s reading continue: “The only marks on the uniformity of the scene were a rick of last year’s produce …and the path… by which he had come …to every clod and stone there really attached associations enough and to spare- echoes of songs… of spoken words, and of study deeds” (Jude, I.ii.10). History, echoing across the generations, seems to focus on Jude at the bottom of “this vast concave” filed (Jude, I.ii.9), but he does not understand its voice yet. This quality of country side is the essential aspect of the tradition in to which he has been born. These are marks and signs and associations in the landscape of Wessex which is the immediate force of all events. Thus, long before his birth, long before the story of his family has been inscribed, this tradition has already traced the pattern of occurrence of all events in his life but he was not able to read the determining book of fate.

At the beginning of the story, the young Jude seems to see the schoolmaster, Plillotson, as the main power of his controlling “dream” (Jude, I.iii.20), and as a symbolic substitute for the absent “real” father. According to this illusion, when Pillotson leaves Marygreen, Jude replaces him with an ideal representation. Jude reads that ideal presence in to the natural land escape of Wessex as Chrisminster, “that ecclesiastical romance in stone” (Jude, I.v.36). Moreover he finds out that the truth he fixed for himself is not fixed when Philotson marries with his love, Sue. This is the time he faces with the frustration and alienation of himself and society as he sees all the truths he established for himself just an unfixed one which later will be shifted to the other ones that tey are not fixed. Then the tragedy occurs.

Sue Bridehead is also presented in the metaphoric language that names Christminster. Jude has seen, “the photograph of pretty girlish face, in a broad hat, with radiating folds under the brim like the rays of halo” (Jude, II.i.90). In fact ,the process of replacing Sue with the dream of Christminster and Phillotson in Jude’s dream has been facilitated by the nature of Jude’s language long before he is conscious of Sue: earlier , he had become ” so romantically attached to Chrisminster that, like a young lover alluding to his mistress, he felt bashful at mentioning its name” (Jude, I.iii.22). The transfer from phillotson to Sue as a sustaining vision is thus a simple misconception of truth and the reality around Jude, about his beliefs and thing he loves that some day he considered them as the embodiments in his life.

Furthermore, it is the beginning of other false visions in the Jude’s life. Jude’s false reading of Sue at a chapel in Christminster as being ” enciphered by the same harmonies as those which floated into his ears” leads him to conclude that he has ” at least found anchorage for his thoughts” (Jude, II.iii.107) . When Jude finally meets Sue, he approaches her cautiously and speaks to her as he has spoken of Christminster, “with the blush fullness of a lover” (Jude,II.Iv.117). At each step of his story, his controlling dream is a fiction that he imposes on contrary conditions. From the beginning then, the object of desire is not “real” in any sense, but is an “illusion” or creation of Jude’s own mind, as are the “ghosts”( Ninteenth.C.F. p.572) that haunt Christminster.

Another important trace of untruthfulness of language and the illusion which highlight it is in the connection with the constant letters that reaffirm the importance of writings, signs, words, and marks in the lives of these characters. There are the least thirty-two letters exchanged in the novel, including one- line notes (“because we are too many”) to full-sized epistles, directly or indirectly, delivered or not delivered. The great number of letters emphasizes on the importance of the “letter” in the text as the symbol for the force of illusion.

The first of these letters between Jude and Sue was the one for their first meeting, although it was considered one of those ordinary ones, too impassioned. By the time Sue is engaged to Phillotson, Jude is receiving sudden ” passionate” letters(Jude, III.i.153) from her , that seem to close the psychic distance between them in a way that they can never be seen as the imitation of their personality.

-It is very odd, that you are often not so nice in your real presence as you are in your letters, Sue!

– does it really seem to you? Well that’s strange; but I feel just the same about you, Jude. ( Jude, III.vi.197)

A letter is a medium that effectively separates the writer from the effects of the message, while the massage received the reader creates the effect by himself. Even in their coldest tone of Sue’s letters, while she was forbidding Jude from seeing her, she was a gain establishing a new communication between themselves and Jude could establish the effect by himself. Similarly in Phillotson letter when he abandoned Sue he paradoxically kept holding on her.

Moreover, when Sue writes a letter, she both removes and maintains her absence and distance. This simultaneity of absence and presence is basically the consequence of written language and shows more general mystification of Jude in perceiving the meaning.

Sue is completely a desirable woman, but she also becomes a sign in Jude’s mind for an absent source of meaning. According to this discourse, the act of writing becomes reinforcement for the illusion of presence and fades its innocence and transparency. Sue’s letter can never replace her, but her “real presence” is never as the same as the original self in the letter. The written word does not allow to access to the thing itself, but always creates a copy of it that sometimes moves the reader of the word more strongly than can the real presence of represented thing. Thus, the curious result is that the graphic sign, rather than the actual presence, of the desired becomes the cause of emotive energy. For Jude this point is a necessary illusion that is placed in the syntax of his dream without origin. Here the priority of present is distinguishably clear; when they don’t have the presence of each other language is not understood but when they talk in the presence of each other it’s not that hard to convey the meaning.

Jude’s tragedy like every other tragedy comes from inner tensions which shapes the action but not from indifferent force of circumstances. Jude is frustrated by Sue; his desirable woman as he is by Oxford, another shine of intellectual life. Frustration is the everlasting condition of his life. Even part of his love is rooted in frustration too: he wants her endlessly because he can never properly have her. He loves her too, because of himself; he has in himself a narcissism which responds to her, a self reflection of the intellectual life, of his ideals and ambitions, of the taste of intellect which he had first projected onto christminster.

But the truth and the power of the novel are in the way which Jude, in the end, is able to understand his love for Sue without lessening it. Until the closing scene, he tries to make Sue conform to his emotional sleight of mind: he dismisses his ideas of the unchanging conventionality which he held behind Sue’s nonconformity by calling up both his own worthlessness and that ill-defined marriage – curse which has been the lot of his family.

The turning point is the death of the children, where Jude matures as a man and learns to get along with endless disappointments until he can accept them more or less without self pity, but Sue remains in her fixed narcissism and does not change. Yet all these subjects of the novel such as Oxford, marriage, or even frustration leads to a final one and that is loneliness. This is the condition that without it the book would have no eminent power. When the characters are together, they are often hardly conceived, and sometimes don’t conceive at all. But when they are left to themselves they begin to think, feel, act, and even talk with that strange emotionally that is unique.


The major power of the novel is in the general sense of Jude’s tragic loneliness which is the basic motive of every incident. He is isolated in his marriage to Arabella because she has no idea of what he is about, and doesn’t care. He is isolated by the marriage to Sue because she is frigid. Moreover, the sense of loneliness is intensified while both women are presented in the novel in a way that their characters are less than as projection of Jude about them.

Jude’s first marriage was a real trick; in his first outing with Arabella, he enters to an inn then he sees on the wall a painting of Samson and Delilah, a clear symbol of his male sexuality under threat. Living with Arabella, in no means could fulfill his ambitious sprit and had no idea of Jude’s mind at all. In his second marriage, Sue stands as a bodiless girl who afraid of any sexual relationship and remained fix in her ideas of nonconformity which led to a kind of exile from society which consequently both lost their job, their children and finally the only thing they had: their love.

On the other hand, Sue’s loneliness and self destruction is. While Jude is, even at the end, able to talk of dying” game” (Jude, p.394).Jude offers explanations for this phenomenon, ‘the blow of her bereavement seemed to have destroyed her reasoning faculty’ (Jude, p.368), and raises questions a bout it:” what I cannot understand in you is your extraordinary blindness now to your old logic. Is it peculiar to you, or is it common to women?” (Jude, p.359). Sue’s actions and reactions are constantly faced with this lack of understanding from others, whether by Jude or Phillotson. This is because with all her mental alertness, she married Phillotson without ever considering the physical quality of marriage. Deep instinct made her avoid the consideration. And the duality which persuade her to become a male sprit rather than belong to a male sprite by marriage, made her responsible to self-destruction. Any suggestion of physical relationship was an extra confusion in her.

Her principle was the ultra-Christian principle of living entirely according to the spirit , to the one , male spirit, which knows and utters, and shines, but exists beyond feeling, beyond joy or sorrow, or pain, exist only in knowing. According to this, she was herself, but let her to be turned under the influence of the other dark, silent, strong principle, of female, and she would break like a fine instrument under discord. Yet, the suppressed, decayed female in her, was always in her and suggest her to make the fatal mistake. She contained always the rarest and the most deadly anarchy in her own being.

One of Hardy’s foregrounding attempts to pose as a modernist thinker is to put the truth under the question. But in making this situation thematic, it does allow the meaning to exist. We are not dealing simply with an absence of meaning, instead as an allegory of the breakdown of referential system and the transparency of language. There is no natural truth written anywhere that might be read without being some how changed in the process. The text of associations that characters construct around themselves is interrelated with different interpretation and differences in which the meaning of dreams and the desire for illusions are extraordinarily paired. All the truths in their life, after being fixed, changed to illusions after a while. They tried to fix new natural truths in their mind but it doesn’t take so long that they find them just images that achieving them is nothing but illusions. Every thing in Wessex begins with repetition, with secondary images of a meaning that was never present but their signified presence is reconstituted by the additional desires of characters.


It is the time when the alienation of Hardy characters from the world they live and the society occurs; as they lose their jobs, their family’s relation and over all their children. It is the time, when the self destructive treatment of the characters is obvious. On the other hand, the lack of transparentibility of language is obvious through the learning process of Jude, fore example, when he intended to learn Greek and Latin language and grammar. Many times it was mentioned that he found the grammar and the words untranslatable and meaningless. On the other occasions the characters found that written words do not transfer the presence of the meanings that are intended to be conveyed and they always complained of seeing different character of each other rather than what is presented in the letters.

Source by Leila Rezai