Have you read Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure?
If you haven’t, it’s the story of Jude Fawley, a shy, intelligent, sensitive boy, then man, who is too shy, intelligent and sensitive to fit into a callous, indifferent and hypocritical world.
Jude is working class, but he longs to become a Greek and Latin scholar at the university in Christminster. Without the means to do that, he apprentices as a stone mason while studying alone until he is more knowledgeable than the scholars at the university. But he is never allowed to join them. Instead, he can only repair the stone university buildings.
Jude doesn’t understand society’s games and unwritten rules. Already unhappily married, he falls in love with his equally misfit cousin, Sue Bridehead, who is also married. They decide to ignore convention and live together, which gets Jude dismissed from his permanent job. With children now, they’re forced to lead a nomadic life searching for temporary work.
British readers were so offended by the book that Hardy received a torrent of abuse for it, so extreme that he decided to never write another novel.
When I talk of hypocrisy, it wasn’t confined to the book. One literary critic, a woman, who had attacked him viciously, wrote to him privately saying she’d like to meet him.
But Jude fares badly. I won’t detail the horrifying events that lead up to his demise because they’re too painful. I used to think Hardy received the abuse from critics and the public because he’d made Jude’s life so unbearably dark.
Not so – it was Jude and Sue living together that upset them. It was cheap hypocritical morality at work, nothing more.
Anyway, to rescue Jude, if that’s possible, let me say this:
If I had been Jude, I might still have gone back to Christminster, to the town that had always rejected me. But I wouldn’t have taken my wife and children with me. And when I was there, I wouldn’t have talked to anyone. I would only have conversed with the old buildings that I loved and knew better than any of the people who inhabited them. Once I had said my goodbyes to them, I would have gone on my way, to London maybe, where so many jobless and homeless went.
This is something I neglected to say in The Shyness Guide, or maybe I did say it but it needs to be re-emphasized. Fine, you can be shy and still learn to function in society, develop the ability to talk to people, etc, but you also need to know when to turn your back and walk away.
That’s what Jude couldn’t do. My only way to rescue him is to say that, in another book with a different author, I think it’s what he might have done. It could have been a very different story.