‘My failure is reflected on me by every one of those young fellows,’ said Jude. ‘A lesson on presumption is awaiting me to-day!—Humiliation Day for me!’
Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is more relevant to modern Britain than one may realise. The novel recounts the story of Jude Fawley and his struggle to enter the university in the city of Christminster. He never does. He studies diligently and independently learns Latin and Greek, and yet, he is denied an education. The master of a Christminster college rejects and snobbishly commands him to ‘[remain] in your own sphere and [stick] to your trade’.
The extract I have selected comes from the final section of the novel where Jude, having long since abandoned his ambition, sees the students graduating and feels the humiliation of failure. Sue puts it well in saying that Jude was ‘one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded: a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But [he was] elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons’.
Hardy’s perspective is a determinist one in which the individual can’t fulfil their potential or exert their will. Jude’s brilliance amounts to nothing because his society has decided that a stonemason should not be educated. Its culture and institutions have imposed restrictions. One moment that particularly stands out is on his ‘humiliation day’ in which he sees a horse being abused. This prompts Jude to ask the question that ‘If that can be done at the college gates in the most religious and educational city in the world, what shall we say as to how far we’ve got?’
In December of 2016 the gap between poor and rich pupils granted university places reached a record high; in February of the same year the proportion of working-class students at some of the top universities was lower than a decade ago; and in 2014-2015 65% of privately educated pupils entered the top third of English universities as compared to 23% in state schools. And, in the past few years the gap has widened.
In light of these statistics Jude’s question can still be asked; after all, it is undeniable that class and wealth continue to affect education to this day. To read Jude the Obscure is to engage with issues relevant both in Hardy’s time and ours. It is true that in the past century meritocracy has improved significantly, however, these statistics prove that it still retains serious flaws. Even now, Hardy’s novel still interrogates the state of society and encourages one to ask Jude’s question.
If the circumstances were different then Jude may have succeeded and his fate may have been avoided. For this reason, the novel is a tragedy, and one which emphasises the role of societal inequality in Jude’s experience. For example, as the title suggests, the narrative’s key motif is obscuration. An early passage exemplifies this.
‘Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.
‘The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimærs.’
The city, as seen by the child, is very much ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ he imagines. The cityscape is coloured by his idealism and is a far cry from the later city of his adulthood where, for example, he finds one college to be like a sarcophagus. Even at this early and hopeful stage of his life the city is one ‘miraged in the peculiar atmosphere’; an elusive place and therefore a symbol of his ambitions that ironically anticipates its failure. As Sue has said, Jude shall be ‘elbowed off the pavement’ because of his social status. It is precisely because of this that his ambitions can never be anything more than illusionary and he cannot achieve any distinction. Thus, not only is Jude himself obscured by society’s rejection of him, but, society obscures and eventually obliterates any of Jude’s hopes for an education; a fact that is conveyed through the proleptic symbolism of nightfall. As such, an individual may be restrained, and their ambitions potentially destroyed, for nothing more than their social status.
Whilst Jude’s situation would perhaps not be so dire today, and one is unlikely to encounter class-based discrimination when reviewing university applicants, Hardy’s work is still relevant. Inequality still pervades education and the progress of the last few decades, whilst encouraging, is imperfect. These sentiments are hardly revelatory; however, the novel still offers a valuable mirror in which to examine our society.