Read an Excerpt
From Amy M. King’s Introduction to Jude the Obscure
Hardy’s stature as a novelist when Jude the Obscure was published guaranteed him a certain degree of critical attention, but the attention he was to receive was so negative as to alter the course of his career. Jude the Obscure was Hardy’s final novel. In one of the strangest turns in literary history, Hardy at the age of fifty-five turned to poetry, which he continued to write until his death in 1928 at the age of eighty-eight. In letters to close friends he pretends a somewhat jaunty indifference to the negative response to Jude, but in an essay entitled “The Profitable Reading of Fiction,” which appeared in the journal Forum in 1888, Hardy’s defensiveness about readers suggests the effect the reception of his novel would have upon him:
A novel which does moral injury to a dozen imbeciles, and has bracing results upon a thousand intellects of normal vigor, can justify its existence. . . . It is unfortunately quite possible to read the most elevating works of imagination in our own or any language, and, by fixing the regard on the wrong sides of the subject, to gather not a grain of wisdom from them, nay, sometimes positive harm. What author has not had his experience of such readers?—the mentally and morally warped ones of both sexes, who will, where practicable, so twist plain and obvious meanings as to see in an honest picture of human nature an attack on religion, morals, or institutions.
If Hardy had become wary of a certain kind of reader, his bitterness toward what he calls “the mentally and morally warped ones” did not prevent him from continuing to believe that such “imbeciles” numbered in the dozens, not the thousands. He continued to tinker with the novel in subsequent editions. In the 1903 edition he tempered the scene in which Arabella throws the pig genitals at Jude, while in the 1912 edition he introduces some two hundred small but nevertheless effectively important changes. These changes, which the edition you read here reflects, are generally considered to have been softening gestures to the depiction of Sue. For instance, as the bibliographical critic Robert Slack has shown, in the 1903 edition Jude threatens to return to Arabella unless Sue consents to live with him (and, it is inferred, become his sexual partner), and Sue agrees to it because he has “conquered” her; in the 1912 edition, Sue’s acquiescence is the result of love. The key words “I do love you” are included seventeen years after the first publication of the novel. The revisions that Hardy makes go beyond an author’s usual attention to errors in early editions. Jude clearly stayed with Hardy in the years following his switch to poetry, though whether we should understand that switch in light of a renunciation inspired by the extremity of the negative reaction to Jude or as an excuse for returning to the genre (poetry) with which he began his writing career is less certain; it was, if nothing else, a decisive one.