Sexually innocent Jude Fawley is trapped into marriage by seductive Arabella Donn, but their union is an unhappy one and Arabella leaves him. Jude's welcome freedom allows him to pursue his obsession with his pretty cousin Sue Bridehead, a brilliant, charismatic free-thinker who would be his ideal soul mate if not for her aversion to physical love. When Jude and Sue decide to lead their lives outside marriage they bring down on themselves all the force of a repressive society. This fearless and outspoken story caused a furor on its publication, and was Hardy's last novel.
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Well, that were a grim'un, to be sure. Jude, a decent man with ambitions to become a scholar, doesn't stand a chance in Hardy's cold universe. Let down by everyone he chooses as a mentor (one of them doesn't last long enough for a round trip from one village to the next); spurned by the university he longs to enter; and used and confused by the women in his life, he keeps trying to draw a smaller circle in the sand after each fresh assault, but ultimately he loses, and by then he doesn't care, and then he dies.
The women in his life are used and confused in turn, not so much by Jude as by the terrible straitjacket women were forced into. The love of his life, Sue, is particularly confused: she combines an open, somewhat flirtatious manner with a pathological aversion to sex that left me wondering if she'd been abused as a child. (Or better to say, since she's not real: wondering if Hardy intentionally set her character up to convey that.) She does finally overcome her aversion, to the extent of having children with Jude, but it's a fragile adjustment. And even the best-adjusted person would have trouble keeping their sanity when confronted by the major tragedy in this book of tragedies: an event that strikes suddenly and brutally in a few swift paragraphs and leaves the characters - and the reader - reeling.
Neville Jason has not been one of my favorite narrators in the past, but I'm warming up to him. Part of the pleasure of his performance here is the skill he shows in voicing the many characters, with their many accents and moods. There is humor here at times, and Jason brings it out in the voices of Arabella and other "country folk," who have no intellectual ambitions and are more willing to go with the flow. His characterization of Sue, to me, was somewhat less successful than his Jude; but his Jude is so brilliantly done, so exceptional in the way it conveys Jude's gentleness, rage, and despair, that I'm willing to give him five stars for the whole thing. I'll definitely make an effort, in the future, to listen to more of his readings.
Listen to it, by all means, but don't listen to it if you're depressed or even just having a bad day. It will exercise your compassion to the breaking point.