This is one of the three novels by Thomas Hardy which I read when I was at school and university. While it's not the one that made me decide I didn't like Hardy - that honour goes to Tess of the D'Urbervilles - I was not motivated to read it again. However, thirty five years later I've developed a new appreciation for Hardy, thanks to a wonderful audiobook of The Return of the Native narrated by Alan Rickman. I'm now slowly working my way through his novels, including the ones I've read before. I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by Stephen Thorne. The narration was excellent. Unlike most male narrators I've listened to, Thorne does a very good job with young female voices.
The Jude of the title is Jude Fawley, a sensitive orphan with a passion for learning who grows up to become a stonemason. Jude dreams of becoming a scholar at Christminster - Hardy's version of Oxford. The narrative centres on his relationship with two women: the earthy and resilient Arabella Don and the intellectual and ethereal Sue Bridehead, whom Jude sees as his soulmate. The novel is also an impassioned critique of Victorian attitudes towards religion, marriage and sexual morality. The views which Hardy has Jude and Sue express concerning these particular issues put the author well ahead of his time - something which Hardy overtly refers to in the text on more than one occasion.
Jude is like the biblical Job, a parallel which Hardy makes explicit by having Jude recite from the Book of Job towards the end of the novel. Put briefly, nothing goes right for Jude and when things go wrong, they go badly wrong. My heart ached for him, although to some extent the tragedy is so relentless that my response to how Jude was affected was numbed. I had a sneaking admiration for the unappealing Arabella, who at least knew what she wanted and went after it with gusto. Sue, on the other hand, enraged me for most of the novel with her inconsistency and her inability to engage on an emotional level. But she is a brilliant, complex character and it's difficult not to feel her pain.
Let's face it, this is not a book to read if you're feeling down. On the other hand, contemplating the misery of Jude Fawley's life might make you feel that your lot in life is not so bad after all. I've given this 4-1/2 rather than five stars because at times I felt that the message of the novel overwhelmed the characters. However, it's still an amazing read.