Hardy's last novel was met with public disapproval and a bishop even insisted on burning this, supposedly, scandalous work. However, like D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley’s Lover , Jude the Obscure's shock factor has diminished with time, as the modern reader will approach this novel with a much altered attitude than the Victorian critic of 1895. The author boldly analyses the three institutes of marriage, religion and education, which repress and hold back the two central characters of Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead.
This novel is quite different from other Hardy novels, especially The Return of the Native , which sees Hardy embracing tradition and displaying a conservative streak. Here the tragedy is more powerful, with Jude and Sue evoking pathos as they fight against the restraints of society in the nineteenth century. Although both unsuccessful and forced to give up their ambitious dreams of change, Hardy is clearly in support of these two pioneers and invites the reader to join him in making them martyrs rather than failures of apparently impossible movements.
Hardy strongly empathised with the figure of Jude, who displays many characteristics akin to the young Hardy. His fight against the class discriminating university is a poignant example of how talent can be wasted due to out dated social concerns.
Sue is shown as the New Woman, a figure of the feminist movement that had begun to emerge during the nineteenth century. She desires to break away from the traditional roles of the female in a domestic environment, seeking employment and disgusted by the confinement of marriage.
This novel is based on theories rather than by being limited by plot. The characters are meant to be viewed more symbolically than as the rounded figures that you would expect from an Austen’s or Dickens’s novel. Hardy bravely rebuked the very institutes that the society of the day held as virtuous. Marriage is seen as quenching passion, religion as being overtly pious and education as discriminating and elitist. This is a brave novel that was sadly Hardy’s last: it displays an age, all to recent, that appears unjust and crude whilst still capturing a perfect love, void of typical Victorian sentimentality seen elsewhere in the literary scene of the time.