Cultures Literature The Books That Made Me

Books that Made Me: Hey Jude, it’s you again

Illustration by Ipsita Sarkar

You often hear people talking in (disgustingly irritating) clichés about a book being ‘impossible to put down’. To be honest, it’s all lies. No book is impossible to put down; sure it might be so good that you want to keep reading, that the prospect of an approaching ending is both exhilarating and devastating, but ultimately you can just close the cover, put it down and get on with your life.

Perhaps it’s better to say, ‘impossible to escape’. To read is to be haunted. You face ghosts of characters, their lives paradoxically both so scarily real and reassuringly artificial; you find yourself walking through cities, streets, houses, gardens eery in their impossible resemblance to our reality. Sometimes you might even wind up facing yourself, imagining a character whose face is just a little too like yours. It’s an uneasy feeling. Thankfully, all this weirdness generally goes away the minute you close the book; you just remember the good bits, the moments you laughed, or shouted, or cried, the character you fancied, the friend you longed to have, the world in which you wanted to endlessly wander.

What happens when it doesn’t just ‘go away’? You close the book, turn out the light, and instead of it just being you, you find that the darkness is filled with those same ghosts. I don’t know whether this happens to everyone, maybe it doesn’t, maybe nobody has ever thought of it in this way before, maybe I’m just being dramatic (which is possible). All I know, is that it has happened to me twice: first with Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and then with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

I am going to talk about the former, the original Jude (the latter will almost certainly pop up in another article eventually. I generally can’t go that long without telling everyone how much A Little Life changed my life, but that’s not a story for today). This is mostly because Jude the Obscure was the first book I ever read that genuinely impacted me emotionally. Seriously, after finishing I was a mess, sobbing so hysterically that my parents were genuinely concerned something was seriously wrong. However, I also just don’t think you would have Jude St. Francis (A Little Life’s broken yet utterly beautiful centre-figure) without Hardy’s Jude Fawley. Now this isn’t to diminish Yanagihara’s innovation or achievement, it’s just to say that she wasn’t the first to turn everything up ‘a little too high’. I’m not even being dramatic here; if Jude was a modern book, we might expect it to be prefaced with a content warning like this:

Content warning – depression, dysmorphia, gaslighting, rape, suicide (adult and child), hanging, murder, eating disorders, explicit violence, animal cruelty.

Now, you can easily learn Jude’s story through Wikipedia. Though, what this summary– with all its Victorian sensibility – doesn’t fully show, what you can only gauge from reading the book itself, is how Hardy pushed the boundaries to breaking point, forcing his characters into circumstances so dark, so twisted, that the mere thought of their lives might make you physically sick. So, I guess one way Jude made me was that it made me think. Why did Hardy decide to write a character for whom normal things like victory, happiness, belonging, hope, love, were nothing more than impossible fantasies? Why create such a brilliant, beautiful, innately good character, only to destroy him in the cruellest conceivable way (in a way the ending was so dark that it was almost beyond conception, but I guess that only makes things worse…)? What is he trying to tell us, if he is trying to tell us anything at all? Why, despite knowing all this, does this (now well-worn) book so often return to my lap?

‘As you got older and felt yourself to be at the centre of your time…all around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and scorched it.

If only he could prevent himself growing up! He did not want to be a man.’

For Hardy, Jude was rebellion, the mechanism for making his readers question all the assumptions they might make not only about life, education, religion, but also about reading itself. Prior to Jude, literature seemed to exist partly to teach the reader how to live. The intensely popular Victorian ‘bildungsroman’ (literally education-novel, but more commonly associated with ‘coming of age’) offered examples about how to grow, how to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles to find identity and belonging in society. To be honest, it would be wrong to say the bildungsroman is just a Victorian thing; being taught how to grow up and be an adult through literature is still very much the norm (think Harry Potter, Narnia, To Kill a Mockingbird, even modern favourites like The Song of Achilles, The Book Thief). Through the tragic, complicated, messy lives of each character in a bildungsroman we learn (often unconsciously) how to age, who we should hope to be.

When Jude said no; no I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to enter the endless fight that is adult life, I don’t want these inevitable obstacles, I have to say my soul stopped. Never had I been allowed to think of growing up as scary. Yet of course it is frightening; the thought of gaining responsibility at the expense of losing dependency, security, sanctuary, is utterly terrifying. It was as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Here was a character untainted by literature’s obsession with romanticising ageing, a character who- despite us having literally nothing in common and us living worlds, (and centuries!!) apart – was voicing my own anxieties, even when I had not yet found the words to express them.

Yet, Jude didn’t make me because he was like me. I kind of resent that relentless literary cliché of seeing yourself in a character, regardless of how vastly different your lives are. Yes, there will be parallels between your life and theirs, whether literal, emotional, physical, circumstantial. But isn’t this to be expected? Literature is written by humans about humans so of course there will be overlap between the real and the fictional. But, if you constantly look for yourself in each character you read you run the risk of 1. Not appreciating their story because you are too concerned with your own and 2. Beginning to rewrite your own life to fit that of a fictional character.

I have a bookshelf in my room in which I display all the books that, for want of a better phrase, ‘made me’. When I show people that bookshelf, one of the most common responses I get is ‘are you okay?’ – as though my taste in dark, hopeless, soul-scarring books actually says something about my own mental state. But, to be honest, I always have (and always will) return to Jude the Obscure, not because it changed my life, or made me think differently about myself or my mental health, but because I adore Jude. Yes, I appreciate all the ways Hardy is challenging our perceptions and assumptions about reality. Yes, I admire his ability to write an engaging novel that is so completely devoid of hope. Yes, I am in awe of how he manages to tread so tightly that boundary between what is right and wrong when it comes to writing literature (even though English students, myself included, like to argue for days about how writing has no ‘right and wrong’, we all acknowledge, deep deep down, that it kind of does). But to be brutally honest – and a maybe little boring – it was Jude Fawley that made me, not Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

You close the book, turn out the light, and instead of it just being you, you find that the darkness is filled with those same ghosts.

To me, a ghost is physical, corporeal, human. You can’t have the ghost of a house (sorry Rebecca, but you can’t), you can’t have the ghost of a sentence, a story. I guess I was also wrong when I said I see the ‘same’ ghost each time. Every time I return to Hardy, it’s a different Jude I see. Sometimes he’s a cynical child, an endlessly enthusiastic student, a young man taken aback by the thrills of first love. But other times, I see the empty-eyed adult covered with bruises, the man who can do nothing but ‘wish himself out of the world’. I have never been faced with such a strange kaleidoscope of tragedy as the one I see each time I enter Jude’s world.

And yet, for some reason that I don’t think I will ever have the words to explain properly, it’s a world that is just impossible to escape. Not that I would ever want to…

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably chopping about on the Isis River.