Schopenhauer and Jude the Obscure: A Comparative Analysis

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

This essay compares the themes of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure with the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer as presented in The World as Will and Idea.

Arthur Schopenhauer and Thomas Hardy, though writing in different genres, are connected by a "noteworthy and observable sympathy" (Garwood 11). This sympathy could be called "gloominess" or "world-weariness". More formally, the two are linked by pessimism, and a belief in the inherent injustice of existence. Also linking the two is a kind of philosophical courage to attempt to show existence as it actually is, not how we might wish it or need it to be.
The fiction of Hardy does not directly inherit from the philosophy of Schopenhauer, and Hardy "has not deliberately and consciously set out to give artistic expression to Schopenhauerian philosophy" (Garwood 11). By analyzing the "sympathy" for Schopenhauer's philosophy as expressed in The World as Will and Idea, in Hardy's final novel, Jude the Obscure, however, one finds similarities and differences between Hardy and Schopenhauer that shed light on the ideas of both.
Any discussion of Schopenhauer's conclusions on the nature of existence requires some background on the philosophical framework on which he bases them. Without this, his conclusions risk being misinterpreted as simple reactionary discontent. Schopenhauer begins his main treatise with the shockingly simple declaration that "[t]he world is my idea." (Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea, hence WWI, 3). He separates the world into two coexistent concepts, "idea" and "will". An idea is what can be known by a subject, i.e., a human mind. Ideas exist in time and space and follow the laws of causality. This is the world in which we directly perceive ourselves to live. However, philosophically speaking, the truth of these perceptions is unverifiable. The idea of the world tells us nothing of its true nature. Schopenhauer often references Indian philosophy, calling this "Mâyâ": " 'It is Mâyâ, the veil of deception, which covers the eyes of mortals, and makes them see a world of which one cannot say either that it is, or that it is not' " (WWI 8).
The world is not only idea, however, but also "will". Will might be described as the basis of all force that exists. Unlike ideas or perception, this force exists outside of time, space, and causality. Will is "the being-in-itself of everything in the world, and the sole kernel of every phenomenon" (WWI 51). Science may explain the mechanics of light or chemical interaction, "[b]ut certain forces will always remain unaccounted for; there will always remain as an insoluble residue a content of phenomena which cannot be attributed to their form" (WWI 56). Schopenhauer gives an example using gravity. The gravitational attraction between two objects is caused by their proximity. The gravity itself, however, is not created at this moment. It is outside of space and time (WWI 62).
The will manifests itself in varying degrees of "objectification of will". The lowest grades of this objectification are apparent in the qualities of inanimate objects, such as the fluidity of water or impermeability of stone. Humans are the highest objectification of will. We can actually directly experience will through our bodies; besides being an idea, our bodies are an objectification of will (WWI 58-59). All objectifications of will share the same source. They do not all coexist peacefully, however. This fact ultimately serves as the basis for Schopenhauer's rejection of this will.
The sympathetic idea of innate conflict recurs several times throughout Jude the Obscure. The novel takes the reader through Jude Fawley's entire life. From the beginning, Jude is a sensitive child and laments the conflict in nature. Sent to live with an aunt after the death of his parents, he is to help earn his keep by scaring birds for a nearby farmer. This early scene shares several parallels with the ideas of Schopenhauer.
Jude starts about his work scaring the birds. Soon though, "his heart grew sympathetic to the birds' thwarted desires" (Hardy 15). Jude perceives his commonality with the birds. "A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own" (16). This sympathy extends even past birds, to worms and trees (17-18). The farmer surprises Jude in his reflection and beats him for feeding the birds he was supposed to scare away. Jude weeps because he feels he has disgraced himself and might be a burden on his aunt, but he also perceives "the flaw in the terrestrial scheme, by which what was good for God's birds was bad for God's gardener" (17).
For Schopenhauer, the will that manifests itself in all things is the flaw in the scheme. The nature of the will is to strive unceasingly. When this striving is obstructed, we call the result suffering:
[E]verywhere the various natural forces and organic forms contest with one another for the matter in which they want to appear, for each of them possesses only what it has wrested from the others. So they carry on a constant struggle for life and death of which the outcome is, chiefly, the resistance by which that striving which constitutes the inner nature of everything, is impeded on every side ... (WWI 195).
While this might seem to suggest that if desires are fulfilled, happiness will result, Schopenhauer makes it clear that this is not the case. While a thwarted desire causes suffering, desire too easily fulfilled leads to crushing boredom, under which an entity's "nature and existence itself becomes an unbearable burden to it. Thus its life swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards between pain and ennui, which are the elements of which it is made." (WWI 198). Man and animal alike are therefore trapped, suffering for the means to extend an existence that is burdensome and painful should they succeed in their striving.
The only way to escape from the suffering, says Schopenhauer is an ascetic life, denying the very will to life. Living quietly, embracing poverty and celibacy, such an existence seeks to reduce the suffering of the world. Most people perceive themselves and others as individuals, not realizing the redundant and circular nature of the objectification of the will. When viewed from within space and time, the world appears "as a plurality of co-existent and successive phenomena" (WWI 45). Thus Schopenhauer views space and time as the principium individuationis, or principle of individuation (WWI 44). For someone still viewing life from a position within this principle, life is like "a circuit around which we must run without stopping—a circuit of red-hot coals, with a few cool spots here and there". This person "finds consolation in the cool spot ... and he continues to run around the track" (WWI 239). The will, however, which causes the suffering of the world, stands outside the principium individuationis. Once a person perceives this, the cool spot is no longer comforting because "he sees himself in all places at once".
His will turns round, no longer asserts its own nature reflected in the phenomena, but denies it. This change announces itself in the transition from virtue to asceticism. For it is no longer enough for such a man to love others as himself, and to do as much for them as for himself: he feels revulsion at the being of which his own phenomenal existence is an expression, at the will to live, the kernel and inner nature of that world which he recognises as full of misery (WWI 239).
Thus the person will deny sexual gratification and live in poverty in order to deny the will. Schopenhauer points out that this is not a new idea. This state has alternately been described as saintliness in Christianity, or what we might now refer to as enlightenment in Buddhism (though Schopenhauer himself does not use the term), and is the highest state in other religions as well. He accounts for this by the dual nature of knowing; for whatever dogma was given to the ascetic's reason, his intuition perceived the true nature of existence (WWI 240-241).
Jude's entire life exemplifies this innate suffering, but he is ultimately incapable of overcoming it. Jude's desire to be good causes him suffering. His desire to be educated causes him suffering. His desire to do the right thing in the eyes of the community causes him suffering. Generally throughout his life he does not attain his desire. However, sexually and in love, he does attain what he desires, which causes even more suffering when he is ultimately denied the object of his desire.
Jude's personality contributes to his struggles, but his inclinations are hardly unique. He consistently builds an inflated expectation about some future acquisition or status as the life-changing event that will make his life worthwhile. When it fails to live up to his anticipation, he falls into despair and chastises himself for his stupidity.
Even as a child, Jude wants to be a scholar. He asks his former schoolmaster, Mr. Phillotson, to send him some Greek and Latin grammars so he can begin to learn for a future in the university. Phillotson complies, but Jude is shocked when he actually views the grammars. He had conceived of them as a code by which one could directly translate the classics. "His childish idea was, in fact, a pushing to the extremity of mathematical precision what is everywhere known as Grimm's Law—an aggrandizement of rough rules to ideal completeness." (Hardy 32). When he learns that every individual word must be learned separately, he is crushed: "he wished he had never seen a book, that he might never see another, that he had never been born" (33).
This misunderstanding can be seen as emblematic of Jude. In each of his schemes, he suffers from the same idealization. Nothing does he idealize more than Sue. When he first sees her, he hesitates to make himself known to her. "[S]he remained more or less an ideal character, about whose form he began to weave curious and fantastic day-dreams" (94). And later, when she comes to him after leaving a theological school, "he stood with his back to the fire regarding her, and saw in her almost a divinity" (153).
Another such case happens when Jude is faced with his first real sexual desire. At the height of his idealism about the university, Arabella makes herself known to him by literally hitting him in the head with a pig's genitalia. This heavy-handed symbol demonstrates the effect on Jude's mind and ambitions that the sexual desire has. After Arabella pretends to be pregnant, Jude marries her. Upon getting home from the wedding, Arabella takes off some fake hair. This is another example of how Jude's expectations are shown to be false.
Jude's desire to attend the university continues after Arabella leaves for Australia. He moves to Christminster to be near the university, but there a literal and social wall separates him from his goal. He is simply of the wrong class to attend the university, though his potential may be equal or greater than the students. There again Jude suffers for being nearer his goal physically while no closer in reality. Jude writes letters to the heads of several colleges, asking advice on how to pursue his goal. He is ignored by all but one, who advises Jude that he "will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in [his] own sphere and sticking to [his] trade" (124). In cruel irony, Jude is only seen as fit to work on the walls that limit him.
Jude realizes that he will never attain his goal of attending the university, and he decides to pursue a religious career. Here the irony is that while he wants a religious education, Sue is trapped at a training school suffering for receiving that which Jude suffers for being denied. Through all, Jude continues to ruminate on Sue, the university, the clergy, and his desires for all three.
According to Schopenhauer, it is memory, knowledge of the past, and anticipation of the future that make humans particularly susceptible to suffering. While animals may develop habits, they do not conceptualize the past in the same way that humans do, and therefore are not burdened by reliving some past calamity (WWI 117). Just as animals do not feel pain as acutely as humans, not all humans feel this existential suffering as acutely as others (WWI 111). While Jude and his cousin and eventual lover, Sue Bridehead, are sensitive to the needless suffering of existence, Jude's wife, Arabella, represents selfish, uncaring striving, without reflection upon the suffering of others. Arabella tricks Jude into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant, because she wants a husband to take care of her. She leaves Jude to live in Australia, eventually sending back a son, nicknamed Little Father Time for his aged personality, conceived in their first short marriage. Eventually they are reunited, and Jude is manipulated into marrying Arabella a second time. Arabella, however, never does change or show the least interest in reducing the suffering of others, eventually ignoring Jude's death in order to go to a boat race with a prospective new beau. To Arabella's worldly understanding, the cycle just goes on, and she begins to look for the next Schopenhauerian "cool spot".
Arabella behavior towards Jude, when juxtaposed to Jude's behavior towards Sue, demonstrates Schopenhauer's ideas of justice. To Schopenhauer, a just person "never carries the affirmation of his own will so far as to deny the will manifest in another individual" (WWI 233). Jude and Sue both recognize this. This concept is completely alien to Arabella. Phillotson sees this but eventually submits to social convention.
The characters of Jude the Obscure form a spectrum of recognition of the true nature of the world. Arabella is the least sensitive. She is coarse and animal in nature, thinking only of herself and her immediate needs. Phillotson is somewhat more aware, but eventually turns away from the truth he has seen. He says, "Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society, and we can't get out of it if we would!" (Hardy 334).
Little Father Time sees too clearly the nature of the world. "They seem to see all its terror before they are old enough to have staying power to resist them" (Hardy 355). Little Time sees the world much as Schopenhauer, but being only a child, is crushed by his knowledge. When Jude and Sue are enjoying themselves briefly, they attend an agricultural fair with Little Time, who takes no enjoyment away from the experience. "I should like the flowers very much, if I didn't keep on thinking they'd be all withered in a few days" (312).
Sue is less sensitive than Little Time, but only by shades. Hardy describes her younger sensitivity:
Vague and quaint imaginings had haunted Sue in the days when her intellect scintillated like a star, that the world resembled a stanza or melody composed in a dream; it was wonderfully excellent to the half-aroused intelligence, but hopelessly absurd at the full waking; that the first cause worked automatically like a somnambulist, and not reflectively like a sage; that at the framing of the terrestrial conditions there seemed never to have been contemplated such a development of emotional perceptiveness among the creatures subject to those conditions as that reached by thinking and educated humanity. (360)
Sue's former imaginings are juxtaposed to her eventual renunciation of her ideas. While she does not commit suicide, her sensitivity leads her to flee from her own questioning nature, which had been her defining characteristic. This is not a true denial of will but rather a subjugation of her will to the will of society, and therefore only increases her suffering.
Jude sits in the middle of this spectrum. Almost until the end, he finds ways to hope, even though he sees flashes of the world for what it is. In his final return to Christminster, as he speaks to the crowd he says that one must be "cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig to have a really good chance of being one of his country's worthies" (343). He still has pride at this point; he has been beaten, "[h]owever it was [his] poverty and not [his] will that consented to be beaten" (343). In some ways, this is not true, but another example of Jude's idealization. Jude earnestly attempts suicide by jumping on a frozen pond early in his first marriage to Arabella, and succumbs to his inclination to drink when things become dark. Jude only begins to gain full insight into the nature of existence in his dying moments and reflects, "Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" He continues: "There the prisoners rest together; they here not the voice of the oppressor. ... The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master. Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul?" (426). Previously he had lamented his current situation and desired to improve his circumstances, even if he recognized an innate flaw in reality. As he dies, however, he begins to see all mankind as "prisoners," with existence itself as the "oppressor".
Little Time's final action in murdering his half-siblings and killing himself stems from his feeling of his presence, and the birth of the other children, unjustly burdens Jude and Sue. He sees that the presence of children makes it difficult to find lodging for his father. He also feels that the birth is unfair to the children themselves, and becomes terribly distraught after Sue tells him that she is pregnant. Sue herself had just expressed similar trepidation to Arabella when they happened to meet. When Arabella notices her pregnancy, Sue says, "But it seems such a terribly tragic thing to bring beings into the world—so presumptuous—that I question my right to do it sometimes!" (327). Little Time responds to the news, "I think that whenever children be born that are not wanted they should be killed directly, before their souls come to 'em, and not allowed to grow big and walk about." Later he says, "If we children was gone there'd be no trouble at all!" (351-352).
Aaron Matz writes that this scene was considered "farce", with early critics questioning how Hardy, after such attention to realism, "had imperiled the whole fabric by a stroke which passes the border of burlesque" (Matz 530-531). He states that it has also been read as a statement on overpopulation due to Little Time's suicide note, "Done because we are too menny". Matz himself places the scene in the context of formal satire, the result of a combination of nineteenth-century realism and dark Swiftean satire (531-534).
Matz' interpretation is convincing, but alternate readings are still possible. The overpopulation reading misapplies the note to a specific social problem. While Hardy addresses many social issues in the novel, overpopulation does not appear, and the climax of the story seems an unlikely spot for it to make its debut. However, from a Schopenhauerian viewpoint, the note might be interpreted as a statement on the nature of procreation, namely that an increase in the number of instances of the form (i.e., children) simply multiplies suffering without any benefit.
Schopenhauer believes that the sexual impulse of animals and humans demonstrates most directly the striving, mindless nature of the will's affirmation of life. The phenomenon of a new life is virtually identical to the phenomena of those who created it. In this way the will continues its striving across generations ceaselessly forward into time. The act of procreation propagates the will, but also ensures more suffering for the future, since life is essentially suffering and death. Unfortunately, then, "the opportunity for redemption—an opportunity made possible by a faculty of knowledge brought to its most consummate perfection—is for this time declared abortive" (WWI 208). Each time a child is born, a chance to decrease suffering by the denial of the will to life is aborted.
In carrying out the awful act, though, Little Time also demonstrates what Schopenhauer wrote about suicide.
Suicide, far from being denial of the will, is a phenomenon of the will's strong affirmation; for the essence of negation lies in shunning not life's sufferings, but its pleasures. The suicide wills life, and is dissatisfied only with the conditions under which it is given to him. Hence he surrenders not the will to life, but only life, by destroying the individual phenomenon (WWI 251).
Little Time's suicide may have ended his suffering, but the suffering of Jude and Sue continues. Sue is mentally and physically broken by the tragedy, and miscarries, completing the total loss of any children. She retreats into the superstition she once abhorred and decides that they are being punished for breaking with tradition. To rectify this she returns to and remarries Phillotson, taking from herself and Jude their last hope of happiness. Jude is once again ensnared by drink and Arabella, and soon succumbs to tuberculosis.
In his analysis of satire in Jude the Obscure, Matz argues against the long-accepted idea that Hardy abandoned writing novels due to the reception the book received. "It was, instead, something he had set out to do in the very writing of the book" (Matz 543). He points out that the ending of the novel offers no end to the suffering caused by Jude and Sue's ill-fated relationships. After Sue's retreat and Jude's death, Arabella gets the final word. Of Sue, she says, "She's never found peace since she left his arms, and never will again till she's as he is now!" (Hardy 431). Matz writes, "There is no suggestion of Sue's future life, or even Arabella's. There are no children to pin our hopes on—they have all been killed off. There is, rather, a sense that this ending seeks to be a total ending, the expression of an absolute silence" (Matz 544).
In ending the book, and indeed his career as a novelist, on this note, Hardy symbolically achieves what Schopenhauer foresaw as the positive result of his denial of life were it to become universally accepted:
Nature, always truthful and undissembling, declares that if this maxim became universal, then human race would die out; and I think I may assume, in accordance with what was said in the Second Book [of WWI] about the connectedness of all the will's manifestations, that with its highest manifestation, the weaker reflection of it (that is, the animal world) would also pass away .... Once knowledge had been entirely suspended, the rest of the world would disappear into nothingness. (WWI 239)
Ultimately both writers are linked, not by a pedestrian discontent at a contemporary situation, but by the powerful conclusion that nothing is preferable to anything.
Works Cited
Garwood, Helen. Thomas Hardy: An Illustration of the Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Diss. U of Pennsylvania, 1909. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1911. Google Book Search. 5 Feb. 2008 <>.
Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. 1896. New York: Bantam, 1996.
Matz, Aaron. "Terminal Satire and Jude the Obscure." ELH 73.2 (2006), 519-547. OhioLINK Electronic Journal Center. 10 Feb. 2008 <>.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. Trans. Jill Berman. Ed. David Berman. Abr. ed. London: Everyman, 1995.

Submitted: May 28, 2010

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