Today was the last meeting of my 19th-Century Novels class–a depressing inquiry into the meaning of the tragedies of the final volume of Jude the Obscure. One effect of the children’s deaths is to drive us to interpretation. After all, if they ‘mean’ nothing, then their horror is unredeemable. Here our activity as readers becomes entangled with the efforts of the characters to make sense of their experience. In particular, Sue is driven to religious explanations, in part for the (meager) comfort they offer, and in part because if she interprets her suffering as punishment for her ‘sins’ against God, then she can seek atonement by turning back to His laws. So religion is shown as answering human needs, rather than as offering truths. Jude’s explanations are more consistent with what we’ve seen in the novel (“it is only … man, and senseless circumstance”)–but what response can we muster to that? Jude’s response, of course, is to lie down and await death. Then there’s Arabella’s survival, scariest of all, perhaps, if we ordinary folks create the environment in which it is only Arabella who can flourish–just as in Middlemarch, “we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know” (Finale). I usually point my final lecture for this class towards the responsibilities of readers, pointed to so often by both the content and the forms of our readings. As Janice Carlisle argues persuasively in her smart book The Sense of an Audience, the goal of many Victorian novelists was “an ‘ennobling interchange of action’ [Wordsworth’s phrase] that would elicit the best qualities of both the reader and the narrative persona of the novelist” (11).
And in a truly Victorian spirit of optimism, I also always end this course by recommending other 19th-century novels my students might enjoy now that they’ve got a taste for them. So here’s this year’s list of Recommended Further Reading:
- If you particularly enjoyed The Warden: Scenes of Clerical Life, Barchester Towers, or any other Trollope novel
- If you loved Great Expectations: David Copperfield, Bleak House, Mary Barton, North and South
- If your favourite was Lady Audley’s Secret: The Woman in White, Aurora Floyd, Fingersmith
- If Middlemarch inspired you: The Mill on the Floss, Wives and Daughters
- If Jude the Obscure was your favourite: go on vacation, preferably somewhere sunny
And that’s a wrap.