Jude the Obscure (1895)
by Thomas Hardy
Boy I wish I'd read all these Victorian period novels about failed marriages BEFORE my own marriage failed. Before I got married, if only to gain insight into the various ways that things fall apart between two peoples. If I had, I might have been able to recognize the seeds of different things the culminated for me in divorce. The Victorian/Edwardian obsession with the marriage plot in the Novel reaches a kind of dark resolution in Thomas Hardy's last book, Jude the Obscure. Often described as the "darkest" "most experimental" and "best" novel Hardy wrote, Jude the Obscure reaches new heights (depths?) in the lengths to which Hardy goes to describe the utter misery that can be inflicted on two people by marriage.
The heart of Jude the Obscure is the life, loves & death of Jude Fawley, a working class mason with aspirations of attending college and becoming learned. He fails fails fails in his quest, mostly because of his messy relationships get in the way- we're talking a period of a decade plus here. First, he is seduced by Arabella, the serving wench/pig farmers daughter. She tricks him into an early marriage with a (made up) pregnancy scare. Jude is forced to give up his original plan of studying for college to support his wife and his expected child. When it turns out that no child is forthcoming, they fight and Arabella takes off for Australia.
Jude resumes his solitary existence in a nearby town, where he continues his studies. He soon meets Sue Brighthead, his cousin and what we would today call a "feminist." A tortured quasi-romance ensues, only to end when Sue marries Mr. Philloston, her scholarly mentor (also he's old.) Jude accepts the marriage with a modicum of grace, but Sue does not, and leaves her husband for Jude. From this point on Philloston is essentially ruined by Sue and he wins a Pyrrhic victory only in the last few pages.
Sue and Jude live together, they have two kids and then get a third kid via Jude's Australian wife. Oh yeah and then the third kid HANGS the other two kids and HANGS himself and they all die. WHAT THE FUCK ???? After that Sue gets super religious and remorseful and returns to her original husband, and Jude hooks back up with his original wife, Arabella, who has been to Australia and back and buried her second husband. Jude ends up alone and dead, and Sue ends up married and miserable. The End.
Jude and Sue never actually get married because of what essentially amounts to a superstition regarding their family history. Sue, of course, can never keep her mouth shut about that fact, and they end up getting hounded from location to location. The darkness of Jude the Obscure is complete- there is not but a single ray of light or comic relief in the entire story. Something I've learned about myself while reading and watching movies the last few months is that I like my themes dark, and I don't mind them slow. Making a work of art that is dark and depressing but yet endures is the hardest thing to do because Audiences don't really like dark artistic themes. They also don't like thematic complexity. Hardy has both of those things going.
Jude the Obscure did not go over well. Many called it obscene and immoral, presumably because of the way Jude and Sue refuse to actually get married at any point, and yet live together and have children and tell people that they are married. Hardy never wrote another novel- he lived for another 32 years, possibly because critics were so harsh (and maybe also because he didn't need the money?) That makes the Jude the Obscure a good, specific example of the type of work that can be poorly received by the initial audience only to obtain classic status at a later date.
I think there are three different characteristics that these works tend to have in common: dark themes, complexity, poor distribution. If you are looking for under rated classics- those are three good things to look for.