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Modern Fiction Studies 46.3 (2000) 646-671

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Oxford's Ghosts: Jude the Obscure and the End of the Gothic

Patrick R. O'Malley *

I. The 1890's

In an 1896 article entitled "Concerning Jude the Obscure," Havelock Ellis praised Thomas Hardy's novel for resisting the tendency toward the fantastic medievalism--a sort of neo-Gothicism--that Ellis saw infecting not only Walter Scott's work but much of nineteenth-century fiction: "Those jerry-built, pseudo-mediæval structures which [Scott] raised so rapidly and so easily, still retain, I hope, some of the fascination which they possessed for us when we were children [. . . ]. But Scott's prodigious facility and the conventional unreality of his view of life ruined the English novel" (1). 1 Calling Jude "the greatest novel written in England for many years" (15), Ellis distinguishes it from even Hardy's earlier work in terms of its stark realism: "There is nothing here of the distressing melodrama into which Mr Hardy was wont to fall in his early novels"(17). What Ellis calls "melodrama" may be located in part in the vague sense of the supernatural that lurks just outside the frame of Hardy's novels. That is, while Hardy's tragedies usually seem to derive from the stubbornnesses and blindnesses of individual nature, that nature itself always hints at the suppressed supernatural forces that take overt form in the Gothic traditions of the nineteenth century. 2 [End Page 646]

This may indeed be the descent into vulgar fantasticism that Ellis detected in Hardy's early novels. 3 Yet Jude continues to stage its tragedy as the horrible trauma of the past's eruption into the present, an eruption that takes the form of seemingly supernatural terror, the technique of the Gothic novel itself. 4 Significantly, it is precisely the portrayal of this eruption that Ellis finds weakest, that is, most dependent upon the neo-Gothicisms of Scott's influence:

Only at one point, it seems to me, is there a serious lapse in the art of the book, and that is when the door of the bedroom closet is sprung open on us to reveal the row of childish corpses. Up to that one admires the strength and sobriety of the narrative, its complete reliance on the interests that lie in common humanity. We feel that here are real human beings of the sort we all know, engaged in obscure struggles that are latent in the life we all know. But with the opening of that cupboard we are thrust out of the large field of common life into the small field of the police court or the lunatic asylum, among the things which for most of us are comparatively unreal. (18-19)

Ellis insists that Jude's greatness lies in its verisimilitude to the experiences of "common humanity," a verisimilitude that separates it from the mass of nineteenth-century novels and, in fact, allies it with the eighteenth-century novels that he privileges, those of Daniel DeFoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, and Jane Austen; almost paradoxically, it is also through this verisimilitude that Ellis situates Jude, with its rejection of nineteenth-century sentimentalism, supernaturalism, and melodrama, as the harbinger of modernism itself. 5

While Ellis's reading positions Hardy's text as the exemplar of a realist modernism, this should not obscure the fact that the geography of Jude's Christminster is the geography of the Gothic, of a medievalizing and decrepit architecture and an equally medievalizing Catholicism:

Down obscure alleys, apparently never trodden now by the foot of man, and whose very existence seemed to be forgotten, there would jut into the path porticoes, oriels, doorways of enriched and florid middle-age design, their extinct air being accentuated by the rottenness of the stones. It seemed impossible [End Page 647] that modern thought could house itself in such decrepit and superseded chambers. (125)

The moldering city is approached first through its Gothic architecture, its oriels and secret pathways eerily reminiscent of the mazes of monasteries and...


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