Code the Obscure: About Thomas Hardy

Table of Contents

Hardy’s concerns and its relation to today’s conflicts

Software engineering: a tribute and a tease

Participatory design: an alternative software philosophy

The Victorian Hardy and the modern Hardy

Why do Julian and Sharon have such a hard time?

Some other characters

Hardy’s setting

Quotations (biblical, classical, literary)

The story may have made you curious about what I have taken from Hardy. In addition to a lot of dialect and a few characters’ utterances that I lifted whole from his novels, I tried to adapt the world-view and social concerns of Jude the Obscure and other works to a modern age, as I’ll explain in this document.

Hardy’s concerns and its relation to today’s conflicts

While Hardy offers many pleasures, including a superbly evocative style and a grand sense of tragicomic irony, what I find most relevant today are his protests over what was wrong in the society of his time: the harsh and unjust life led by the poor, the oppression of women, and (tying everything else together) the generally stultifying conformity of Victorian morality. His critique focused on religious ideology, where he contrasted its strictures with what he considered natural relations between people, particularly sexual relations. For my parody, I’ve updated this to a critique of the ideology dominating modern software development and computer use.

I think Hardy would have appreciated a parody. He himself loved to sprinkle his narratives with humorous digs at local life and people, as well as sarcastic comments on morality and convention. He returned over and over to the disparagement of matrimony (reflecting the unhappiness of his own first marriage). For instance, “How she sticks to him!…I fancy they are not married, or they wouldn’t be so much to one another as that.”

My parody flows to its tragic conclusion on two levels. The first (described in the following two sections) is the struggle between ideologies; the second (which comes later in the essay) is how the characters handle their role in the struggle.

Software engineering: a tribute and a tease

Many sections of Hardy’s novels exude nostalgia. Except in Jude the Obscure, he wrote about bygone decades, knowing that the culture and society recorded in his works were quickly vanishing. With this very fin-de-siècle consciousness he crafted lovingly specific descriptions of local conditions and practices that he knew his readers would never be able to see for themselves. Whether it’s stuffing a feather bed in The Return of the Native, making apple cider in The Woodlanders, or gleaning wheat in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hardy writes details as if trying to reproduce a practice that is past its time. Furthermore, he records the indications that times were changing: the pulling down of cottages as farmhands were forced into the cities, the emptying of roads as railroads covered the countryside, and so on.

I have followed the same strategy in reporting the practices of early computing: time-sharing, punch-carded batch runs, and rows of data-entry terminals. But I’ve tempered the nostalgia with some nose-tweaking, since the standard practices of each generation become the laughing stock of the next.

So on one level, this parody is about “software engineering,” a term that itself embodies a political message. It was invented as the title of a forum sponsored by NATO in 1968, and gradually became an umbrella under which to shelter a number of practices. Some of these are undoubtedly valuable, such as education about current software techniques, code walk-throughs, and testing. (I don’t want to be thought of as an opponent of software engineering; but I hope I’m allowed to make fun of some aspects of it as a device to push the parody forward.) Most significantly, the whole venture was an attempt to prove that software could be robust enough for life-critical applications like airplane travel and medical instruments.

Although I have disguised the exact dates of the incidents in my story, as did Hardy in his, certain periods emerge. The first chapter takes place in the 1960s, the hiring of Julian in the second chapter in the mid-1970s, and the denouement in modern times.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of computer science might think that Falforr’s views are caricatures. In fact, they reproduce the written statements of the academics in the field pretty faithfully. It is Julian who stands out against the tide, like the apostate of the Roman empire after whom he is named.

Edsger Dijkstra, one of the most famous and formidable leaders in computer science, announced in the 1960s that testing was not the path to accuracy. His claim that formal proofs could produce absolute accuracy was taken up by virtually all software academics in that period. But it was largely ignored by workers in actual software houses, and the researchers eventually admitted that the complexity of any non-trivial program made it unfeasible to attempt a formal proof. It is not entirely fair to make fun of this movement, though, because it did lead to structured programming, now embodied in all modern languages and a precursor of object-oriented programming.

I have probably also exaggerated in suggesting that structured design removes all independence and creativity from the junior programmer. After all, designs must be implemented through “stepwise refinement,” a practice calling for considerable thought. But a hierarchical Taylorist view definitely lies behind the movement, and that was what Julian (and many real-life programmers) rebelled against.

Certification has been another idea consistently promoted by certain academics through the decades. Comparisons between software engineering and the manufacture of bridges and airplanes used to be common. But practitioners have never taken these efforts seriously, except insofar as particular software manufacturers offer certification programs—and it always seems that professionals take those courses not because they choose and enjoy the software, but because some manager has required it.

Data warehousing and mining is the most recent challenge faced by traditional database products. The idea of mining is to search millions or hundreds of millions of facts for statistically significant correlations, a job made harder as organizations merge together different databases. The most famous case of data mining is a well-publicized finding that people tend to buy beer and diapers in the same shopping trip. The interpretation of this factlet is the crux of the question as to whether the method holds any value, as with most computer output. Whether or not supermarkets can find any meaning to the statistic, there is no doubt that mounds of worthless results are turned up by mining; trade journals routinely warn against placing too much trust in them.

It was appropriately ironic that during the final days in which I finished Code the Obscure, I received an issue of the Communications of the ACM (February 1998, vol. 41, no. 2) focusing on data quality, which they describe as the key issue in data mining and warehousing. While I think that data mining may succeed someday, I also believe it is managers’ way of trying to avoid the hard question that must be answered by healthy firms, and on which marketing people in my own company (for example) expend a lot of creative thinking: the question “What do people want?” or even more subtly, “What might make people’s lives better, whether or not they are asking for it now?”

Perhaps the plans Falforr had for Betraysha’s farm were excessive, but anyone who thinks that it is ridiculous to suggest that dairy farms use high tech should check out the New York Times of July 21, 1997. In addition, many farms now use Geographical Information Systems to monitor soil chemistry, yields, etc.

There is a difference between the practice and the practitioner, and I hope that I have shown Douglas Falforr to be more than a nerd. Like the character in The Mayor of Casterbridge on which he is based, Donald Farfrae, he is a humane man who brings technological progress and rational thinking to crucial productive processes. Farfrae represented the relentless tidal wave of modernity, with both positive and negative effects, while his rival Henchard represented the passion of older ways.

Participatory design: an alternative software philosophy

So what is the philosophy that Julian upholds in contrast to Falforr’s? I did not make it up. It is called participatory design, and as far as I can tell its gestation was in the Scandinavian countries in the late 1970s. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility holds a conference about it every two years. It seems to have reached its height in the 1980s, but never had lasting effects, and is hard to find practiced now—unless one looks in unexpected places, as we shall see.

Participatory design is a political reaction to automation and deskilling. The thrust behind it is the desire of progressively-minded programmers and designers to empower and enhance the lives of working people, instead of degrading them. The practice involves meeting with users to find out what they do in their jobs (rather than what managers think they do or want them to do). System development is evolutionary, with users prototyping or actually doing work with sample systems as they are developed.

Instead of going into the benefits and risks of this approach and analyzing why most attempts have fizzled, I will ask whether the essential goal of participatory design—that users make their own systems—is possibly triumphing all around us. After all, scripting languages and Web tools make do-it-yourself systems more and more widespread. Instead of begging a centralized programming team to create a tool and providing formal requirements that become set in stone, ordinary people cobble together something that provides the information they want to offer and throw it on the company network or the Internet. Nobody ever claimed that participatory design could work for every system. But what is happening is that user-driven systems are proliferating around the world.

The Victorian Hardy and the modern Hardy

Since he wrote all his novels in the 19th century (though he lived till 1928, and I would have loved to see his insights about those years of war, revolution, social upheaval, and technological innovation) it would be tempting to label Hardy a Victorian novelist. His thick prose style (before Jude the Obscure) fits the label. Furthermore, if you reviewed the one-page summaries of his plots, you’d be rewarded by finding the melodramatic themes loved by Victorian readers. Marriages are made too fast and are soon regretted by those trapped within them. Fortunes are attained and lost within a few years. Fallen women succumb to scandal.

But another world-view is lurking behind the mannerisms. Hardy undermines the conventional interpretation that readers would tend to place on his scenes and events. In Jude the Obscure, especially, he lays a foundation for what has been rather pretentiously called the “modern novel.” The sexual tension, the open class conflict (which was not overt in Hardy’s earlier novels) and the consummate confusion and ambiguity felt by self-destructive characters are antecedents to the next generation of writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

There have been other Hardy characters whose inner conflicts led to their destruction (especially Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native and Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge) but a heightened element is introduced in Jude the Obscure: a hopeless lack of control that the very intelligent characters exert over the impulses and drives that tear them apart psychologically.

Earlier novels depended on the typical Victorian turns of plot through coincidences. Letters containing secrets are unexpectedly found and opened. People thought to be long-dead turn up at a critical moment. A remark made for one purpose is misinterpreted and directs the listener down a fatally mistaken course. In Jude the Obscure Hardy dropped most of these devices; he places the causes of events squarely on the psychological motives and counter-motives of his characters. Whereas the plot of Tess of the D’Urbervilles hinged on the unfair divorce laws of the times, divorce laws were liberalized in England during the course of Jude the Obscure; the continued misery of its main characters rests instead on their guilt and ambivalence.

Earlier novels made Hardy popular as a nature writer. Most famously, he devotes the whole first chapter of The Return of the Native to a description of the heath, and one entire page later to a description of the wind on that heath in the early winter. Birds often witness and comment on the miseries of humans, as the starlings do to Julian in the first chapter of my story. But instead of the quaint, slow-paced rusticity of these earlier works, Jude the Obscure shows us a world of cities, railways, and proletarians. It is also a rarity among Hardy’s novels (and others of the nineteenth century) in that there are no wealthy characters.

In this last novel, the prose is leaner and more modern-sounding—though Hardy would not be Hardy without a few pompous Latinate words. He was also fond of describing architectural details (since he began as an architect), invoking music to evoke feelings, comparing scenes to the output of various artists, and using plenty of quotations from biblical, classical, and semi-contemporary English literary sources.

Why do Julian and Sharon have such a hard time?

I hope that I have presented Julian sympathetically, but also as a seriously flawed character. Like Jude Fawley on which he is based, Julian maintains obsessive fixations on people and ideas, splits his view of people between the ideal good and the entirely evil, feels self-pitying no matter how well he does for himself, and runs away whenever a conflict becomes too much for him. In short, he’s a passive-aggressive borderline personality—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sharon is more of the same. And indeed, how could I possibly write a story with a character like Hardy’s Jude, without including his inseparable soul mate Sue Bridehead? They are so tightly integrated (as two borderline personalities naturally would be) that another character describes them with the words, “They seem to be one person split in two.” Or in another place, “That complete mutual understanding, in which every glance and movement was as effectual as speech for conveying intelligence between them, made them almost the two parts of a single whole.” Like many such sufferers from underdeveloped egos, Jude and Sue are supernaturally sensitive to implications and feelings.

It’s nothing new for Hardy’s characters to get themselves into trouble unnecessarily, but Jude and Sue take the malady to new depths. If you don’t understand their existential dilemma, you ask why they can’t settle down to a pleasant life together (especially when they both get their divorces) and strive toward their goals and desires. What one must understand is that their sense of self is too fragmentary for them to possess goals and desires. Highly intelligent, they talk rationally but can’t make the simplest rational decisions—and that is because they don’t possess enough of an intact ego between the two of them to determine what they need. They think they know what they want, but perversely somehow they always seem to want something that is impossible to achieve.

The greatness of Jude the Obscure lies in the destructive intersection of daring modern ideas with characters so handicapped that they cannot sustain the courses they are so bold to start out on. Were Jude’s and Sue’s intellect as debased as their interpersonal development, or their interpersonal development as elevated as their intellect, we would find little of interest in the novel.

My terms and categorizations derive from the object relations theory developed in the 1940s, so I cannot expect Hardy to furnish the details about Jude’s or Sue’s early childhoods that might correlate with my diagnosis. But it is significant that both are orphans, and therefore probably victims of neglect. The few clues we have of Jude’s early life are precisely the ones to indicate a lacuna in personal development. His father abused his mother, and after leaving him she drowned herself (as Jude tried to do when he heard about it—a clear overidentification suggesting a crippled sense of self).

Indeed, Jude was so empty and stunted that he could find no better foundation for a personality than to totally engorge the aspiration of his short-term tutor Phillotson, the only person ever to show him a bit of positive attention.

There is no doubt that social forces barred Jude from his youthful goal, which was to get into Oxford University. The opportunities for poor people to enter a university were, in fact, increasingly restricted during the 19th century in England. But he overcame his obsession with that goal early in life, and the central question in his development is whether he could have given up his rebelliousness enough to marry Sue and adopt a routine working-class life. But Jude was so idealistic that he refused to marry because it would “snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness,” the same basic critique that Julian offers to the discipline imposed on the software development process by Falforr’s innovations.

One can argue for hours how much Jude’s and Sue’s happiness was destroyed by repressive social forces and how much by their own psychological inability to simply recognize and accept conventional happiness—it’s impossible to disentangle the two barriers in Hardy’s novels, just as in real life.

I have tried in my story to preserve the same dual conflict. Julian is intellectually rigorous enough to recognize the falsity of orthodoxy in the field of software, and determined enough to reject it consciously. But these qualities leave him without the flexibility to coexist with the doctrine he rejected, or to couch his philosophy in a way that the orthodox might give him room to practice it.

I’m afraid that I have not treated my character Sharon with the sensitivity that Hardy could offer his Sue over hundreds of pages. I may have lost the positive qualities that one can see in Sue. Like her, Sharon is intelligent and strives for the highest ideals. Unfortunately, despite herself, she’s manipulative, repulsed by physical reality, destructive toward both herself and her lover, and incapable of recognizing or acting on her best interests. Her ultimate adaptation to life, as with Sue, is left uncertain at the end.

Some other characters

The character with the most actual control over events in my story is Betraysha. Her model, of course, is Bathsheba Everdene of Far From the Madding Crowd. Bathsheba is strong in her business dealings and her handling of subordinates. But in love she acts like a schoolgirl. Hardy describes her as “a woman with some good sense in reasoning on subjects wherein her heart was not involved.” She fails, as does my character Betraysha, because she trusts too much in one man—Bathsheba in her lover Troy and Betraysha in her consultant Falforr.

The failing of my Betraysha is, if anything, more believable than that of Hardy’s character. Think how many programmers, after all, can report having worked for a CEO who knew everything one could ask about running the business but nothing about the Information Systems component!

Diggor Vizzen is my adaptation of Diggory Venn from Return of the Native. Hardy called him an “isolated and weird character.” He is uncannily aware of all that goes on among other characters; he is almost always present when they let drop key insights or indulge in secret meetings. His omniscience would be even more suited for the modern information age of computerized privacy violations than for the empty 19th-century countryside where Hardy placed him. Jan Coggan of Far From the Madding Crowd, which I have used as a model for Johnny Coghand, is an expert tracker who goes well with this figure.

It’s a shame that I had no space in the story to make Sharon’s husband into a true character. In Jude the Obscure, Sue’s husband is Phillotson, a decent and intelligent man who inspires no love from anyone but is willing to sacrifice his career and reputation to let Sue leave him and go to Jude. Phillotson is also the only person to provide encouragement and anything resembling a role model to the psychologically deprived boy that Jude was at the beginning of the novel.

For the fourth member of the love tangle, Jude’s cunning and philistine wife Arabella, I have not been able to find a role at all—and more’s the pity, because she possessed more drive then the other three put together. In fact, in Hardy’s novel her activities propel the plot forward.

Hardy’s setting

The south of England represented in all of Hardy’s works (and given by him the name of an ancient kingdom, Wessex) was considered a “backwater”; one of the poorest and most technologically primitive regions of the country and one where ancient social customs were best preserved. If we try to determine why it is so poor, based on Hardy’s works alone, we might answer that it’s because the honest working folk spent all their time chasing after moonstruck lovers in the night, dragging ponds for possible suicides, and doing the other things that the pathological characters of the novels required of them. But my readings suggest that the backwardness is related more to the poor quality of the soil and the lack of other resources such as coal to encourage modern industry.

As Jude the Obscure documents, there was hardly anything left of the quaint or the picturesque in the southern England lifestyle by the end of the century. Throughout the 19th century, old skills were disappearing, and for a very modern reason: global competition and the introduction of new machinery.

The Corn Laws for many decades had kept agriculture in this part of the world safe from competition from cheap American products. When these laws were repealed in 1846, the region went through a massive change with contradictory effects on the population, all recorded expertly by Hardy. On the negative side, people lost their farms, livelihoods, and homes, and inevitably the accompanying psychological aspects like folklore and identity. But the increased population and living standard in the rest of the country, along with new industries and new opportunities for delivering farm products over the railroads, led eventually to a significant improvement in everybody’s material existence. Hardy was quite conscious of these conflicting effects, which hold great significance for the world today.



Quotations are from the King James version

Set up the standard toward Zion: retire, stay not; for I will bring evil from the north, and a great destruction. (Jeremiah 4:6)
Nobody really knows who the “evil from the north” is, but we can feel sure it is not as far north as Scotland. The lines could have referred either to the earlier Assyrian or upcoming Babylonian invasion.

And they shall make a spoil of thy riches, and make a prey of thy merchandise; and they shall break down thy walls, and destroy thy pleasant houses: and they shall lay thy stores and thy timber and thy dust in the midst of the water. (Ezekial 26:12)
This passage refers to the Babylonian’s invasion of Tyre, a prosperous trading post in ancient Phoenicia (and a modern city in Lebanon). Interestingly enough, Tyre figures in literature as the birthplace of Queen Dido, who speaks later in my story.

And Ephraim is as a heifer that is taught, and loveth to tread out the corn; but I passed over her fair neck; I will make Ephraim to ride, Judah shall plow, Jacob shall break his clods. (Hosea 10:11)
I can’t find any explanation of Hosea’s division of labor, but the sense of the whole passage is to convey the loss of easy times and the advent of harsh labor; it refers to the invasion by the Assyrians and the tribute the Israelites had to pay.

For the upright shall dwell in the land, and the perfect shall remain in it. But the wicked shall be cut off from the earth, and the transgressors shall be rooted out of it. (Proverbs 2:21-22)
In context, this proverb seems to refer not so much to the prejudice felt in many cultures against the supposedly corrupting influence of urban life, as to a recognition that fertile land is a boon to those who possess it and that removal from one’s plot is disastrous to those who depend on agriculture for sustenance. In short, the passage refers once again to exile. (The Bible often used the promise of dwelling in Canaan as a sign of God’s favor, and to be “cut off” was a common punishment and retribution for those who refused to obey God’s will.) Julian in Wadhustle probably held on to both of these guilty impressions: that he was subjecting himself to corruption and that he had been forced away from the Turnstile for some deep, personal failing.

Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (Matthew 5:26)
This metaphor from the Sermon on the Mount compares the punishment and atonement for disobeying God to being thrown into prison. The words must have been an everyday phrase in Hardy’s time, for I’ve found them used by characters in two of his novels (including Bathsheba, the model for the character who uses the phrase in my story).

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. (Romans 7:7)
The context of this phrase is a complaint by Paul that the Jews’ attachment to the commandments of the Torah fails to lead to their salvation. He realizes that his complaint may lead critics to think he is equating these commandments with sin, and thus he has to issue a disclaimer here. The subtlety of this passage is impressive; Paul seems to be approaching a very modern psychological understanding that an obsession with the enforcement of rules creates a reaction among people to break the rules. (But his view of the commandments’ negative effects may have sprung from a personal predilection for rigid enforcement, as can be seen in his own early history.) A similar Pauline phrase, by the way, is quoted in Chapter III of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck. (1 Timothy 1:19)
Paul is either warning Timothy not to give way to doubt, or reassuring him that he won’t be like others who have done so.

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Paul is referring either to his own physical illness or to the persecutions suffered by martyrs; in either case he is optimistic that their spiritual conviction compensates for the corporeal loss. The two conditions are reversed for Julian in Chapter 3.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)
Paul’s deprecation of the temptations and ideological pressures all around fits well with Julian’s and Sharon’s sense that they do not belong in a conventional lifestyle.


“At this moment he ministered to the cows in the manner of Heracles to those of Augeus.”
I think I need only remind the reader that Augeus possessed an enormous number of cattle to rouse memories of this labor of Heracles (Hercules to the Romans).

“But even though impassioned by Athena to conquer, he found his victory snatched away by Aphrodite.”
In Book Five of the Illiad, the brash Greek captain Diomedes is “made bold” by Athena, who stokes his urge to fight and protects him from harm. He kills many Trojans. But when he takes aim at Aeneas, son of the goddess Aphrodite, she picks up the victim and carries him out of the Greek’s reach.

“Did you think like Aeneas that you could slip away in silence?”
We have seen the hero Aeneas rescued from Diomedes in the previous quote; later in the Illiad, he was saved again from death by the gods so that he could carry on the Trojan people. The Romans interpreted that passage of the Illiad to mark Aeneas as their own ancestor, and Virgil picked up this thread to write the Aeneid. Told in Book Four that he must abandon his lover Dido in order to fulfill his destiny and found the Roman people, Aeneas decides to make secret preparations to leave and to tell her about it only at the last minute (what do you expect of a man?). Since he came with at least a dozen ships, the notion of carrying out such plans without being noticed is rather ludicrous, and of course he is discovered quickly by Dido, who chides him in words similar to Sharon’s.


“ ’Tis to let the Ghost of Gold take from Toil a thousandfold…” Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy, stanza XLIV.
Shelley was one of Hardy’s favorite poets, and was quoted and referred to several times in Jude the Obscure. But I was quite lucky to find this poem, which is totally different from anything else I have seen by Shelley in the sense that it is an openly political commentary on a current event. It was written quickly in 1819 just after police in Manchester killed a number of workers who were protesting against the horrendous working and living conditions of the early Industrial Revolution. Shelley condemns the reaction of the government and urges the workers to stand firm. The stanza I’ve quoted describes slavery (as Shelley characterizes the conditions under which laborers were living) and comes from a section contrasting slavery with freedom. The phrase “Ghost of Gold” seems to mean paper currency (judging from the stanza that follows in the poem) but I take it to refer to the finance capital that increasingly came to dominate industry. What would Shelley have thought of the enormous increase in finance capital represented by mutual funds like the one Julian worked for, not to mention the incredible mobility of investments made possible by computerization and electronic networks!

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