I lock the door upon myself.
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
Christina Rossetti, 1891
When Hardy published Jude the Obscure in 1895, reviewers roundly reviled it for its sexual explicitness, and for his portrayal of Sue Bridehead as a “poor maimed degenerate, ignorant of herself and of the perversions of her instincts.” The New York Bookman regarded it as “one of the most objectionable books that we have ever read in any language whatsoever.” Hardy, who was so stung by the criticism, did not write another novel in the last thirty years of his life. Few books could compare with the firestorm ignited by Jude.
That year did mark the beginning of a more conservative, indeed repressive climate. The hysteria generated by the Oscar Wilde trials contributed to the backlash for reasserting conventional attitudes toward sex and marriage. Hardy’s ostensible attack on the institution of marriage and social mores was bound to elicit visceral, pejorative responses, particularly since he does not pathologize Sue. In a multi-layered portrait, she is by turns intellectually ambitious and socially unconventional, brittle and captious, vulnerable and almost childlike, a woman who found it easy to stress the faults of others. What most disturbed contemporary readers was the horrific murder of two young children by a child who subsequently commits suicide. This “phantasmagoric eruption” occurs in what is ostensibly a naturalistic novel. Perhaps had Hardy written his tale in the Gothic genre, even though there are incipient elements of that genre present, the horror could have been accepted with a little more equanimity. Moreover, it was published at a time when the eugenics movement was urging intelligent women to bear children and the purity movement was stressing the general “promotion of public morals” and discouraging birth control and abortion. But external forces are secondary to his exploration of the damaged personalities of both Sue and her first cousin, Jude Fawley, which has far more to do with the ensuing tragedy.
Hardy was condemned for writing a degenerate novel because his heroine Sue has a nervous collapse, and her quivering self-abasement is a grotesque parody of the Victorian self-sacrificing icon of the angel at the hearth Jude blends the two themes that have attracted the attention of readers and critics—the unfolding of degeneration in families and the perverse characterization of the New Woman. Given Hardy’s familiarity with Darwinian psychiatry, one critic has described Jude as “the consummate literary text of late Victorian psychiatry” because of its premise that defective ancestry diminishes and progressively weakens the reserves of each succeeding generation for coping with the demands of the present. Accordingly, limited resources vitiate the novel’s protagonists’ capacity to withstand life’s adversity so that they collapse under it with catastrophic results: tragedy, a breakdown and unmitigated misery. In a letter later written by Hardy, he referred to Jude and Sue as “living under a curse of hereditary temperament.” Instead of disease, the taint of a pre-ordained pattern of dysfunctional marriages haunts Sue and her first cousin Jude Fawley. Each comes from families where their parents’ marriage failed: Jude’s mother later committed suicide. Jude is raised by his great aunt who resents his “useless” existence believing that he should have followed his parents to the grave. Having denied him any emotional affection, she nonetheless cautions him that becoming involved with Sue and her “tight-strained nerves” would be “stark madness” because the members of the Fawley family are “not made for wedlock.” It is a prescient warning. Jude’s first marriage is a disaster, and Sue’s first involvement ends in the young man’s suicide. Their own relationship reveals incompatibility and conflicting needs, and these difficulties are exacerbated by the neediness of an emotionally fragile child.
Interconnected with this fatalistic degeneration motif is the neurasthenic New Woman, a product of urbanization, that produces modern stresses. Hardy’s nuanced portrait of Sue is careful to emphasize that her condition owes more to her personal temperament and heritage than to her gender. Although Sue vehemently dismisses marriage as a “sordid contract” and values unconventional behaviour and intellectual pursuits above marriage and raising children, her creator demonstrates sensitivity to social and personal context. Years later he seemed to endorse the harsh criticisms that Jude had been a condemnation of the institution of marriage as it was presently constituted. He wrote, “My opinion at the time, if I remember rightly, was what it is now, that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties.” These comments refer to Jude for walking out on his marriage to Arabella because he recognized that ‘having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connections with affinities that alone render a life–long comradeship tolerable.” They could also refer to Sue for leaving her unhappy marriage to the older Richard Phillotson for whom she felt only revulsion when he touched her.
Even though Sue’s difficulty in establishing viable relationships has been attributed to the theory of degeneration, it is too schematic and overlooks the intellectually independent but psychologically edgy New Woman which is central to an understanding of the novel. Because it was experienced as an attack on the family, both the public and literary critics missed how the characterization of Sue represents the dark underbelly of the medical discourse on women of an Acton or Krafft–Ebing. Moreover, Hardy unravels the dynamics behind chivalry to expose how a pact based upon idealization and infantilization entered into by Sue and Jude militates against building a mutually satisfying relationship. Their difficulties are compounded by Sue’s fear of physical and emotional intimacy that would have likely led her to a breakdown even without the mind-numbing assault of a double tragedy.
No physician obviously would have ever endorsed Sue before her breakdown as a representative of healthy Victorian womanhood. Despite Jude’s allusion to her as his “guardian angel,” she is reluctant to offer him physical love, affection or even support. The physician William Acton was even alarmed about a trend that many middle class wives were withholding sexual access from their husbands for which he blamed the insidious influence of John Stuart Mill. In his Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1875), which is primarily about male sexuality and is intended to offer assurances to calm male anxieties, Acton warned about the threat to the supremacy of men in marriages posed by advocates of women’s rights. He specifically noted the case of a “lady who maintains women’s rights might be…highly detrimental to the health of the husband.” Yet disturbing connections exist between the officially approved medical perspective and the emotional difficulties experienced by Sue Bridehead. Physicians believed that healthy women had limited sexual feelings. This perception certainly applies to Sue who has at best an insipid sex drive and considers it “gross,” and who admits to Jude that “my nature is not as passionate as yours.” Jude describes her as a “phantasmal bodiless creature,” a characterization that accords with official view that women were spiritual rather than sensual creatures. Far from denying her sexuality, some Victorian doctors (and readers) would perceive Sue’s initial responses as high minded in contrast with the carnality of Arabella who years earlier had seduced into marriage the honorable but naïve Jude with her ruse that she was pregnant. Sue and Jude both endorse the duality of women; Sue regards Arabella as a “‘fleshy coarse woman” and he perceives her to be a “complete and substantial female animal.” Starved for the affection that he has never had, Jude appreciates Sue as the “ethereal least sensuous woman [he] ever knew.”
|Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet in the 1996 film adaptation Jude
Sue reluctantly acquiesces to Jude’s sexual desires when Arabella returns from Australia as a way of binding him to her. Even after both receive their respective divorces and make two conscious attempts to actually get married, her fear overtakes her and they remain an unmarried couple. Yet for a short time, they do experience a sexual relationship; the difficulties emerge when children arrive on the scene. Then both encounter discrimination from a censorious Victorian society when they seek accommodation: Jude experienced it acquiring employment as a stonemason. When two children are born and she becomes pregnant with a third, as Hardy explained in a letter to a friend, “her intimacies with Jude have never been more than occasional…they occupy separate rooms.” For those like Krafft–Ebing, who considered sexuality largely for the purpose of procreation, the “moderate expression” of their sexual life, albeit unsatisfying for Jude, would appear compatible with the norms articulated by some Victorian doctors. Some argued that the chaste mother and sexually indifferent wife were essential in protecting her husband from nervous drain and the decline of masculine productivity in the economic sphere through the abundant loss of semen. For those doctors who worried that the neurotic New Woman was starving her uterus by developing her brain, the occasional intimacies of Sue and Jude did not impair her capacity to reproduce.
Womanhood however does pose powerful challenges for Sue, who is determined to pursue an unconventional life as a critic of the coercive conventions that clashed with powerful drives within her. There is always an undercurrent of tension between her professed intellectual development that could be a vehicle for personal liberation and her longing to escape from adult responsibilities: “I like reading and all that, but I crave to get back to the life of my infancy and its freedom.” This astute self-perception is initially puzzling since from the scraps of textual evidence, we learn that after her mother left her father she lived with her mother for a time in London, and then returned to her father whom she is now estranged. He raised her to “hate her mother’s family” which presumably meant hating her mother and her own femaleness. From these snippets, we can infer that she probably was made to feel shameful and worthless as a woman like her mother. Is it surprising that Sue would fear sexuality, and the inevitable by-product of child–bearing with or without the blessings of a marriage ritual, if in her psyche, motherhood connoted “badness”? Also would not the birth of each child precipitate within her the pain she would have experienced at being abandoned by her own mother and release what today is called postpartum depression? There is a startling absence of interaction in the text between Sue and her two young unnamed children. Add these internal dynamics to the stress of poverty, social ostracism for being different, and the addition of Jude’s son from his previous marriage, the accumulation of pressures would likely have, at some point, been too much for Sue to sustain.
Sue has often been perceived by readers and critics and by Jude himself as inconsistent and contradictory, and therefore, incomprehensible. But she always hypersensitive to anything that makes her feel fettered: the demands of sexuality, the constraints of religious dogma and legal restraints that would limit her options in life on the basis of her gender. At the same time, she wanted to establish a deep connection with another person, and she hoped that Jude would satisfy that need. Sue is a complex character because her conscious desires conflict with unconscious pressures that include a powerful internal mechanism, a superego, which craves punishment for her continual badness. She may have regarded herself as a freethinker who could quote John Stuart Mill to Phillotson, and attack societal conventions, but there is a strong infusion of the repressive medievalist in her, and an emotional fragility that betrays a real difficulty in grappling with the pressures of living as an adult woman. When Jude responds to her secular agnostic views, she becomes upset and defensive. But neither understands that for all her intellectual interest in ancient pagan culture, personal feelings ricochet within her, and always bubble near the surface threatening to erupt.
Rather than engaging Jude in a meaningful exchange, her ability to intellectualize, or in other contexts, politicize her feelings about marriage and the law, becomes either a weapon to use against others in a sarcastic or contemptuous way, or a shield to defend her fragile self. What she deeply craved, as insurance so that Jude would not abandon her, was to ennoble him “to high aims,” to idealize him so that he would be protective of her as though she were a child. She proceeds to seal the chivalrous pact with the promise that they “are going to be very nice with each other…and never, never vex each other anymore.” And Jude duly, though unconsciously, accepts the dynamic between them. For his part, Jude on this occasion and in future altercations between them will alternate between idealizing her, “you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet tantalizing phantom–hardly flesh at all” and capitulating to her whims. “He could never resist her when she pleaded [as she well knew].” Sue feels most at ease with him when she takes his arm as they rehearse his role in giving her away (as a father) in her marriage to Phillotson. This pact will ensure that any future erotic relationship that Jude initiates will incur resistance.