Whether sexuality per se was the decisive factor that was responsible for her downward spiral into a tormented self-destructiveness is problematic. There is some truth that her intellectual development runs parallel to her emotional involvement with the undergraduate student, the older Phillotson and Jude, but that “sexuality is a destructive, divisive force wrecking the relationship and threatening the precarious balance in her life between her intellectual adventurousness and her sexual reserve.” Hardy’s contemporary, Sarah Grand expressed similar sentiments when asked her opinion of Jude: “As for Sue, it would have been a good thing if someone had explained to her that she was not of the right constitution to marry. She was one of "Nature’s Nuns," a morbid type that is being developed among us.” As long as sexuality was defined by its obligations to marriage and motherhood, these views are completely understandable. Yet it only becomes a destructive force through its association with maternity. With the undergraduate student, she did not want a sexual relationship with him because she did not love him. Although she blames herself for his death, his suicide can hardly be attributed to sexuality being a “destructive, divisive force.” With the stolid Phillotson, she feels revulsion about a relationship with him; what she wants is a paternal protector to re-establish something with her father that had been damaged. Despite her sexual reserve and resistance with Jude, she does experience the occasional of intimacy with him before she is required to cope with the pressures of raising children and contend with a chilling social climate. Whereas in the Gothic genre sexuality usually connotes depredation or disease, in Jude until the tragedy occurs, the sexual dimension is but one facet of the struggle between Jude and Sue as they attempt to develop an adult relationship.
Sue’s difficulties are flagged early in the novel not because she flaunts her unconventional opinions and critical faculties: the problem lies more in her inability to integrate an ideological worldview into the core of her being. True, she appears as a militant critic of the institution of marriage itself when Sue says to Jude that marriage is “based on material convenience in house holding, rating and taxing, and inheritance of land and money by children.” Like the few feminists in the real world of the 1890s would have done who were mainly seeking civic and legal rights and greater economic opportunities. But the reason for this outburst must be placed in context of the particular occasion. She has just been recently married to Phillotson, a rash decision she makes to punish Jude for his admission that years ago, he imprudently married Arabella, and her political critique is her way of expressing her current personal unhappiness and her deep-seated fears. What this accurate but emotionally charged feminist analysis provides for her is a necessary rationalization and defense against powerful chaotic feelings that seethed within, including her ambivalent feelings about sexuality. In a moment of astonishing self-revelation and insight, she tells Jude that “I am not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson but a woman tossed about, all alone, with aberrant passions, and unaccountable antipathies.” Though formidably articulate and skeptical, rather than a representative of the New Woman, she is very much more an emotionally young, brittle woman, apprehensive of the consequences of sexuality and incapable of appreciating at times the feelings of others.
If the New Woman was able to demonstrate an adult awareness of the world recognizing it as well as her own imperfections without lapsing into self-indulgence but instead exercising some control over her own life, then Sue falls short by almost every measurement. Her responses to adults demonstrate insensitivity or unawareness but at least the consequences are not tragic because she has the capacity to reflect on her actions and try to make amends. After curtly informing Jude that he cannot come to visit, as she is now the wife of Phillotson, she writes a note to him that she had been horrid to him “and that she despised herself for having been so conventional.” At the same time, her ability to reflect also betrays a need for self-reproach. When she leaves her husband with his generous approval and returns to Jude, she never considers for a moment how her decision might affect Phillotson’s teaching position even though she is acutely aware of how scandals and laws can affect her. She then unsettles Jude by informing him that they will not be lovers, but she recognizes that although she may hold unconventional opinions she does not have the courage to act upon them. Near the end of the novel, Sue later recognizes and confesses to Jude her penchant for teasing a man. She admits she began the relationship in the “selfish and cruel wish” to make his heart ache for her: "I did not exactly flirt with you; but that inborn craving which undermines some women’s morals almost more than unbridled passion—the craving to attract and captivate, regardless to the injury it may do to the man—was in me; and when I caught you I was frightened." Oscillating between wretchedness and defiance, she slips into self-disparagement with “I know I am a poor miserable creature” and “I am very bad and unprincipled” and from there ultimately into infantilism. “And you shall kiss men just once there—not very long. She put the tip of her finger gingerly to her cheek; and he did as commanded.” Instead of anticipating an adult sexual relationship, he is confronted with a petulant, little girl.
|Kate Winslet and Christopher Eccleston in Jude|
When the shocking catastrophe of a double murder and suicide ensues, the ghastly sight causes her to prematurely go into labour and suffer a miscarriage. Unable to retreat into a long hibernation to allow herself to experience her grief but still hold onto sanity, she sinks into the twilight of psychosis that reveals an irreconcilable split between her intellect and her emotions. Consequently, her perceptive critical faculties and her rattling of staid convention collapse into “a mere cluster of nerves” as her unslayable demons overwhelm her personality. Jude, who once aspired to be a clergyman and has now abandoned that pursuit, recognizes the change in her, that she has now jettisoned her freethinker stance:
One thing troubled him more than any other; that Sue and himself had mentally traveled in opposite directions since the tragedy: events that enlarged his own view of life, laws, customs, and dogmas, had not operated in the same manner on Sue’s. She was no longer the same as in the independent days, when her intellect played like lambent lightening over conventions and formalities which he at that time respected, though he did not know.
Overwhelmed by guilt and a sense of sin, she leaves Jude to seek only “self–renunciation,” by returning to the conventional Phillotson, whom she loathed, and the monstrous parody of a marriage. This “ultimate horror” can only be understood as an expression of psychic suicide, as a re-enactment the actual suicide of her stepson Father Time. While her earlier, self-derogatory utterances irritation or commiseration, now her desire “to prick [herself] all over with pins and bleed out the badness that’s in [her]” as though she emerged from the pages of a Gothic novel, can only inspire Jude’s pathos and horror. Having long flirted with her doppelganger, her “monstrous” self, Sue’s self-flagellation reveals her total surrender to her demons. In this labile state, she has regressed to the little girl who must now seek forgiveness from Phillotson. She is needier of reparation from her “punitive father” than her lover Jude. But this regression and desire for self-mortification allows her to take psychological refuge and “block out the pain of the far greater real–life horror of her murdered babies.” She persuades him to remarry her, and in an act that can only be described as self–immolation, she requests to sleep with him in the illusionary hope that this punishment can assuage her guilt. In his last meeting with her, Jude pleads with her to abandon her “creed drunk” decision to return to Phillotson, and wonders whether she has “suffered loss of [her] faculties” and questions “where has [her] scorn of convention gone.”
Unfortunately, he could never fathom that her feminist critique of society has never been anchored to her own reality but instead has assumed a dilettante gloss. Instead of fortifying her inner self and providing her with a set of values by which to navigate the vicissitudes of life, it was used as a vehicle for defending herself and as a weapon to hurl at others to keep them at an emotional distance. When tragedy occurs, she has no inner resources to fall back upon except a lacerating self-impalement that expresses itself in repressive religious asceticism that craves only punishment from a vindictive God, a reflection of her bad father, and a repudiation of “the old logic” as “error.” The sin-obsessed medievalists that she so contemptuously mocked, she has fully incarnated in herself. In her delusional state, she views Father Time as a divine agent of retribution and the fate of her innocent children serving a necessary purpose. Her infanticidal fantasies, which her stepson had acted upon, become explicit when she exults, “My children…were sin-begotten. They were sacrificed to teach me how to live!—their death was the first stage of my purification.” In her complicity in the murders, she has repeated on a far more terrifying level, her own abandonment by her parents. Now the distraught child seeks to merge with the father and requests to sleep with him, an incestuous act that would be the most deserving of punishments.
In her madness, Sue reveals the shadow side of the prescribed Victorian notion of ideal womanhood. Steeped in self-loathing, she is willing to adorn only sackcloth for her wedding after she rips to shreds a pretty outfit. She has become like one of the ascetic monks Jude read about when he was studying the history of the Church fathers. There is a sad irony in what she quotes to Phillotson from Mill’s On Liberty : she or he “who lets the world or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” In view of what Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women, it is deeply ironical what she says to Jude, “we ought to be sacrificing ourselves on the altar of duty.” Women are “taught that they were born and created for self-sacrifice. Equality of rights would abate the exaggerated self-abnegation, which is the present artificial ideal of the feminine character.” Sue’s mournful plaint that “we must conform” is an unequivocal repudiation of her former liberal impulses that she now dismisses as “self–delight” and indulgence.” In contrast to the Victorian doctors who probably would have approved her cleaving sense of duty, Mill would argue that her new-found religiosity was a perverse cultural construct that denied her humanity. Similarly, Hardy does not present Sue’s atavistic reversal to conventional norms of the typical woman, “who never instigates, only responds” as a concession to those who used the arguments of evolution to resist female emancipation.
Hardy is clearly not interested in using her nervous collapse to render a moral judgment on a certain type of woman who has challenged convention, but to show that her aberrant behavior with its desire for self-punishment was an advanced sign of her illness. There is some truth in the contention that Sue’s submission to the dictates of her nerves was designed to demonstrate Hardy’s conviction about the “powerlessness of ideas in the stranglehold of biology.” Yet her psychological instability was instigated as much by a merciless, tyrannical conscience than late Victorian scientific notions about her limited endowment of inherited resources and the contradiction inherent in arrested development and an overly refined mind. Her willingness to perform her marital duty with Phillotson may be read as a testament to the harmful effects of late conventional morality, but her guilt, self-contempt and need for self-punishment are psychological conditions that would have been present in a more open time.
Losing Sue was equally devastating for Jude. His subsequent actions to remarry Arabella, to descend into drink and to commit suicide paralleled the downward trajectory of Sue. Both were destroyed by the conventions of their time and their own psychological makeup. But there is one difference. Jude had long aspired to receive a university degree and pursue a calling that suited his temperament. Working as a stonemason was to be temporary but circumstances destroyed his dream. He did not have what he called the “stoutness” to work in inclement weather and he became ill, a condition that only reinforced his despondency at the end. There were not the resources available that might have pulled them both back from the abyss. Would it be different today?