Sue in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’

Jude has been done to death in terms of comments and reviews since first it was published, so I’ll restrict myself to what I find most intriguing about it, something I’ve not seen written elsewhere.

Sue fascinates me as a character. We have something strange in her tendency to gravitate towards men attracted by her as illustrated by Jude himself, and Phillotson. In each case, she is reluctant to engage with them sexually, but her presence in their lives, at once their partner and yet unattainable, makes her presence highly destructive.

This would be enough in itself to make Sue a strangely ambiguous character, but Hardy is at pains to introduce another character from off-stage – a student who had undergone the same at the hands of Sue, suffering to such a degree that his involvement proved fatal to him in the end. The introduction of this anecdote in no way serves the plot which would tick on quite nicely without it. Clearly, Hardy wanted to emphasise this aspect of Sue’s character and to make sure it was regarded as being central.

How are we to interpret it? Hardy leaves that open for us. On the one hand we may condemn her for the repetition of actions that prove damaging to those with whom she interacts. On the other we may sympathise. In the society at the time, a woman was highly dependent upon having a man in order for her to have social acceptability and Sue’s asexuality under those circumstances leaves her in a very difficult position.

However, both these interpretations leave something wanting. Clearly Sue is not oblivious, nor heartless, when it comes to the affect she has had upon these men. On the other hand, living with the student out of wedlock, with Jude out of wedlock and abandoning her own husband to do so, are hardly the actions of a woman desperate to fit in with societal norms, nor would connection with a student or with Jude in this fashion in any way be likely to elevate her social status or respectability. These are not ‘successful men’ who take her on as, in the world’s eyes, a mistress.

The question is left open, then. Sue is a complex character in her own right who offers no easy answers, but plenty to think about.

2 thoughts on “Sue in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’

  1. Sue has always reminded me of Mildred from Of Human Bondage. The destructive nature of these woman is the total emotional indifference. This is so unusual in fiction. Maugham was often labelled a misogynist. I think he was just extremely truthful.

    • I must here confess that if I read Of Human Bondage then I’ve forgotten it. My memory retention when it comes to books, films, you name it is minimal. The good side of that is I can come back to a work years later and read it (almost) as if I’d never read it before. The bad news, as now, is when I’m planning on reading books of political philosophy whose content I’m going to need to remember in order to write something.

      Sue troubles me precisely because I don’t think Hardy intended us to see a woman who was emotionally indifferent. It is Sue who forms the almost instant bond with Father Time, though Jude is his father, his mother someone Sue resents strongly. It is Sue who breaks down with the death of her children while Jude, at times – albeit philosophically – seems far closer to indifference.

      Though it may be unfair to compare her response to children with her response to men – and there does indeed seem to be a split there that makes them incomparable – she does at least have the picture of the student in a prominent place in her dormitory.

      Sometimes in literary criticism I feel we can go too deep. Would it be fair on the character of Sue to expect her to have shown more concern for Phillotson in her abandonment of him or is that to expect too much of Hardy in thinking to include a few paragraphs here and there to show her to be far from indifferent? It’s a difficult call. I get the impression Hardy wants us to see Sue as a sympathetic character, and yet somehow he undermines it with the student. That leaves me uncertain as to what it was he intended and, to put it bluntly, whether what he intended was well-enough handled or whether some ambiguity was intentional, a woman suffering from emotional indifference being one possible interpretation he intended.

      Perhaps in considering the novel as a whole, its condemnation of marriage as a sacrament, its questioning of ‘love eternal’, its favouring realism and pragmatism over romanticism, Sue was intended to be no more than another exemplar; the woman who, while clearly longing for children, was asexual and thus unsuited to marriage, (and, indeed, to procreation, though I guess she could have shut her eyes for the necessary period it would have taken to conceive a child).

      If this were Shakespeare I’d approach it differently. I think that Rosaline in Romeo and Juliet gives a whole new slant to the meaning of the play when she is given her due as a character ‘pointlessly’ introduced, as is Sue’s student. Though I’m sure Hardy had a similar intention in saying something about Sue, I’m not sure whether the lack of clarity was intentional ambiguity intended to be interpretive within the mind of the reader, (which doesn’t much fit in with his style of writing I’d have thought, not on that level of character, though perhaps in terms of social ambiguity he aimed for it), or whether it was something he didn’t support fully enough in its clarification of his intentions.

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