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.