Thinking of Sue: Sex and the Spirit in Jude the Obscure

Last week I re-read Thomas Hardy’s magnificent novel Jude the Obscure and since then my thoughts have been as consumed by it as Jude’s was with his beloved, tantalizing Christminster. Of course, that walled city of learning is not the only Tantalus the author provided for his ill-used hero. Sue Bridehead, the passionate, neurotic, cross-dressing heroine caught my mind’s eye and set fire to my imagination. She is an enigma, a woman with a diamond mind (she is repeatedly shown to be by far the most intelligent character in the book) who is lost without a calling or vocation of her own and who, despite her intelligence, frustratingly lacks the imagination to instill her life with any meaning or productivity beyond the realm of love and romance.

We know that she is artistic and skilled with her hands- we first see her engraving illuminated texts for churches, difficult work that she picks up again periodically throughout the text but never sticks with. We know that she is well-educated and interested in gaining more knowledge for the sake of having it and becoming more herself. But despite this, despite her repeated attempts to break free from social context (from living with a man outside of wedlock- albeit sexlessly- to breaking out of her girl’s school by climbing through a window) her goals are truncated by her inability to picture her life in any other context save that of becoming subservient to a man.

She follows this course even when it becomes clear to everyone around her that her role is not and should not be limited and defined by sexuality. The narrator assures us that, “–the ethereal, fine-nerved, sensitive girl, quite unfitted by temperament and instinct to fulfil the conditions of the matrimonial relation with Phillotson, possibly with scarce any man…”

While she does enjoy flirtation and the power she feels holding men in a state of unfulfilled sexual thrall, the pleasure is obliterated by the anxiety and dramatic loss of power she feels when the men in her life attempt to bring the issue to any form of climax. This pattern of behaviour is indicative of someone who is deeply terrified of sex, one who has possibly be sexually abused. Although there is no indication at all of that sort of history in the text, she does exhibit some of the symptoms drawn in bold, intentional lines.

The ‘spiritual’ feeling of love are new to her, intoxicating, but there is a divide in her heart, a shattered fissure so unbreachable that she can feel only pain when those emotions are applied to her body. A person who has been raped might develop such a divide- capable of feeling love and creating romantic ideations while feeling base repugnance at the advent of actual touch…

And yet, she is aware of this ‘fault’ in herself.  Because she is a moral woman she tries her best to make reparations. After she has toyed with Phillotson, her teacher, she suffers an attack of conscience regarding his feelings for her and marries him, Jude says, “You simply mean that you flirted outrageously with him, poor old chap, and then repented, and to make reparation, married him, though you tortured yourself to death by doing it.”

She states her own mixed motives, her own confusion and lack of insight into her actions in this speech to Jude:

At first I did not love you, Jude; that I own. When I first knew you I merely wanted you to love me. 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 of the injury it may do the man–was in me; and when I found I had caught you, I was frightened. And then–I don’t know how it was– I couldn’t bear to let you go–possibly to Arabella again–and so I got to love you, Jude. But you see, however fondly it ended, it began in the selfish and cruel wish to make your heart ache for me without letting mine ache for you.

Sue Bridehead is capable of love; she proves that over and over again over the course of the book. The difficulty for her is that she is reading from a different dictionary than the one held by the rest of the world. She is a truly ideal woman- a woman that is made for and of the mind, so much so that every physical interaction she experiences is painful, and every act which brings love into the realm of the physical is gross. Jude speaks better than he knows when he says, “you dear, sweet, tantalizing phantom–hardly flesh at all; so that when I put my arms round you I almost expect them to pass through you as through air!” He never should have touched her and marred her with the earth.

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