Sue and Arabella, in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, are like a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Sacred and Profane Love. There they stand—assuming the absent man, the abashed, overwhelmed Jude. Sue is thin, pretty, with a light, abstracted, questioning gaze; Arabella is round, sly-eyed, sleepy, with the dreaming torpor of a destitute girl pondering an exchange of sexual coin. It is scarcely worth noting that they are different, almost opposites. The sources of feeling could not be more reflective than they are in Sue, or more immediate and formless than they are in Arabella. Experience, with them, is not merely the sum of events gone through; it is the response of their differing consciousness to love, want, greed, or renunciation.
In the novel, Sue and Arabella are connected as women with Jude Frawley. But he does not initiate or control. Instead, he is identified by them and his situation is dominated by what they offer or withhold. In youth he comes under the sexual domination of Arabella, a surrender rather flimsy that immediately becomes a trap very steely. With Sue, a miserable life is redeemed by the joys of enlightenment and by the special importance that is given to a love or an attachment by one who cares to think about it in a deep way.
There is every kind of suffering and failure in Jude the Obscure. This is its great glory as a novel—the passion, the complexity, the completeness, if you will, of petty, mean, bitter failure. Waste, oppression, injustice, indifference have soaked into the very soil of life, washing away all of the yearnings and rights of those with unlucky natures or unfortunate birth. Social and spiritual deprivation bears down on these modest persons who have asked only the lightest measure of possibility. Every single character fails—falls, in great pain, each one. The children, the lovers, the married, the ignorant, the intellectual. The only moments of happiness are the innocence of early hope and perhaps those instances of love and respect Sue Bridehead, a singular, deep creation, brings to the lives about her. Love and respect—or is it, instead, affection and sympathy, emotions a little more distant.
Sue is an original, mingled being. The outlines of her nature waver and flow. She is as we find it often in our lives: one of those striking, haunting persons who endlessly talk, act, and analyze and yet never quite form a whole as a simpler and more rigid character would. Too many parts and each with its quality and interest; the design is there but it fades suddenly. This sort of person, like Sue, thinks and that is her mystery. It is not at all the usual mystery. The most fascinating and startling complications of her character have to do with sex and with the power of abstract ideas upon a truly superior female mind.
Sue Bridehead is frail, delicately balanced. She is a radical skeptic and it is her custom to ponder and question the arrangements and tyrannies of society. She is intense, “all nervous motion,” and yet “artless” and “natural.” Sue is more or less self-educated and has encountered avant-garde ideas about religion, art, and Biblical interpretation. When we first see her she is reading the chapter in Gibbon on Julian the Apostate. Somehow her involvement with critical, radical thought, the cluster of aesthetic and social attitudes, form a frame for her disappointments and for the rebukes of society. It is the common thing of an intellectual alienation that gives an assurance to one’s character and even a measure of tranquillity and resignation to balance the shatterings and shakings of psychological intensity.
In quite a different way, the pained, stumbling efforts of Jude to gain knowledge have about them a despondent, almost imprisoning aspect. His books, his noble, baffled yearnings create in us a great pity for him, but it is as if a necessary sense had been denied him along with the cruel denials of society. Jude’s hopes for education are linked with the natural hopes for a profession, whereas with Sue ideas and learning have a gratuitous, spontaneous, somewhat unprofessional character, that of the deepest inclination. When Jude is brutally turned down in his dream to enter Christminster (Oxford):
“…and, judging from your description of yourself as a working man, I venture to think that you will have a much better chance of success in life by remaining in your own sphere and sticking to your trade than by adopting any other course…”
he adjusts his hopes and plans to study theology, with the idea of making his life in the Church. He is astonished by Sue’s lighthearted dismissal of much of religion and by, for instance, her contempt for the Church’s efforts to deny the erotic meanings of the Song of Solomon. He cries out several times that she is a “perfect Voltairian.”
In the end what is so poignant is that Sue’s brightness and will to freedom cannot save her. She goes down into despair with Jude and, finally, under the strain of life, sinks into a punishing denial of her own principles about marriage and religion. She has not, through ideas and strong personal leanings, been able to break out of poverty and defeat and the undermining force of an accumulation of disasters. Life simply will not open itself to her frail, unsupported brightness. In despair she tries to name the mystery of implacable barriers. “There is something exterior to us which says, ‘You shan’t!’ First it said, ‘You shan’t learn!’ Then it said, ‘You shan’t labour!’ Now it says, ‘You shan’t love!’ “
Jude the Obscure is about poverty and the crushing of the spirit that goes along with it like a multiplying tumor. It is also about sex and marriage. Marriage is, as the plot develops, an experience violated by need, by the drastic workings of chance, and by the peculiar limitations of choice. It is also seen as an idea, an institution, open to the “higher criticism” in the same manner as religion and scriptural problems. At best it is a thunderclap, the sky lights up, and then a storm of entrapment, manipulation, and bad feeling rains down. Wholeness and freedom are violated and, for Sue at least, these qualities are of the first value. In putting this value upon them she creates a violent uneasiness in what would otherwise have been a more usual plotting of forces and resolutions.
The price of sex is a destruction for every fulfillment, and often a destruction without fulfillment. Love exhausts itself as a spur to action in any case and its claim upon the soul is not greater than the claim of pity—even less at times. Part of the peculiar quality of this suffering, tragic novel is that the relationships, worn down as they are by life, have, nevertheless, a kind of loveliness. Perhaps it is the glow spread by Sue’s complicated candor and by her patient, analytical effort to understand her feelings and convictions. Only Arabella, limited, greedy, “normal” at least in her lack of the fastidious scrupulosities of Sue—only she is outside a certain grace and sweetness.
Arabella is as much a convention in the history of the novel as Sue is an original. It is the rule of conventions to ask us to accept as given a certain gathering of traits and motives. Arabella represents the classical entrapment by sex: the entrapment of an “innocent” sensual man by a hard, needy, shackling woman. Arabella’s coarseness is a mirror of Jude’s weakness. Her qualities are a force of a negative kind; their bad effects upon others are far more devastating than any advantages she may reap for herself. Advantage is forever in her mind and in many ways the failure of dishonest sex to bring about anything prosperous is always interesting. The person exploited by dishonest sex is weakened, distracted, and a falling off of personal and worldly fortune is likely to be observed. This is true for both the men and the women and especially striking if both are poor since, in that case, the entrapment has not found its proper object. In Arabella, sexual exploitation is combined with other deceits. Indeed the deceits are inevitable since she has no plan, conviction, or order that could give her relations with men a genuineness. What is absent in Arabella is love. Her compulsions arise from the survival struggle and not from obsessional passion. All of these exigencies are meant to signal that she is “bad” in some intrinsic way.
Arabella begins with the physical charms of youth, a bosomy air of possibility. But this is presented as a fraud. Her tendency is to face life as a desperate improvisation and she will naturally lack the discipline that might protect her small, early capital of beauty. Arabella’s driven poverty, the crude urgings of an unenlightened family, the scheming habit of the other poor girls in the village have severely limited her vision. Hardy’s presentation of her ignoble struggle scarcely hints at the numbness inside.
And her sullenness: only this has the shape of a deeply personal and meaningful condition of Arabella’s feeling. It is a sullenness shrouded in peasant melancholy. The sullenness is her own comment on her deceitfulness and is some always dawning awareness of its futility. Even deceit needs a more nourishing soil than society has allowed Arabella. Her efforts are the traditional ones the novelist will give her: she works as a barmaid and early unsettles Jude with her knowledge of malts and hops. In the course of the novel she will move on to Australia; she will marry for the second time without unmarrying the first. She always ends up without money or help. She has a pitiful child whom she looks upon as one would look upon a mongrel loosely and accidentally attached to one’s life.
For a poor and lonely young man like Jude, pleasure is not to be taken without cost. He is not hard enough for his encounter with Arabella—that is the way it has been designed. In the same way he is not gifted enough for the life of scholarship and learning his heart is set upon. Jude’s longings have falsely come to rest in his dream of Christminster. He is a man who would sacrifice everything for the journey and yet takes the wrong road. Arabella’s offering of sex is seen as a menace to learning and ambition and that does not prove to be wrong. There is a heavy consequence, a large bill to be paid for the most perfunctory surrender. Latin and Greek are not accommodating. After he has been with Arabella he comes home to the reproachful books.
There lay his book open, just as he had left it, and the capital letters on the title-page regarded him with fixed reproach in the grey starlight, like the unclosed eyes of a dead man.