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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.