Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jude the Obscure, Sue Bridehead the Not-Feminist, Richard Phillotson the Seducer

Dear Thomas Hardy,

Well, I finally finished reading your story, Jude the Obscure. My! Thomas the Long-Winded, you really took your time telling all the details, didn't you? Occasionally, I've been paid by the word for my writing, so I know the temptation of unnecessary elongation, but apart from the checks that accompanied each volume of the serialization [Jude was published in serial form in 1894-1895 and then as a book in 1895] I think that there was really no justification for the excess. However, this is all I'm going to say on that subject.

I have thought so much about this book that I believe I could be tempted to write several letters. I would like to question Jude and Richard about a few things. Then I would really like to talk with Sue. It is she who really worries me.

I have been corresponding with a friend about your book, and especially about Sue. She has helped think through a few things.

Believe it or not, she thinks you are a fatalist. This is what she says.
Hardy is a fatalist.

(That's how I came to tell the difference between which books were his and which were George Eliot's, actually, as they were from the same era and struck me as having similar writing styles and themes: if the main character died or was otherwise totally mortified by life at the end of the book, it was Thomas Hardy; if the main character learned something and grew as an individual through her trials, coming to accept her lot in life, it was George Eliot. Eliot, for instance, teaches Silas Marner that money isn't everything, and subsequently gives him back his money; Hardy teaches the Mayor of Casterbridge that one major alcohol-induced mistake made years ago can't be escaped no matter how hard you try.)

So the fact that I love fatalism about as much, and in much the same way, as George Eliot's sense of redemption and balance, probably has a lot to do with why I feel such simpatico with Sue Bridehead.
You can see from this brief excerpt that my friend is quite fascinating. She is really my daughter's friend from college and we could attest that "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer." She is both.

Were I to sit down with Jude, I would say,

"Jude, poor you. Calling yourself a seducer, when it was you who was seduced by Richard, who in the first pages of the book stated:
You know what a university is, and a university degree ? It is the necessary hall-mark of a man who wants to do anything in teaching. My scheme, or dream, is to be a university graduate, and then to be ordained. By going to live at Christminster, or near it, I shall be at headquarters, so to speak, and if my scheme is practicable at all, I consider that being on the spot will afford me a better chance of carrying it out than I should have elsewhere.
"That wink of a statement was, for you, the temptation upon which life hinged. This seduction drew you in, wooed you, and by it you were inescapably corrupted. Poor Jude. The later seductions of Arabella and Sue were nothing in comparison with this flirtation that became the obsession of your life. To be a part of Christminster, the established intellectual and spiritual center of your known world--that became the driving force you just couldn't shake. And when you did turn aside from this paramour, all other visions and decisions were askew, tainted by your illicit love for learning."

Then I'd like to talk with Richard Phillotson. "Richard, what a fool you were too. Almost as big a fool as Fawley. And though your temptation for Christminster's powers did not become obsession, they did steal your enthusiasm for learning and giving, if not your inner kindness."

But Sue, it is she who really steals the stage and plays them all. I have read a few critics who call her a feminist. She was, in fact, no such thing. A feminist believes in equal political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic rights regardless of gender. A feminist also believes in equal political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic responsibilities regardless of gender. But Thomas, you failed to grant Sue even a wisp of ability to take responsibility for herself. Whatever her ability in terms of thinking outside of the box, she could not live with the responsibilities that her thinking and actions demanded.

Jude always referred to her as his little Sue. She seemed to glory in that. She was glad to be on his pedestal, (and on Richard's) and glad not to take any responsibility for her power and intellect and influence. Arabella was more of a feminist than Sue. She looked out for herself. She up and went to Australia. She worked fearlessly. She even cared for Jude, if poorly, to the end of his days, the best of which Sue had used up and tossed away.

So Thomas, what is it that I'm trying to say to you? Perhaps, that for all the long-winded irritations that the plot of this book brings, it also brings unforgettable characters whose ambivalence and deep hurt make us feel deeply for them. And it makes us, especially those of us who have lived a while, remember the first blush of excitement for learning and becoming, and remember some of the disappointment in the realization that what we had meant to become, hoped to become was not all to find fruition. Ah, that's like a slap in the face with a piece of pig's hide, isn't it?

And though, I don't believe that Sue Bridehead was a feminist, I do think that you were on the cusp of becoming one, for it was you, not Sue who struggled with and in some manner broke with convention in Jude the Obscure.



1 comment:

Alicia said...

Ooh. I haven't read this in its entirety, but I thought it appropriate to post a notice that I've responded again to your comment-questions at CU.

And I did read far enough to get to the compliments to me -- thanks. And it was great to see you last week. Next time, we'll have to ride some large beasts of burden. (Probably horses.)

At any rate, I don't think I'm done editing it, as I've crammed way too many ideas into one very long post, but there it is:

Hope all is well.