Jude the Obscure: Essay Q&A
1. The events that befall Sue and Jude are so dramatic that they tend to eclipse Phillotson’s experiences. Yet his life undergoes several upheavals because of Sue and Jude. What does Phillotson gain and lose? Is Phillotson a hero or a fool in his treatment of Sue?
Some readers may argue that Phillotson is a fool who loses more than he gains by his relationship with Sue. He agrees to live with her chastely, though it’s clear that, during his courtship, he felt a sexual attraction to her, just as Jude did. He suffers the loss of his reputation, his school, and his home when he lets Sue leave. When Arabella sees him on the road to Marygreen, Phillotson looks old and as if he has no “confidant, or friend.” His fall from respectability shows in the “slovenliness” of his appearance and in his much reduced salary. He also seems bitter, saying that his “so-called eccentric conduct” toward Sue has “ruined my reputation as a schoolmaster.” Even when Sue returns to him, he feels the pang of rejection when she withdraws from him physically; and he must realize, when she does consent to a physical relationship, that she is horrified by him. That he puts up with Sue’s odd behaviors marks him as a fool and a weak man.
Yet other readers may argue the opposite—that Phillotson is a hero—based on the same evidence. He suppresses his physical desire for Sue although he is entitled, as a husband in nineteenth-century England, to conjugal rights. He acknowledges her intellect and her desire to act morally, and he pities her separation from Jude and her terror of physical intimacy. He feels as compelled to help her as he would to help someone whose life was in danger, and he acts without regard for the consequences to himself, as he would if trying to save someone from drowning. Even when he doubts his decisions, he does not doubt Sue’s good intentions. In a sense, he is ahead of his community in his views on marriage and women.
2. The town of Christminster as a whole is symbolic place in the novel. It contains particular symbols as well. Identify and discuss some of these symbols.
The Fourways, a crossroads in the center of town, is an important symbol in Christminster. It represents both the ongoing nature of human life, generation after generation grappling with the same desires and frustrations, and the difficulty of choosing one’s direction in life and then controlling one’s course. Jude stands at the Fourways during crucial moments in the story, as when, having agreed not to see Sue again, he encounters her there at a moment of weakness.
Another symbol in Christminster is the stone walls and gates of the colleges. To Jude on his more hopeful days, these stones seem grave, wise, and protective; but when he feels his outcast station, they seem “pompous” and “barbaric,” a means of excluding all who are considered unworthy. Father Time, the oddly perceptive child whom Jude would like to see live out his dreams of scholarship, dislikes Christminster and wonders if the “great old houses” of the colleges are “gaols” [jails], turning the image of gates that keep people out on its head. That Jude captures the beauty of the windows and stone carvings in gingerbread later in the novel is interesting. His Christminster cakes miniaturize the city and remove its intimidating quality, capturing what is good in the city.
Some of the college names, which are farcical, not real, are also symbolic. When Jude, Sue, and the children return to Christminster, he installs the family in lodgings by the depressingly gray walls of colleges named Sarcophagus (coffin) College and Rubric (rule of conduct) College. Sue notes that the “silent, black and windowless” walls of Sarcophagus College “threw their four centuries of gloom, bigotry, and decay” into their lodging and “thought of the strange operation” of Jude’s “ruling passion, that is should have led Jude, who loved her and the children so tenderly, to place them here in this depressing purlieu.” Of course it is here that the children die and that Sue decides that their love, against social and religious rules, is to blame.
3. Compare and contrast Arabella and Sue as wives to Jude.
Arabella is a wife to Jude in the sense of desiring him physically and assuming that she will depend on him financially. She’s often described as large, earthy, florid, and sensual; her initial flirtation with Jude is carried out in the presence of a pig’s genitals, so from the introduction of her character she is associated with sex. It’s ironic that she, who has two husbands, is mother to only one child. Arabella finds Jude attractive—even when she looks at his corpse; she notices how handsome he is. Her attraction to him blinds her to his unsuitableness as a husband to a woman who wants fine things, however. Both times she marries him, she finds that he does not support her in the way she hopes he will. He’s too obsessed with his studies; there is, in her opinion, a “waste” in him. Yet they do agree physically.
Sue, by contrast, is the wife of Jude’s intellect and spirit. She is his companion in conversation and “delights” to be with him—until he wants to kiss her or hold her hand. Whatever it is in Sue that rejects physical love (and critics have suggested many possibilities), Jude overcomes it often enough for the super-sensitive Sue to have three children, a process that may have been torment to her. She puts off their sexual union as long as she can, and she takes it up again rapidly after the deaths of her children, when she decides that she must eliminate Adam’s curse in her own body. It is interesting that when Sue returns to Phillotson and takes on the ultimate punishment of sexual engagement with him, she becomes “a staid, worn woman.” Sue is “staid”—sober, demure, dull—no longer the delightful conversationalist or sparkling teacher. It is as if having to give herself sexually to Phillotson makes it impossible to be his intellectual companion.
4. Many of Hardy’s writings question how much control individuals have over their lives. How responsible is Jude for the way his life turns out? What choices brought him to his death, alone and unloved—obscure, in fact? What role did chance events play in his fall?
Some readers will say that chance often plays a role in the way Jude’s life turns out. He is a diligent and intelligent man, and his intentions are not only good but are usually carefully planned. The fact that he teaches himself Latin, Greek, the classics, and math, among other subjects, is evidence of this. He manages to buy books that most villagers have no access to, and he studies in spare moments. Jude seems intent on success.
But chance and circumstance work against him. Simply being born to people who inhabit an unlearned class is a chance event that works against him. At six, he comes to idolize his teacher and to yearn for Christminster, which wouldn’t have happened had Phillotson not inadvertently taught his student to do so. From that point forward, no matter how hard Jude acts on his plans to get to Christminster, events are thrown in his path to thwart him: Arabella happens to fasten on Jude as a potential husband; Sue happens to leaves London for Christminster; a man sells Sue statues that cause her to lose her job; Phillotson happens to have a job that throws him into Sue’s company; and so on. Throughout the story, events “happen” to happen—the root of that word is hap, meaning chance. Though sometimes happenstance aids Jude, more often it works against him. He acts so often without complete information that, had he had it, would have kept him from acting.
So readers may feel that, though Jude tries his best, he cannot outrun or outplay the malevolent chance events that mar his life. Other readers, on the other hand, will point to Jude’s reactions to each chance event. Jude does not have to chase after Arabella and indeed feels, during their courtship, that he should not. Jude does not have to seek out Sue in London or start a friendship with her—his aunt repeatedly warns him against her. Jude is duplicitous when he persuades Phillotson to give Sue the pupil-teacher position. Many of the tragic turns that Jude’s life takes hinge on how he reacts to chance events, not on the events themselves, these readers would argue.
5. For Victorian readers, suicide was a shameful action. Suicide was illegal, treated until 1879 as a homicide, and the families of suicides had to bury their loved ones at night and without Christian rites until 1882. What suicides and near-suicides occur in the novel, and what point might Hardy be making by including these socially fraught actions in the novel?
The first suicide in the novel is one readers hear of: the suicide of Jude’s mother after her marriage failed. Jude’s aunt has kept this information from Jude, allowing him to think himself an orphan because of illness, because it is a shame to the family. Jude himself, discouraged after his marriage to Arabella, steps out on thin ice to test the idea of suicide; but when the ice holds him, he decides that he has been spared to continue his Christminster quest.
The most dramatic and sudden suicide is, of course, the death of Jude and Arabella’s son, Little Father Time, who extends his feelings of despair to his half-siblings as well. Long plagued by the idea that “it would be better to be out of the world than in it,” Father Time seems to have been born without the will to live or see good in the world. His despair is fed by Sue’s attitude toward childbearing, that “it seems such a terribly tragic thing to bring beings into the world—so presumptuous.”
The infant suicides of Father Time and the little children are shocking, but the long suicides of Sue and Jude are their more painful consequences. Jude speaks of giving his body to be burned, as the martyrs did, for his faithful love of Sue. When he is terribly ill, he journeys by train and by foot in the rain to see Sue one more time, hoping to fulfill his last wish of bringing about his own death. And when he is dying, he quotes scripture from the book of Job: “Why died I not from the womb?” In other words, he comes to agree with his son that it would have been better had he never been born.
Sue herself embarks, after the deaths of her babies, on a long-term project of mortifying (bringing death to) her body. The children’s deaths, she says, were the necessary first step in her “purification”—her own quest to escape the desires of the living. She fasts (starves herself), weeps and prays into the night (deprives herself of sleep), does chores too heavy for her stamina and frame (works herself to death), and finally submits to what is for her a death-in-life—the submission of her body and utter lack of sexual desire to her husband. Arabella’s closing words, that Sue will not know peace until she is dead, reinforce the purpose of her death-seeking behaviors.