Alicia Kristen Roberts
Eng 460: Hardy & Lawrence
Dr. Barbara Schapiro
5. 4. 2009
Sue the Obscure: Hardy’s Asexual Character
Sue Bridehead, in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, puzzles critics across the board. She’s part pre-Feminist, part conformist, part transcendent, part vain. Of all her qualities, however, her sexuality confounds critics the most. Compared to Arabella, she seems part of a whore/virgin dichotomy, like Richardson’s title character in Pamela, but she does not initially aspire to virtue as Pamela does. In addition, Hardy seems to favor her above Arabella, even though he shows his appreciation of healthy sexual urges through other aspects of the novel. Most of the conflict around Sue’s sexuality appears in her relationships with Jude and Phillotson, through which we see her resisting sex for a number of reasons. Sexual aversion cannot account for all of these conflicts and the descriptions Hardy assigns to them. Rather, Sue demonstrates all signs of being an asexual before the dominant ideology became aware of or understood asexuality. Asexuals, as opposed to sexuals, do not experience sexual attraction or desire for sex. This of course puts her in conflict with the dominant ideology of sexuals like Jude, so that she becomes overwhelmed by the pressure and engages in sex against her will. Remarkably, few critics have seen the novel from this perspective, in which Sue’s asexuality separates her from the masses more than Jude’s interest in learning does for him, and the oppression she faces causes an unfortunate tragedy as she lets herself be taken by the forces of the dominant ideology.
Hardy receives much attention for his exploration of sexual desire. Jude demonstrates this quality of his work, especially in the characters of Arabella and Jude. Arabella, with her overt sexual desire, serves as a foil to Sue. From the moment she throws the pig’s pizzle, she makes sexual gratification a clear component of her goals. She even tells her desire to her friends: “I want him to more than care for me; I want him to have me—to marry me! I must have him. […] I shall go mad if I can’t give myself to him altogether!” (49). Arabella deliberately contrasts bodiless affection with sexual desire, and shows a preference even for the latter. Sue emphasizes the foil nature of Arabella’s character when she claims that women could happily go without sex, unlike men, and a woman “never instigates, only responds. We ought to have lived in mental communion and no more” (356). In this instance, Sue can be open about her sexual preferences by attributing them to womanhood, even though Arabella disproves her generalization. While many in Hardy’s time surely had this stereotype, Arabella demonstrates Hardy’s belief that a strong sexual desire can be found in women as just in men. Hardy provides a general description of sexual desire in part IV of “At Christminster” which provides the norm by which readers interpret Sue’s behavior. After concluding that “his interest in her had shown itself to be unmistakably of a sexual kind,” Jude goes through a number of sexual stages before their relationship even begins (97). First, he tries to avoid thinking about her, but only thinks more of her. Second, he begins making excuses for contacting her, such as suggesting that knowing her character could decrease his desire. In this instance, “A voice whispered that, though he desired to know her, he did not desire to be cured [of this unexpected and unauthorized passion]” (97). These excuses are driven by his sexual drive. Third, he struggles with his desire as it begins to overcome his reasons for restraint. Fourth, he justifies his desire, though only on a surface level, “For whatever Sue’s virtues, talents, or ecclesiastical situation, it was certain that those items were not at all the cause of his affection for her” (98). This description shows how...