Femininity and Convention in Jude the Obscure

Hannah Bury is a first-year PhD student at the University of Salford. Her interdisciplinary doctoral project analyses intersectional representations of femininity, madness, and disability in nineteenth-century children’s literature and film adaptation. You can find Hannah on Twitter @hannah_bury_ and can contact her at h.j.bury@edu.salford.ac.uk.

‘“Human nature” itself is not a fixed constant but something constantly changing […] there can be nothing natural or permanent about the subordinate status of women in society’:[1] Femininity and Convention in Jude the Obscure

‘Jude and Sue’ by Agnes Miller Parker. The image originally appeared as a wood engraving in Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (New York: The Limited Editions Club, 1969). Source of online version: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/452611831285852367/

This blog post will offer some exploratory notes in relation to Thomas Hardy’s characterisation of Sue Bridehead and Arabella Donn, as I examine how their differences both reinforce and undercut normative ideals of femininity in the fin-de-siècle epoch. In his polemical novel, Hardy negotiates how Arabella abides by societal convention in order to evolve and progress throughout the novel, whereas Sue, a representation of the nascent New Woman movement, rejects it. As Pearl Brilmyer suggests in this blog’s title, ideologies of gender are neither fixed or consistent when considering the transformation of gender roles and expectations at the end of the nineteenth century, as ‘the subordinate status of women in society’ is disturbed.[2]

Marriage, an popular institution for many women in the early and mid-nineteenth century, is replaced with alternatives such as cohabitation and bigamy in Jude in order to demonstrate ‘women’s ability to reject the dominant ideology of marriage as the endpoint of women’s lives’.[3] While marriage is a hedonistic motivation for Arabella, as she exclaims: ‘I want him to have me; to marry me!’ when considering the social advantages of marriage, Sue rejects the convention.[4] For Sue, marriage is ‘a dignity and an advantage that [she is] quite willing to do without’ (p. 250). Ironically, however, Sue’s identity suggests how she is consumed by the convention despite her intention to reject it; ‘Bridehead’ suggests that she is encompassed by this societal expectation of ‘bride-hood’ or marriage. In contrast, Arabella’s surname ‘Donn’ has etymological associations with being ‘in a lower place or position’.[5] This encapsulates her moral degradation and toxic influence over others despite her social advantage, as ‘Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind’ (p. 51). For Arabella and Sue, Hardy portrays marriage as a detrimental fate that is brought about through social pressures, rather than a pursuit that is fuelled by love. In Jude, any and all affiliations with marriage are reductive. Arabella and Jude’s ‘fundamental error of […] matrimonial union’ (p. 64) is short-lived, while Arabella’s later ‘crime’ (p. 178) of bigamy further conveys Hardy’s disdain at the convention.

The idea that marriage is a societal obligation rather than a pursuit fuelled by love is seen through the union of another couple, an event that prompts Sue and Jude to postpone their own marriage. Hardy describes how ‘[t]he soldier was sullen and reluctant: the bride sad and timid; she was soon, obviously, to become a mother, and she had black eyes’ (p. 273). Here, the disjointed syntax mirrors the forced, unnatural nature of this union. Hardy implies that domestic violence underpins this marriage, which only serves to undermine the convention, as the bride with ‘black eyes’ is consumed by fear rather than hope or happiness. While their marriage is conventional in a societal sense, the couple’s union is no more superior than Jude and Sue’s cohabitation from a moral perspective; in Sue’s ‘own sense of the word she was a married woman [but] in the landlady’s sense she was not’ (p. 320). This is supported by Hardy’s assertion that marriage ‘seemed a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy’ when contemplating the nature of marriage in his postscript.[6] Mona Caird, a nineteenth-century feminist who shared similar views to Hardy, deemed marriage a ‘vexatious failure’ in her canonical essay that was written in the decade prior to Jude’s publication.[7] Further, she states that ‘[t]he ideal marriage, despite all dangers and difficulties, should be free’.[8] While her views mirror the freedom Sue strives for, Hardy suggests that the union of any couple in the novel will never be ‘free’ so long as it is regulated by social and legal stipulations. Marriage, a valued convention or foundation for domesticity in the Victorian period, is socially favourable in principle but morally hypocritical in practice.

In resisting the convention of marriage, Sue and Jude attempt to progress through cohabitation. This venture is ultimately futile, however, despite Jude’s belief that ‘[t]here is [an] advantage in being poor obscure people like us’ (p. 248). Sue’s realisation that there is ‘no use struggling against the current’ (p. 268) of society echoes how her resistance to convention is degenerative. Hardy’s original title for the novel was Hearts Insurgent, which supports how Sue and Jude are ‘insurgent’ or incompatible with the convention that their society upholds. This links to the biological determinism relative to marriage, an evolutionary concept most clearly voiced through the character of Aunt Drusilla. Drusilla is a vehicle for voicing Hardy’s warning about the ‘tragic machinery’ of marriage as both a social and a biological mode of degeneration.[9] Drusilla warns that ‘the Fawleys were not made for wedlock’ (p. 65), where the verb ‘made’ reiterates how biological connections purportedly underpinned the success of marriage. This idea gained momentum after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, which led public figures such as Karl Pearson and Francis Galton to link evolutionary progression with degeneration and later eugenics. As Hardy outlines, ‘a doom or curse of hereditary temperament peculiar to the family’ overshadows Jude and Sue, as human nature, a biological concept, is pre-determined and inescapable.[10] Jude later reflects that marriage results in ‘a tragic sadness [that] might be intensified to a tragic horror’ (p. 84), a trajectory not limited to Sue but also Arabella, as their union was ‘as bad a thing as a man could possibly do for himself’ (p. 105). While marriage was ‘the life plan of most women’ in the nineteenth century, Hardy suggests that its failure as an institution involves the weaknesses of both social convention and biological misfortune.[11]

Hardy also labelled the novel the ‘Sue story’. [12] Sue’s central position in the narrative is pivotal to her status as a New Woman torn between conventional and unconventional thoughts and actions. Sue’s rejection of marriage is demonstrated through Jude’s admission that she is ‘dear, free Sue Bridehead’ (p. 181), while Sue believes that she is ‘not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson, but a woman tossed about, all alone, with aberrant passions, and unaccountable apathies’ (p. 197). Despite her realisation that ‘passions’ and ‘apathies’ do not match the conventional qualities of a subordinate wife, however, Sue legally becomes an embodiment or an extension of her husband’s identity through marriage. This idea permeates beyond her character into her environment, as Sue is repressed by Phillotson’s setting. Within the marital home, she is overcome by a ‘heavy’ setting that ‘overhang[s]’ (p. 198) her. Only Sue’s ‘rosewood work-box’ (p. 198), a sentimental possession where she stores her private treasures such as Jude’s ‘photograph’ (p. 198), reflects her inner identity that remains untainted by societal convention. Yet, its position within her room is minute when compared to Phillotson’s overarching, patriarchal setting, and she can only ‘put it again in its place’ (p. 198). Like her possession, Sue is an accessory or a supplement to her husband through marriage, and as a result Hardy emphasises how marriage could be an isolating, repressive experience for many New Women who wanted more.

Sue and Arabella evolve throughout the course of Jude: while Arabella uses marriage to her own advantage, Sue rejects the convention and pursues her own unconventional course, a choice that has both liberating and detrimental effects. Yet, Brilmyer’s initial argument in the title of this blog post, where she states that ‘there can be nothing natural or permanent about the subordinate status of women in society’, can be seen as a paradox. Although Hardy does not state that the unconventional Sue is morally wrong, she is flawed from an evolutionary perspective, unlike Arabella who evolves through her ability to adapt to convention rather than be destroyed by it. Ultimately, Hardy positions Sue and Arabella in ways that echo tensions between the conforming ‘angel in the house’ and the New Woman movement, and he implies that female characters who adapt to societal convention are able to evolve, while those who crumble under its pressures face a degenerative future.

Works Cited

Brilmyer, Pearl S., ‘Darwinian Feminisms’, in Gender: Matter, ed. Stacy Alaimo (New York: Macmillan, 2017)

Caird, Mona, ‘Marriage’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012)

Hardy, Florence Emily, The Life of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1928 (London: Macmillan, 1962)

Hardy, Thomas, ‘Collected Letters’, in One Rare Fine Woman: Thomas Hardy’s Letters to Florence Henniker 1893-1922, eds. Evelyn Hardy and F. B. Pinion (London: Macmillan, 1972)

Hardy, Thomas, ‘1912 Postscript’, in Jude the Obscure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

OED Online

Perkins, Joan, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1989)


[1] Pearl S. Brilmyer, ‘Darwinian Feminisms’, in Gender: Matter, ed. Stacy Alaimo (New York: Macmillan, 2017), p. 19.

[2] Brilmyer, ‘Darwinian Feminisms’, p. 19.

[3] Pamela Stone and Lisa Shapiro Sanders, Bodies and Lives in Victorian England: Science, Sexuality, and the Affliction of Being Female (Oxon: Routledge, 2021), p. 43.

[4] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 44.

[5] OED Online, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/57211?rskey=9UZBuS&result=2&isAdvanced=false#eid [accessed 24 November 2020]

[6] Thomas Hardy, ‘1912 Postscript’, in Jude the Obscure (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. xlv.

[7] Mona Caird, ‘Marriage’, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), p. 1630. Many critics discuss the similarities between Hardy and Caird as condemners of female oppression. See, for example, Demelza Hookway, “‘Falling Over the Same Precipice”: Thomas Hardy, Mona Caird and John Stuart Mill’, The Thomas Hardy Journal, 26.1 (2010), pp. 132-148.

[8] Caird, ‘Marriage’, p. 1631.

[9] Hardy, ‘1912 Postscript’, p. xlv.

[10] Thomas Hardy’s epistle to Max Gate in 1895 discusses the importance of heredity in the failure of marriage, as recorded by Hardy’s second wife Florence. See Florence Emily Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy: 1840-1928 (London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 271.

[11] Joan Perkins, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 3.

[12] Thomas Hardy, ‘Collected Letters’, in One Rare Fine Woman: Thomas Hardy’s Letters to Florence Henniker 1893-1922, eds. Evelyn Hardy and F. B. Pinion (London: Macmillan, 1972), p. 43.

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