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  • A Perspective of One's Own:Thomas Hardy and the Elusive Sue Bridehead
  • Elizabeth Langland

Form and content are inseparable. Story depends on technique, depends, Henry James claimed, on "every word and every punctuation point."1 Although Thomas Hardy could be expected to resist his contemporary's strict attention to minutiae, James's broad point about the interdependence of idea and form nonetheless helps explain problems in Hardy's Jude the Obscure and particularly in that elusive character, Sue Bridehead, who is a touchstone for many of the difficulties posed by Hardy's final novel. Critics have called this character childish, selfish, sadistic, masochistic, narcissistic, and frigid, all in explanation of what has been defined as her dominant trait: inconsistency.2 But these conclusions have not satisfied even their authors, among whom Irving Howe is representative in cautioning: "Yet one thing, surely the most important, must be said about Sue Bridehead. As she appears in the novel itself, rather than in the grinder of analysis, she is an utterly charming and vibrant creature."3 Perhaps a character can be so fluid and complex that she eludes the combined critical efforts to capture her. But, before despairing of analysis altogether, we should consider Sue's inconsistency and elusiveness in light of formal difficulties in Hardy's last novel.

That Sue Bridehead has resisted satisfactory analysis points both to problems in the formal conception of Jude and to the inadequacies of its point of view in conveying a growing sensitivity to other versions of the novel's central experiences. An omniscient narrator, such as Hardy offers in Jude, should be a guarantee of reliability, but Hardy's final narrator eludes and evades. And, for the first time, Hardy lets the perspective of a single character, Jude Fawley, dominate the story. To complicate matters further, it is not clear to what extent Jude's perspective is judged by the narrator, or even, as criticism has made clear, to what extent Hardy himself is involved in his narrator's and character's perspectives.4 In light of these complications, inconsistencies in Sue Bridehead's character and behavior call for reassessment. [End Page 54]

We must disentangle Sue's character from the problematic narrative point of view which presents her—a point of view primarily Jude's, but buttressed by the narrator's. To do so, we confront questions of character autonomy and the matrix for judging character. As James saw, we cannot simply wrest character from the context of narrative technique and point of view. In discussing Sue's character, we must continually account for the novel's point of view which is closely allied with Jude's experience and with a man's perspective on an unconventional woman. And, any effort to resolve questions about Sue's personality must take into account the relationships among mimesis, narrative technique, and character development.

In this larger context, we recognize that Jude's primacy in the novel must shape Sue's role in it, much as in Tess of the D' Urbervilles the eponymous character determines and limits the representation of Alec D'Urberville and Angel Clare. In Jude the Obscure, Arabella and Sue clearly have as one primary function their appeal to opposite poles in the protagonist's nature: the fleshly and the spiritual. Such an observation has become commonplace, but its consequences for character representation have great importance. Hardy's last novel does not imitate Sue and Jude equally. It imitates the way in which one credulous and naive, but well-intentioned, man, Jude, confronts a world which he sees as increasingly inimical to his desires and goals. He is limited by the society in which he finds himself, by what Hardy calls the "hereditary curse of temperament,"5 and by the conventionality of his own nature. Thus, one of Sue Bridehead's other narrative functions is to unmask the deep-seated assumptions which baffle Jude's hopes. That we come to recognize his personal limitations is essential to a tragic denouement which finds him partially responsible for his fate, not merely a pawn in society's or the universe's machinations. His share of responsibility gives Jude a tragic stature.

This imitation, with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 54-68
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-21
Open Access
No
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