Flouting Convention: Grotesque Sexuality within Jude the Obscure

2 December 1999


(Posted in brown are my instructor's comments)

Marriage is a social contract designed to legitimize connubial relations between a man and a woman, resulting in the universal approbation towards the rights of their progeny. Outside the bounds of that contract [Is it ever considered a spiritual "contract"--or bond, or union?], promiscuous indulgence could not be tolerated in 19th-century England [only in this age?] as it would threaten to destroy the hierarchical fabric of the Victorian class structure, alongside the sexual roles assigned to both genders. As every society exists by adhering to its traditions, the institutions created thereby become representative of the moral standard and perpetuate that standard regardless of the evolutionary development of mankind beyond it. The propensity of human nature to adapt to changes in its social environment, consequently, often involves its juxtaposition to the traditional roles established for it by its progenitors. Morality, therefore, is representative more of convention than it is of individual adherence to the integrity of the self. Jude Fawley, the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, discovers throughout the tragedy of his life the truth of his epigraph that "the letter killeth" in regards to the fulfillment of his sexual ambitions, while the spirit he displays in their pursuit is ultimately devoid of life. The grotesque rendering of unconventional and forsaken love throughout Hardy’s work is in apposition to Jude’s evolution beyond the strictures of his society into the type of man convention meant to create in order to tame to its dogmas; [Isn't it its rendering of its conventions that is given in grotesque terms?] yet, Jude’s unwillingness to conform to the position bequeathed him by his birth is ultimately what destroys his spirit, as it is crushed beneath the weight of oppressive tradition.

While sexual desire is not indicative of love, it does displace the emotional discernment of genuine romantic feeling with momentary passions of lust. When Jude first meets Arabella alongside the river, she initiates the acquaintance by lobbing at his head the penis of a pig she and her friends are cleaning. During a reflective moment of rational thought, he is distracted by the sexual aggressiveness of a woman intent on ensnaring a husband. That such designs are inherent in her nature is proven by the fact that it took her no instruction whatsoever to learn behavior both flirtatious and coy in her conversation with Jude on the bridge, and only a moment’s nudging from the society she keeps to adopt the idea of acting upon her charms. Her friends advise her to sacrifice her virginity to entrap her man, knowing that he would be bound by social convention to enter an indissoluble life-long contract of support and protection. The opportunism employed by Arabella in following through with this pursuit seems to be condoned as a commonplace by her friends, which means that her actions are not malicious, but ill-advised and conventional—representative of the obtrusive traditions against which Jude later spends his life fighting. Once Jude’s sexual curiosity concerning Arabella is satisfied, [Isn't he still sexually interested, but slow to 'finalize' the relationship?] moreover, he grows restless and is inclined to move away, upon which notice he is told of Arabella’s pregnancy. Because convention informs him that he must do right by her through marriage, his natural inclination is superceded by moral imperatives forced upon him by his culture. When he learns the truth, she shrugs off her deceit by declaring it to be every woman’s prerogative to entice a man into marriage through sex as it is only she who risks societal censure if she fails. Jude reproaches her by saying that a woman might do so "if no life-long penalty attached to it for the man, or, in his default, for herself," and he adds that it might even be permissible "if the weakness of the moment could end with the moment, or even with the year;" however, "when effects stretch so far she should not go and do that which entraps a man if he is honest, or herself if he is otherwise" (67). Jude’s misery, then, was not created through self-indulgence, but through social contract. Even when the bonds by which they are indelibly tied are mutually shrugged off by both, the contract persists to the shame of both, for Arabella remarries, and Jude falls in love with another woman. The difference between their socially conditioned gender roles is made apparent a second time as Arabella uses sex to attract the protection of another man, and Jude eventually uses the fear of losing that protection to attain sex from another woman. [I hope you discuss this 'rape' later in the paper.] Nowhere is such a sexually adulterated love considered part of the spirit that giveth life, but is rather used as a tool for emotional blackmail and sexual extortion.

Genuine love transcends sexuality, though that may seem like its natural end between two lovers who hold everything else in common except the intimate awareness of one another’s body. When Sue first meets Jude, she initiates a bond with him predicated upon their mutual desire for intellectual, rather than physical, stimulation. Jude is distracted in his affections for Sue because of his desire for her sexually, [Is it only this on Jude's part?] a desire which must remain unfulfilled due not only to their closeness of relation, but also, and mostly, to his existing marriage. The cultural restrictions imposed upon the institution of marriage preclude his being able to correct what he considers a momentary lapse in judgment and an excessive indulgence in a fleeting lust. He acquiesces to this fate, [Why so? Explain...] though, and agrees to a celibate existence to maintain the emotional and intellectual bond he has established with Sue. In spite of the tension generated by this deferred satisfaction, Jude blossoms in this platonic relationship, growing beyond the limitations of his former religious creed and embracing the more expansive ones of Sue’s pagan philosophies. Gradually, their fondness for one another turns into a mutual love, which is finally consummated when Sue realizes she would prefer subjugating her ethereal love to physical manifestations of it rather than expose herself to the of risk Arabella’s stealing the chance from her. [Why does it take this on Sue's part?? Is sex abhorrent to her?  Does she sense it as only a weakness or as a failing?   Is it merely her 'philosophy' that deters her?] Though they engage in what later seems to Sue a blasphemous sexuality, their love for one another is never dampened by a lack of passion. The sexual turn their union has taken seems more to heighten their love for one another than to dampen it, in stark perversion of the intentions of the societal contract of which they find themselves a part. In speaking on the subject, Jude admits that "the intention of the contract is good, and right for many, no doubt," but, in his and Sue’s case, "it may defeat its own ends because [they] are the queer sort of people [they] are—folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness" (301). To this, Sue concurs, saying that "an irrevocable oath is risky," and begs to return home without killing their dreamlike existence with one another. Sue later admits to herself upon the death of her children that she had allowed herself the luxury of indulging in her lustful passions a little too freely and a little too happily. [Was she fundamentally prudish? fatalistic?] Prior to these tragic events, however, and regardless of their financial situation, her union with Jude is intoxicatingly happy, the implication being that it is a result of flouting convention and enjoying the fruits of marital bliss without the accompanying contractual obligations—the noose by which they would find themselves bound and which would bring their happiness to an end.

While there is nothing to prevent earnest love from flourishing within a marital state, it is generally believed [by whom?] that two lovers cannot combine themselves by contract and long maintain the amorous feelings that hastened their union. After Jude has remarried Arabella, for instance, the landlord of the lodgings they hire is shown to have "doubted if they were married at all, especially as he had seen Arabella kiss Jude one evening when she had taken a little cordial; [Is this incident what might be termed 'grotesque'--a humor and horror combined?] and he was about to give them notice to quit, till by chance overhearing her one night haranguing Jude in rattling terms, and ultimately flinging a shoe at his head, he recognized the note of genuine wedlock; and concluding that they must be respectable, said no more" (406). The idea that love is free and marriage is prison permeates the culture, lending credence to Jude and Sue’s misgivings about the sacrament. Earlier, when Arabella had spied upon Jude and Sue at a fair, she remarked that Jude is "charmed by [Sue] as if she were some fairy!" (307), as though that were not the natural disposition of a married man in regards to his wife. She had also once made the connection that Sue deliberately gave herself to Jude only after her visit to their dwelling out of fear of losing him—so, there was obviously some strong attachment in her as well that caused her to obey nature’s law to keep him. That the love shared by Jude and Sue lasts well beyond the parameters of that which is socially dictated is further evidenced by their dual convictions to love not only in the face of their former marriages, but also in the face of their later ones to their previous spouses. Even without the reaffirmation that shared sexuality provides, both have been able to find a way to maintain the elevated love they had once shared, even in, or especially in, the face of reciprocal alienation. [good point--especially as it involves something of the 'grotesque' in persistance versus conventional demand] Jude, by this time himself nominally remarried to Arabella, walks in the cold dampness of the season to see Sue a final time, and finds her also only nominally and passionlessly married to her former husband, Mr. Phillotson. In their short embrace, Jude and Sue immediately melt back into one another’s arms and impatiently and restlessly kiss one another as though the salvation of their souls depended upon it. There has been no loss of feeling between them, which, on the one hand, shames Sue into remorse for betraying her husband and causes her to joylessly pay penance for it later, and, on the other, drives Jude into despair and wished-for death. Love is therefore not a contractual arrangement, though society binds it as such, for it can and does exist outside the laws of the state, and it flourishes more freely when the obligation to one another is consensual and not contrived.

Love and sex should be interdependent entities though one is usually subordinate to the other. This is not true of the unmarried Jude and Sue, who find the ultimate expression of their love to be in their shared sexual passion, while at the same time not dependent upon that, but rather on a shared sentiment and mutual desire for the edification of their minds. Their character, which determined their fate, governed the attraction each had to the other. In Jude’s situation with Arabella, though, the only thing that perpetuated the relationship and made it the slightest bit interesting for him was the sexual aspect of their union, there being no further bond between them. When this grew commonplace, and there were no other enticements to convince Jude to stay, he willingly bade Arabella to enjoy herself in Australia and put an end to the relationship. Likewise, when Sue left Phillotson, she agreed to live with Jude as his lover in everything but the physical sense, forcing Jude to subordinate his feelings of erotic love to the higher plane of agapic comradery. [a grotesque or an epiphany as to 'love'?] Having been married to Phillotson, she had engaged herself in passionless sex out of a feeling of obligation until she could no longer bear to live the lie into which she had felt as obligated as Jude to enter. Upon her second marriage to Phillotson, moreover, she used sex as a way of mortifying her flesh after her final transgression with Jude. Phillotson, who was obviously not gratifying his elevated feelings of love as it was undoubtedly unrequited even in the bedroom, engaged in sex with a woman who could not love him, which became the extent of his ability to love her. Convention, however, insisted that only sex with a spouse was right, and that the legal union was required before it could be enjoyed. In both cases in which Sue and Jude were involved with someone outside of each other, the legal union destroyed their chances of felicity while the unsanctioned union promoted it. The only true union of sexual and mental love, therefore, in Jude and Sue’s experience, exists outside of convention, without the strings of society impeding its natural progress.

Societal sanction of a monogamous marital status comes as a result of the need for the preservation of the social order, which derives its stability from the family unit. Sex outside of marriage was viewed as intolerable because it could create children who have to enter society in roles assigned to a particular class, where legitimacy of birth was as important as breeding and education to anyone who aspired to a social role. A century removed from Jude’s England, the conception of the stable family unit has twice expanded beyond that of Victorian times in both the shift from extended families to nuclear families and in the shift from nuclear families to matriarchal and otherwise non-traditional family units. Throughout the duration of Jude’s life, however, he is very much tied to traditional social conventions in terms of his place in society. By refusing to adhere to these values, Jude is cast out of work in the restoration of the church in Aldbrickham, and Sue is asked to remove herself to other lodgings the day before her children are killed. While both believe they are married in the spirit of the law, everything in society revolves around a couple’s being married in the letter of the law, which necessitates their feigning their marriage for the sake of appearance. Had they married in the letter, furthermore, they would not have been evicted from their brief residency in the Christminster dwelling, which might have prolonged the life of the children, the death of whom drives Sue fearfully back into the home of Phillotson and away from her true love. Her having left Phillotson in the first place, and his having let her go on her own volition to pursue a life with her lover, had cast dispersions on Phillotson’s character sufficient to destroy his credibility with the board of education and had cost him his livelihood and social standing. It was only through his apparent beneficence in forgiving and remarrying his wife, if only nominally, that he was able to redeem his lost honour and his standing in the community. His redemption, however, like Jude and Sue’s, was only illusory, as all three may have found redemption in the letter of the law, but none found redemption in the spirit, or in the salvation of their souls, as Phillotson begrudges his wife, Sue her fate, and Jude his life. Even Arabella comes away with nothing but disgust and dissatisfaction, having remarried a man she thought could provide for her and having shown no remorse upon his death—not even to let it interrupt her excursion to the boats. Nothing lasting can issue forth from such a spiritually dead people, where nothing bore out in practice what it promised incipiently, their lives as dead, barren and empty as those they fostered.

This grotesque transformation [I'm not certain that you fully explained how the 'grotesque' does this--usually the grotesque awakens (shocks into) an awareness that such a 'transformation' is absurdly monstrous] of the meaning and spirit of love has shown that genuine love has no role in a conventional society, which means, according to Hardy, that convention runs contrary to desire. Human nature outgrows the traditions of its ancestors in the much the same way that Carlyle argued mankind outgrows its philosophical clothing. Yet, it takes several generations beyond the initial shifts in attitude for actual changes to be implemented, as it is impossible for one to shrug off entirely the cultural and societal mores into which he is born. The idea that love is something that can be legislated in Parliament or decreed by the court is ludicrous, but the institution of marriage that was established to govern the consequences of human sexuality and provide for the stability of the society was well-intended and plausibly implemented for those who might otherwise destroy its fabric. The point that Jude makes is not so much that the institution ought to be annihilated, but that it ought not serve as the moral standard for the relationship between two consenting lovers; moreover, he would agree that the abrogation of marital relationships in which love is non-existent should be made readily available to those who seek release from the mistakes or entrapments of their youth. Momentary lapses in judgment should not convict the man or the woman to the equivalent of life imprisonment with someone with whom he or she can share no consensual bond. Marriage should be a state of being in which two lovers can find perpetual bliss, but, according to Hardy, man grows beyond his limitations with every passing day, and often that growth is away from, rather than toward, the person with whom he has joined himself. It is for this reason that Jude was hesitant [I thought Sue was the truly hesitant one.] to have the state and the church officially sanction his union with Sue, as that would have added legal fetters to the greatest happiness a man and a woman can find in one another—kindred spirits who give of themselves freely and willingly in an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship. In throwing off the traditional institution of marriage, Jude ironically destroyed any chances he might have had at happiness, for he finds that it is only in society that man can live, and regardless of how much he tries to escape the conventions into which he was born, he cannot escape that part of himself that was created within and of those traditions—for to do so would mean death. [This ending is quite intriguing, but ought it not to have been premised and identified and discussed all along?]

You have a great hand at organizing your presentations, but I wish you had not so often used the incidents from the text as support for a statement that needed additional explanatory discussion.  It is often the incident that needs to be explored rather than simply referred to as containing the significance ascribed to it.  At times, this has the aspect of re-narrating the story rather than discussing the significance of the incidents narrated.

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