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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Sue Bridhead's asexuality in Jude the Obscure

Sue Bridehead, Jude's love interest, is a complex character, in most ways very sympathetic and in some ways very disturbed. As she points out, she and Jude are two people of extraordinary sensitivity - moved to tears easily, having great empathy for others. Among her most appealing qualities is her sharp intelligence - complete contrasts to Jude's estranged wife - and her forthright nature, particularly in respect to the rights of women (and to a lesser extent in respect to the rights of the working class). She has many moments in which she is trenchant and perspicacious as she discusses the oppression of women and the general societal devaluation of women - in particular noting the inequity of marriage, men choose freely but women must be "given" to the man. In the next generation, she would not doubt be a suffragette. But then there's the other side to her: we can't help but think that part of her principled opposition to marriage is a fear of sexuality and more specifically a fear of men (we know very little about her past - she sounds as if she may have been abused as a child - not sure if Hardy will fill that in later, or if that's a modern/contemporary "reading" of her character). Abused or not, her sexual history, or lack of same, is quite astonishing: she was in love with a young scholar and they lived together for 18 months or so (until he died), but she makes a point of telling Jude that they never had sex. She marries the considerably older Phillitson (a marriage similar to the central story of Middlemarch), and, though she never says explicitly that they did not have sex - it certainly seems as if they didn't - culminating in the scene in which he walks into the bedroom and she literally jumps out of the window in fright. She's repulsed by him, and it's easy to write that off as a mismatch - but then we come to her relationship w/ Jude - to his dismay and disappointment, after their endless courtship, he takes a hotel room for the 2 of them and she is shocked, shocked!, that he would consider doing that. Well, Jude is not only obscure - he's a saint, and lives with her for months without sex - until finally she agrees to get married (to provide a family and home for Jude's son who has just turned up), and then on the wedding day she goes through about 100 reasons why the time, place, something just isn't right. That's where I stopped last night - but have to think a 20th-century novelist would explore her a-sexuality more overtly - is she attracted to women? to no one? Is it fear of sex or a different sexual orientation? I don't think Hardy can answer those questions - he's brave and forward-thinking enough to raise them (esp in the scene when Sue fell asleep wearing Jude's clothes and he sees her boyish beauty).

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