Elusive Sue Bridehead

By Alexandra A Jopp

The complex relationship of love, sex and marriage that Thomas Hardy explored more than a hundred years ago is a very modern theme. The hardest thing for many persons in the modern world is to deal with their desire for personal independence and how that relates to the structure of mutual dependency in a relationship within the constraints of pooled finances and sexual restraints. In the last fifty years women have had jobs outside the home, university degrees and other credentials, professional careers and economic advances putting unprecedented stress on the institution of marriage and the willingness of women to bear children while advancing their careers.

The nineteenth century understanding of marriage that formed the backdrop for Jude the Obscure was a relationship with the man working in a factory or office and bringing home the income while the woman stayed at home keeping house. Under this view of marriage, the woman’s sphere was her home where her primarily responsibilities were cooking, cleaning, sewing, raising kids, and having some culture in the house such as playing piano for entertaining the guests. It was male’s responsibility to bring in the income, and the men owned most resources and engaged in political activities.

In Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy is assaulting that structure of nineteenth century society by presenting Sue Bridehead as a main character who did not want to get married to a person she loved. She wanted to be independent and did not want to rely on a man’s income. She is not much interested in marriage as an interpersonal relationship, and marries in order to advance her career. She apparently does not use sex to attract the attention or the financial support of men. Hardy is making a strong point that love and marriage are not synonymous.

In A Perspective of One’s Own, Elizabeth Langland concludes that Thomas Hardy’s Sue Bridehead is more than a narrative device to illuminate the development of Jude’s personality. She argues that Sue had integrity and her own personality embodied primarily in her attitudes towards sex, marriage and independence from reliance on a man. Sue had a clear idea of the difference between love and marriage. She loved Jude but she married Phillotson for the reasons of economic advancement. Jude on the other hand married Arabella because he had sex with her and he identified sex and marriage, although Arabella lied to Jude by saying she was pregnant.

Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure depicted complex psychological problems, dualistic feelings and emotions, and the feelings of persons in emotionally unstable situations. Between Jude, Sue, and Arabella, the three main strong personalities – Sue is the most unpredictable and emotionally unstable, but the most intelligent. Critics have called her character “childish, selfish, sadistic, masochistic, narcissistic, and frigid, all in explanation of what has been defined as her dominant trait - inconsistency” (Langland 13). Sue’s inconsistencies are moral, mental, and sexual and that makes her very human. Langland, however, concludes that “Sue remains an unevenly conceived character” due to Hardy, at once sensitive to ambiguity, having extended his narrative art to its limits (Id. at 25). All the same, the character of Sue does not appear more inconsistent than the common woman of the twenty-first century attempting to deal with its swirling stew of religious and moral precepts and social norms. If modern Americans can disavow their earlier positions on the war in Iraq, how can we criticize Sue’s minor shifts of views on day to day matters.

Sue Bridehead’s inconsistency and elusiveness reflects difficulties in Hardy’s narrative techniques. She has contradictory impulses and spontaneous actions where feelings dominate her mind. But she is consistent where her views of the central issues of love and marriage conflict with the prevailing norms of English society.

Langland, Elizabeth. “A Perspective of One's Own: Thomas Hardy and the Elusive Sue Bridehead.” Studies in the Novel 12 (1980): 12-28.

Jude Fawley

[last lines] We are man and wife, if ever were two people on this earth.

Sue Bridehead

Haven't we been punished enough?

Please don't call me a clever girl, Mr Phillotson, there are too many of us these days.

[Sue has just spurned Jude again] Promise me you'll never stop trying.

It's right that I suffer.

They locked me up for being out with you, so I jumped out of the window, climbed over a fence, crossed the deepest river in England and here I am!


Sue Bridehead: Why are you looking at me like that?

Jude Fawley: Does it scare you?

Sue Bridehead: No. I am not afraid of any man.

Jude Fawley: Why?

Sue Bridehead: Because no man would touch a woman unless she gives him a reason to. A touch or a look that say come on. If you never look, they'll never come. You are the timid sex.


Sue Bridehead: I would have liked to have talked with her before she died.

Jude Fawley: She would have enjoyed that.

Sue Bridehead: What did she say?

Jude Fawley: She said we both make bad husbands and wives.