Jude the Obscure

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Women in Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Marriage Theme Icon
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Social Criticism Theme Icon
Women in Society Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Jude the Obscure, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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Sue Bridehead is a surprisingly modern and complex heroine for her time, and through her character Hardy brings up many gender-related issues. Sue is unique in Victorian society in that she lives with men without marrying (or even sleeping with) them, as with her undergraduate student friend. Sue is highly intelligent and very well-read, and she rejects the traditional Christianity of her society. She also works alongside both Phillotson and Jude, first marrying Phillotson partly to further her own teaching position (instead of acting as the traditional housewife).

Despite her intelligence and independence, Sue fails at her endeavors throughout the book, and through her sufferings Hardy critiques the society that punishes his heroine. Sue, like other women, is expected to be the “property” of the man she marries, so Sue is bound to Phillotson for life even after their separation. Sue is never allowed to advance in her work (despite her intelligence) because of her marital status. As an unmarried, disgraced woman she has no power in society. While Hardy was ahead of his time in creating such a strong female character, he still clings to many gender stereotypes about women: Sue is emotionally fragile and often hysterical, changing her mind at the slightest whim and breaking down in the face of tragedy. As an opposite to Sue, Arabella is greedy, sensual, and vain – the stereotype of everything Victorian society found bad and sinful in women. Though Arabella is usually the antagonist, she is also the character who ends up the most fortunate in the plot, showing just how unprepared society was for a character like Sue.

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Women in Society Quotes in Jude the Obscure

Below you will find the important quotes in Jude the Obscure related to the theme of Women in Society.
Part 3, Chapter 7 Quotes

I have been looking at the marriage service in the Prayer-book, and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as there printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal. Bless your exalted views of woman, O Churchman!

Related Characters: Sue Bridehead (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

Sue has sent Jude a rather formal letter informing him that she will soon marry Phillotson. She then sends another letter asking if, as her only male relative who is married, Jude will "give her away" at her wedding. She adds that she finds the concept of being given away "very humiliating," and objects to other parts of the marriage service, such as the notion that the bridegroom chooses the bride, but the bride herself is passively given "like a she-ass or she-goat." Once again, Sue has revealed a kind of proto-feminist consciousness and affinity with contemporary critiques of the institution of marriage. Her intelligence leads her to understand that even seemingly innocuous elements of the marriage ceremony fundamentally belittle women. 

Furthermore, Sue is unequivocal in her condemnation of the sexism of religion. She exclaims sarcastically, "Bless your exalted views of woman, O Churchman!". Note that, once again, this criticism coheres with contemporary feminist critique of the sexism within organized religion. Although this critique is rather common now, it would have been highly scandalous at the time Jude the Obscure was written.


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Part 4, Chapter 2 Quotes

Jude, before I married him I had never thought out fully what marriage meant, even though I knew… I am certain one ought to be allowed to undo what one has done so ignorantly. I daresay it happens to lots of women; only they submit, and I kick… When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say!

Related Characters: Sue Bridehead (speaker), Jude Fawley, Richard Phillotson
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Jude and Sue's aunt has died, and they have met in Marygreen for the funeral. Sue has confessed that she likes Phillotson as a friend but finds him repulsive as a husband. She tells Jude that she wishes it were possible "to undo what one has done so ignorantly," and that she believes people in the future will look back on marriage as a "barbarous custom." Although Sue has previously claimed to be more pagan than modern, in this passage she strongly identifies herself with a more enlightened, fair, and rational future that she imagines will follow the era in which she lives. Note the similarity between Sue's objection to marriage and that expressed by Jude; both point to the absurdity of committing forever to feelings that can change so quickly.

Part 5, Chapter 8 Quotes

“She’d have come round in time. We all do! Custom does it! it’s all the same in the end! However, I think she’s quite fond of her man still – whatever he med be of her. You were too quick about her. I shouldn’t have let her go! I should have kept her chained on – her spirit for kicking would have been broke soon enough! There’s nothing like bondage and a stone-deaf task-master for taming us women. Besides, you’ve got the laws on your side. Moses knew… ‘Then shall the man be guiltless; but the woman shall bear her iniquity.’ Damn rough on us women; but we must grin and put up wi’ it – Haw haw! – Well; she’s got her deserts now.”
“Yes,” said Phillotson, with biting sadness. “Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can’t get out of it if we would!”

Related Characters: Arabella Donn (speaker), Richard Phillotson (speaker), Jude Fawley
Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

Arabella has run into Phillotson on the road and introduced herself to him. Phillotson reveals that he was disgraced as a result of divorcing Sue, and Arabella tells him that Sue is now unhappy and that Phillotson should have stayed with her. Arabella's words present a bleak, depressing view of gender, marriage, and indeed human existence in general. She compares women to horses that need to be tamed, and says that Sue has got what she deserved. Phillotson is not as harsh, but seems lost and defeated by the tragic circumstances of his life, exclaiming that "cruelty is the law pervading all of nature and society."

In many ways, this statement can be interpreted as the main message of the novel. Regardless of the choices one makes––whether one chooses to pursue individual happiness and freedom or succumbs to societal expectations––life is ruthless and most people are miserable. Arabella's claim that "it's all the same in the end" resonates with this bleak view of humanity. No matter how hard people try to find happiness, they are inevitably broken down by the cruelty of life. 

Part 6, Chapter 3 Quotes

“I see marriage differently now!... My babies have been taken from me to show me this! Arabella’s child killing mine was a judgment; the right slaying the wrong. What, what shall I do! I am such a vile creature – too worthless to mix with ordinary human beings.”
…He returned vehemently… “You make me hate Christianity, or mysticism, or Sacerdotalism, or whatever it may be called, if it’s that which has caused this deterioration in you. That a woman-poet, a woman-seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond – whom all the wise of the world would have been proud of, if they could have known you – should degrade herself like this! I am glad I had nothing to do with Divinity – damn glad – if it’s going to ruin you in this way!”

Related Characters: Jude Fawley (speaker), Sue Bridehead (speaker), Arabella Donn, Little Father Time
Related Symbols: Little Father Time
Page Number: 350
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the children's deaths, Sue and Jude and have moved to Beersheba, where they live in a state of depression and despair. Sue has declared that they are being punished by God, and thus have "no choice" but to "conform." In this passage, Sue explains her dramatic change of heart, telling Jude that she interprets Little Father Time killing her children as "the right slaying the wrong." Jude responds by telling Sue that she makes him "hate Christianity, or mysticism, or Sacerdotalism," and feel glad that he's not religious. Jude's reply is interesting, as it highlights the fact that he has now taken on Sue's previous beliefs wholeheartedly, and is indeed defending them from Sue herself. Jude and Sue have switched places, and Jude is now the one speaking with Hardy's skeptical and pessimistic but defiant voice.