Even though Jude and Sue live together without marrying, consequently suffering social ostracism, they are portrayed as loving, conscientious parents. Jude’s decision to move elsewhere for employment prompts Sue to reaffirm her allegiance to Father Time. “But whatever we do, wherever we go, you won’t take him away from me, Jude dear? I could not let him go now! The cloud upon his young mind makes him so pathetic to me; I do hope to lift it some day!” Jude reassures her that the family will remain intact. Here’s the second part of a chapter, in eight parts, from Prof. Ashoka’s book that explores self-love in the works of Thomas Hardy, in his erudite research, in the weekly column. A Different Truths exclusive.
Jude agrees to accept his newly discovered son, telling Sue: “I don’t like to leave the unfortunate little fellow to neglect. Just think of his life in a Lambeth pothouse, and all its evil influences, with a parent who doesn’t want him, and has, indeed, hardly seen him, and a stepfather who doesn’t know him.” Jude recognises that a child’s healthy development depends upon loving parents and a friendly environment. Sue intuitively empathises with Father Time’s situation, and she is moved to tears when he calls her “mother.” But she is distressed by the physical resemblance between Arabella and Father Time, which causes Jude to exclaim: “Jealous little Sue!” Ironically, Little Father Time shares his adoptive mother’s gloomy temperament. A number of years pass, with Father Time bringing unexpected joy into his parents’ lives. Even though Jude and Sue live together without marrying, consequently suffering social ostracism, they are portrayed as loving, conscientious parents. Jude’s decision to move elsewhere for employment prompts Sue to reaffirm her allegiance to Father Time. “But whatever we do, wherever we go, you won’t take him away from me, Jude dear? I could not let him go now! The cloud upon his young mind makes him so pathetic to me; I do hope to lift it someday!” Jude reassures her that the family will remain intact.
The crucial scene preceding the children’s deaths takes place in part sixth when Sue and Father Time are together in a cheerless room of a lodging house from which they have just been ordered to leave. Opposite the lodging house stands Sarcophagus College, whose outer walls “threw their four centuries of gloom, bigotry, and decay into the little room she occupied”. Despondent over the loss of lodgings and Jude’s declining prospects for employment, Sue mirrors this gloom to Father Time. When he asks her if he can do anything to help the family, she replies: “No! All is trouble, adversity, and suffering!” As the dialogue continues, it becomes increasingly clear that Sue’s despair exacerbates the boy’s innately melancholy temperament:
“Father went away to give us children room, didn’t he?”
“It would be better to be out o’ the world than in it, wouldn’t it?”
“It would almost, dear.”
“This because of us children, too, isn’t it, that you can’t get a good lodging?” “Well—people do object to children sometimes.”
“Then if children make so much trouble, why do people have ’em?” “O—because it is a law of nature.”
“But we don’t ask to be born?”
Instead of heeding the child’s cry for help, Sue validates Father Time’s worst fears—namely, that he and the other two children are responsible for the family’s desperate situation. Sue repeatedly misses the opportunity to allay his suspicion of being unwanted and unloved. In the next line, Father Time expresses the fear of becoming a burden to his family, a fear intensified by the fact that Sue is not his biological mother and, therefore, under no obligation to care for him. “I oughtn’t to have come to ’ee—that’s the real truth! I troubled ’em in Australia, and I trouble folk here. I wish I hadn’t been born!”
Here is the perfect moment for Sue to reassure Father Time that he is indeed loved by his parents. If they didn’t want him, she could have truthfully said, they would never have consented to adopt him. With luck and determination, she might have added, their lives will improve. However allegorical Father Time’s role may be in the novel, during this scene he acts and talks like a scared child. The reader responds to him as if he is fully human, deserving of sympathy. Father Time needs simply to be reassured that the family’s circumstances will improve in the future. Indeed, he expects only a reasonable reassurance, not a rosy promise of future happiness. He certainly does not need to hear that unwanted children are responsible for their parents’ suffering. How does Sue respond to his wish never to have been born? “You couldn’t help it, my dear.”
Sue’s empathic failure triggers Father Time’s inner violence, and his statements become increasingly frantic. “I think that whenever children be born that are not wanted they should be killed directly, before their souls come to ’em, and not allowed to grow big and walk about!” These unwanted children are Father Time and his two siblings. Father Time contemplates infanticide because Sue has already given up on him; she does nothing to diminish his despair because she shares it fully. The narrator similarly regards Father Time’s pessimism as philosophically justified and, hence, beyond disagreement. “Sue did not reply” to the boy’s accusations, the narrator tells us since she was “doubtfully pondering how to treat this too reflective child” Father Time is too reflective, but that is not the issue. His thinking remains morbid, obsessional, and frighteningly simplistic in its solution to suffering.
Mary Jacobus refers to Sue’s “mistaken honesty” in telling Father Time that another child is on the way,6 but Sue’s real mistake lies in her failure to understand her child’s needs. She equates Father Time’s pessimism with profundity, resolves silently to be “honest and candid” with him, as if he were a mature adult rather than a terrified child, and then informs him that she is pregnant again. The information predictably drives him into a frenzy. The dialogue closes with the distracted boy vowing that “if we children were gone there’d be no trouble at all!” Sue answers, “don’t think that, dear”. Even when she tries to be reassuring, she succeeds only in confirming his fears. The next time she sees him, the three children are hanging from their necks. Devastated by the sight, Sue prematurely goes into labour and suffers a miscarriage.
Jude and Sue adopt Father Time to avoid exposing him to further parental neglect, yet, as the final dialogue between mother and son indicates, it would be hard to imagine a more chilling family environment for the child. Sue is not an abusive or over-controlling mother, as Mrs. Joe and Miss Havisham are in Great Expectations, and she does not deliberately intend to harm Father Time. She is a depressed mother, not a sadistic one, and since she cannot help herself, readers may reasonably ask how she can be expected to help others, especially someone intent upon killing himself and his two siblings. And yet, unlike Father Time, Sue is an adult, therefore, responsible for the consequences of her actions. However much we empathize with Sue, we cannot suspend our judgment of her Jude the Obscure implies that suicide runs in families, like a defective gene passed from one doomed generation to another, but a more plausible explanation for this family curse lies in environmental and interactional causes. Sue remains only partly aware of this. She reads Father Time’s suicide letter and breaks down, convinced that their previous conversation has triggered his violence. Sue and Jude plausibly conjecture that upon waking from sleep, Father Time was unable to find his mother and, fearing abandonment, committed the double murder and suicide. Sue accepts responsibility for Father Time’s actions, but her explanations mitigate her complicity in the boy’s suicide. Perhaps she should have told him all the “facts of life” or none of them, as she says. Nevertheless, the disclosure of the pregnancy is less wounding to Father Time’s self-esteem than her failure to convince him that he is wanted and loved.
By projecting her morbidity onto Father Time and confirming his infanticidal fantasies, Sue effectively places a noose around the child’s neck. Father Time’s inability to enjoy flowers because they will be withered in a few days has its counterpart in Sue’s rationalization of the children’s deaths. “It is best, perhaps, that they should be gone. —Yes—I see it is! Better that they should be plucked fresh than stay to wither away miserably!” Jude remains supportive, agreeing that what has happened is probably for the best. “Some say that the elders should rejoice when their children die in infancy”. Jude does not rejoice at the children’s deaths, but he remains unaware of how his statements here and elsewhere mirror the self-destructive philosophy that has victimized the Fawleys. Even the attending physician’s interpretation of Father Time’s suicide—“the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live”—contains a subtle rationalization. If nothing could have been done to prevent the three deaths, then no one is to blame for the tragedy.
Sue’s empathic failure is striking. Her inconsistency of love and self-distraction overwhelm Father Time, as they later do Jude. The defective maternal mirroring represents Father Time’s final narcissistic injury. By treating Father Time as an extension of herself, Sue acts out her own unresolved inner conflicts. Moreover, by reinforcing Father Time’s suspicion that all children are monstrous, she repeats Victor Frankenstein’s abandonment of the Creature. Sue is the opposite of the healthy mother Alice Miller writes about in Prisoners of Childhood: “If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring mother, who allows herself to be cathected narcissistically, who is at the child’s disposal—that is, a mother who allows herself to be ‘made use of’ as a function of the child’s narcissistic development, . . . then a healthy self-feeling can gradually develop in the growing child.” The issue is not whether Sue is a perfect mother, but whether she is a good enough mother who can prepare her children for the vicissitudes of life.
In suggesting that Sue is implicated in her children’s deaths, I raise several questions. How is her abandonment of Father Time related to other conflicts in her life? Why does she forsake Jude, the man she loves, for Phillotson, whom she does not love? How does she enact the roles of both Narcissus and Echo?
(To be continued)
This is an excerpt from Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad’s book, Self-Love in Literature. The book is dedicated to the Principal of Colvin Taluqdars’ College, the author’s boarding school, H.L. Dutt, one of the most respected figures in Indian secondary education and a teacher par excellence, who kindled many nascent literary instincts.
©Prof Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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