Self-Love and Thomas Hardy: Sue Submits to a Vindictive God, a Reflection of Her Bad Father – VI

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A shadowy bad parent haunts Jude the Obscure, linking three generations of Fawleys. Each generation executes a death sentence in the name of the parents. Sue interprets her children’s deaths as a sign of divine punishment for her wicked union with Jude. Sue submits herself to a vindictive God, a reflection of her bad father, opines Prof. Ashoka, in the sixth-part of the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

We can now see more clearly the parallel between Father Time’s infanticide and the defective nurturing Jude and Sue received as children. A shadowy bad parent haunts Jude the Obscure, linking three generations of Fawleys. Each generation executes a death sentence in the name of the parents. Sue interprets her children’s deaths as a sign of divine punishment for her wicked union with Jude. “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!” The reversal is astonishing. She now views Father Time, the murderer of her own children, as an agent of divine retribution, while the two innocent children are evil, like herself. Sue submits herself to a vindictive God, a reflection of her bad father. She seems close to psychotic, lost in a terrible delusion. The violent self-hatred revealed in her speech to Phillotson conceals her infanticidal fantasies, now rationalised in the name of religious purification. “My children—are dead—and it is right that they should be! I am glad— almost. They were sin-begotten. They were sacrificed to teach me how to live! —their death was the first stage of my purification. That’s why they have not died in vain!… You will take me back?” (439). By splitting the children into good and bad objects, Sue denies her ambivalence toward them,  thus preserving her psychic life from massive extinction.

Jude and Sue miss the most terrifying insight of all, the realisation that their ambivalence has slain the children. Sue’s key admission, that she is “glad —almost” of the children’s deaths, betrays an unconscious wish. This explains her complicity in Father Time’s decision to annihilate the unwanted children of the world. The boy obediently carries out her wishes. Long before she brings children into the world, Sue has been punishing herself relentlessly for feelings of wickedness. The murders objectify her repressed wishes. By endorsing Father Time’s infanticidal actions, Sue reveals herself as the abandoning parent, determined to destroy the hated child within herself. At the same time, she is the abandoned child, intent upon merging with the hated father, Phillotson. Although Jude, Sue, and Father Time refuse to name the bad parent, they create situations in which they punish themselves and the parental surrogates who have failed them. For the tragic protagonists of Jude the Obscure, the present repeats the nightmarish past. Hardy’s symmetrical plot demonstrates his deterministic view that “What’s done can’t be undone.”

Jude the Obscure portrays Nature as a deficient mother, the law as a repressive father, the two antagonists locked in a deadly, indissolvable marriage.  “Radical disorder in the universe is finally matched by radical disorder in human personality,” Heilman has remarked about the novel. Hardy’s philosophical pessimism cannot be reduced to a single biographical determinant; yet the “General Principles” behind his artistic vision reflect the defective parenting, empathic failure, and object loss implicit in Jude the Obscure. In The Life of Thomas Hardy, ostensibly written by his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy, but largely ghost-written by the novelist himself, there is an important passage that evokes the spirit of the Fawleys:

General Principles. Law has produced in man a child who cannot but constantly  reproach  its  parent  for  doing  much  and  yet  not  all, and constantly say to such parent that it would have been better never to have begun doing than to have overdone so indecisively; that is, than to have created so far beyond all apparent first intention (on the emotional side), without mending matters by a second intent and execution, to eliminate the evils of the blunder of overdoing. The emotions have no place in a world of the defect, and it is a cruel injustice that they should have been developed in it.

Although it is unlikely that Hardy intended this passage either as a criticism of his own parents or as a commentary on Jude the Obscure, the novelist’s worldview reflects the philosophical pessimism in Father Time’s farewell speech. It would be misleading, of course, to identify Hardy with a single fictional character, especially with a boy who ends his life before he has a chance to live it. Nevertheless, despite the claim of objectivity in Jude the Obscure—“The purpose of a chronicler of moods and deeds does not require him to express his personal views” —the narrator is implicated in the characters’ gloomy vision. To give but one example, early in the novel the narrator asks why no one comes along to befriend the young Jude, already disillusioned by his hopeless struggle to master Greek and Latin. “But nobody did come, because nobody does; and under the crushing recognition of his gigantic error Jude continued to wish himself out of the world”. In I’d Have My Life Unbe  (1984),  Frank  Giordano  traces the  pattern of  self-destructive characters in Hardy’s world, concluding that, for the novelist, “the desire never to have been born was far more than a traditional poetic trope, while the wish to have his life ‘unbe’ seems to have recurred often and been very powerful at certain stages.”

It is now possible to inquire into the biographical elements of Hardy’s novel. Not surprisingly, Hardy insisted that “there is not a scrap of personal detail” in Jude the Obscure. There is little in his biography to indicate overt object loss, certainly nothing like the early traumatic loss experienced by Jude and Sue. One fascinating detail emerges, however, about Hardy’s entry into the world. When the infant was born, he was presumed dead and cast into a basket by the surgeon in order to attend to the mother, herself in distress. “Dead! Stop a minute: he’s alive enough, sure!” the midwife exclaimed (The Life of Thomas Hardy). The incident has a tragicomic quality entirely befitting Hardy’s later vision of life. As a child, he was extremely delicate and sickly, often cared for by a neighbour. Hardy’s biographers acknowledge his inauspicious beginning in life, suggesting a possible link between his early deprivation and life-long bouts of depression.  Robert Gittings speaks about an “early thread of perverse morbidity in Hardy, something near abnormality,” while Michael Millgate observes that Hardy’s parents took little interest in him because they believed he would die in childhood.

(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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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.