The Modern Woman
Within history, a multitude of movements have surfaced and influenced society. One in particular was that of Queen Victoria; she reigned the longest term in English History, from 1837 until her death in 1901. During the Victorian Age, the British Empire was at its summit—it conquered about a quarter of the world’s land.
Markets in industry, trade, science, and technology were making vast improvements and intensifying swiftly. In the face of this prosperity, however, factory workers and farm hands lived in dreadful penury; as a result, many people came to feel that traditional values could no longer conduct their lives. Directing one’s attention to Victorian writers, one recognizes how these authors analyzed the loss of faith in customary ideals (White 320-321). Because of the tumultuous change in Britain, public opinion was diversifying continuously.
During the later Victorian period, literature began to break off into an avant-garde movement known as Realism. Realism is the attempt to depict life as it is by examining daily activities and gaining awareness for one’s circumstances. The genre promotes an upheaval against literature that idealizes life (Lipking 171). One author in particular, Thomas Hardy, began nascent into this category and created venerable compositions in both prose and poetry.
Within his work, as an author, there’s a consistent attempt to introduce that which is remarkable or ground-breaking to that which is the accepted norm; Hardy’s fiction is created by his yearning to challenge (Boumelha 28). Characters in realistic fiction tend to be less extraordinary; most deal with everyday events and believable people. These characters often excite recognition because of society’s increasing want for a realistic understanding of social problems (Lipking 171-172).
Focusing on his classic novel, Jude the Obscure, one can clearly recognize how Hardy was struggling to cross the bridge between Victorianism to Realism; this is best portrayed by his work’s characterizations, more specifically, those of Arabella Donn and Susanna Bridehead. Hardy’s purpose in writing this book was to use these women as representations of the definitive modern woman. Within the story, both these women are lovers of the main character, Jude Fawely. He loves both women because each has aspects which are mysterious because they differ from the stereotypical woman. The image of the “perfect” woman still rested in the minds of the majority. Since Hardy was attempting to break conventions by creating these two characters that embodied the modern woman, people were shocked and responded critically.
Generally, women were seen as creatures who should be submissive to the men they answer to. “…love of home, children, and domestic duties are the only passions [women] feel.” (Picard 265). Double standards are what instituted this idea of male preeminence; even though “biological differences play a part in forming gender roles, those differences are amplified by cultural and environmental influences.” (Blum 25). Consequently, men of the Victorian period were used to women who conformed to the ideas of men, Hardy’s recognition of the qualities of the modern women were unparalleled.
“The modern woman sees herself as a unique individual first and foremost−family, friends, success and career fulfillment are all byproducts of knowing oneself first.” (Dillon 1). The modern woman is one who is not afraid to break barriers because autonomy is the priority; now although Hardy had to produce two characters in order to accomplish this, his purpose was to establish the constructs of the modern woman in regards to the spirit and mind, which is Sue, and the body and behavior, which is Arabella.
Truly, because both women are representative of the “New Woman”, several aspects of their characters are affected, such as their appearance, expectations, and relationships. In addition, because both women hold different traits of the “New Woman”, Hardy is able to allow them to personify a changing archetype of what a woman can become. “The modern woman sees herself as having choices…” (Dillon 1).
Sue Bridehead is intellectual and unique. She has an ambitious perception and uses her scholarly ways to challenge those around her. Oftentimes, she defies the typical ideals of what a woman, wife, and mother should be. She acts selfishly, not considering the strain her advances put on others. While she feels she is “sexless”, she is honestly just pure and different.
Shifting to Arabella Donn, she is the impulsive and more sensual of the twain. She is manipulative and seductive. Simultaneously, she is spontaneous and raw—she is the physical strength that counteracts the fortitude of Sue’s inner being. While Arabella is superficial, Sue is plainer. “The women’s clothes seem a part of their bodies by virtue of their incorporation into the woman’s sexual awareness.” (Boumelha 35). Arabella has fake hair because she understands a man’s need to be aroused and provoked; she is more in touch with her sexuality, which allows her to seduce Jude and entrap him in the first place. Sue, however, has a more boyish appearance, and is more concerned with keeping men as equal comrades rather than sexual objects. Hardy formed these characters to be self-aware; they recognize their situations and use their flattering traits to their advantage.
Although most women at that time had a strongly internalized sense of adhering to conventional social values, Sue and Arabella went against society’s expectations and ethics, and did what was most suitable to their feelings—their needs and desires. Throughout Hardy’s fiction, a radical split formed in women’s consciousness between self-perception and perception by others; it is the latter which gives origin to self-consciousness and to that apprehension which recognizes the judgment of others. (Boumehla 35-36). Both these women took note of the way others viewed them and their conduct, yet still, each woman lived for herself and did what would better her in the long run.
One can evidently link this to the way each carried out her relationships. Focusing on Arabella, she was involved in two marriages. Originally, her first marriage transpired due to her chicanery. She met Jude, seduced him, and then claimed to be pregnant in order to procure an engagement. With Jude, she felt a connection and did what was necessary to fulfill her desire to keep him, regardless of how deceitful and conniving she had to be. Arabella’s character contrasted greatly to the ideology of women from the classic Victorian society. At that time, the majority of women were believed not to be much troubled with sexual feelings of any kind, nor did they do anything to emasculate their male counterparts; it was believed that a woman seldom desired any sexual gratification for herself (Picard 265).
Centering back to Arabella’s other marriage, the union was committed in adultery and, because she never ended her first, was considered an act of bigamy. She wed an Australian hotel manager, Cartlett, because prospects with him seemed promising; unfortunately, for her, he died. After this, she ended up remarrying Jude once he and Sue split. At this point, she coaxed Jude into the marriage—he had gone back to drinking and was getting sicker each day; hence, she facilitated his weakened state to benefit her best interests. Although Arabella appears somewhat ruthless, she manifests the raw ambition and tact which was nonexistent in most women; she did what she had to in order to maintain her happiness.
Similarly, Susanna Bridehead also did what was necessary to maintain her happiness. She didn’t falter in her ambitions of living a life of betterment…she knew that she need not adhere to society’s standards, for she created her own standards, her own consequences. Sue lived for herself. Surprisingly, Sue also experienced two relationships−one was her marriage to Richard Phillotson and the other was her illegitimate one with Jude Fawely. Initially, Sue married Richard as a formal agreement; he happened to be a professor, and she planned to go into teaching with him, so they could later open up a school together. Sue was smart; she was stimulated, not by lust or men, but by books and intellect. She never fell into obligations she didn’t want to—this can be seen from her other platonic friendship with a man she used to live with. Although he insisted she be his lover, she refused and stayed as his edifying equal. Even with Richard, Sue did what she felt she must and ended up leaving him because she wanted to stay with Jude. Regarding her marriage, she never fulfilled her “duty” as Phillotson’s wife because she simply didn’t want a sexual relationship with him.
Sue’s personality contrasted immensely with the expectations and pressures of that time; it was believed that when a man was inclined to have sex, the wife should be available; the sexual act itself is only meant to pleasure the male−the woman must do it out of subordination (Picard 264-265). The woman was meant to subject her body to surveillance and intervention at her companion’s request (Boumelha 25). Sue never did what she didn’t want to do; this is best demonstrated in her relationship with Jude. She cared for Jude because she envisioned a future with him as friends and cohorts. With him, she did end up fulfilling her supposed “duty” of bearing children, yet she did it because she wanted to. However, because she and Jude never married, many people didn’t even try to recognize their relationship—they believed their union to be sinful because it was unlawful. Even though all Sue had to do was marry Jude, she didn’t want to−therefore, she didn’t. She was steadfast in her views and didn’t alter to fit anyone’s needs but her own. Although she was constantly pressured by external forces, Sue went against it all and fulfilled her own desire to be satisfied in life.
Separated, these two women are completely different, yet as one they create the definitive modern woman. In creating these characters, Hardy was able to challenge the prevalent ideologies of Victorian society, especially regarding the relationships these women endured. The ideal marriage consisted of the man earning the family income and his wife was suppose to stay at home, make herself and the place beautifully comfortable to suit her husband after he arrived from an exhausting day (Picard 264). Arabella and Sue counteracted this philosophy; both of their unions promoted divorce and they acted in accordance to what would benefit them, not their partners.
Hardy was criticized for his portrayal of women because they were innovative and new—people, especially men, felt threatened and criticized Hardy for his audacity. Unfortunately, because of all the negative criticisms of his works, Hardy decided to give up writing novels and went back to poetry. Yet today, his compositions are honored and are placed in the cannon of influential literature. Hardy was bold and it paid off because he created representations for women to follow and learn from, thus promoting the enlightenment and strength a woman could obtain—then and for generations to come.
Blum, Deborah. “Both Biology and Culture Help Establish Gender Roles.” Egendor, Ed. Laura K. Male/Female Roles: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc,, 2000. 25.
Boumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Sussex: The Harvester Press Limited, 1982.
Dillon, Amber. “Insight to the Modern Woman–Lifestyles.” 5 March 2004. The Travel Online. 29 March 2009 <http://www.thetravelonline.com>.
Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: Signet Classic, 1961.
Lipking, Lawrence. “”Realism”.” World Book, Inc. World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc, 2004 ed. 171-172.
Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870. New York: St. Marting’s Press, 2005.
White, D.E. “English Literature.” World Book, Inc. World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc, 2006 ed. 320-321.