The New Woman’s Predicament in
The Story of an African Farm and Jude the Obscure
- Author: Shin Hyewon
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue1, p91~115, 30 Apr 2012
The Story of an African Farmand Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscureexplore the shifting condition of women living in fin-de-siècleVictorian England through foregrounding a New Woman character. Despite their apparent affinity, the two authors show noticeable differences in their approaches to the failure of the New Woman character. While Schreiner’s criticism puts more weight on social restrictions and fixed gender roles as the causes of Lyndall’s agony, Hardy underscores human nature as the main reason for Sue’s unsuccessful attempt at liberation. The two authors also differ in their views of social transformation and the possibilities for future progress. In satirizing Victorian society, Schreiner suggests a utopian vision of social progress with her protagonist’s death symbolizing a new beginning. Hardy’s naturalist pessimism portrays his characters ultimately defeated by human nature, leaving no room for a hopeful future. This contrast originates from the two authors’ disparate gender politics and their different worldviews. Yet, by creating a complex, neurotic, and inconsistent heroine, Schreiner and Hardy equally depart from the angel-in-the-house character embodying the Victorian feminine ideal and docile womanhood in the previous realist novels, and produce a new literary model for future generations.
New Woman , Olive Schreiner , Thomas Hardy , sexuality , gender relations , Victorian novel
Since Sarah Grand coined the expression in 1894, the New Woman has referred to a modern woman living in the
fin-de-siècleVictorian era, known for her superior intelligence, willfulness for social change, and defiance of convention. William Deresiewicz defines it as indicating a woman who was “intelligent, well-read, independent, strongwilled, idealistic, and outspoken, consciously defying convention and assertively speaking for advanced ideas about women’s place in society” (59). For Gail Cunningham, the New Woman was “the symbol of all that was most challenging and dangerous,” despite its later waning image, even having been ridiculed as a farcical stereotype by 1899. In literature, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm(1883) is the vanguard novel, followed by Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins(1893), Mona Caird’s The Daughters of Danaus(1894), and Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did(1895) (Cunningham 59, 78-79). These New Woman fictions helped the burgeoning feminist thought and women’s movement develop further in Britain and Europe, disputing the ideas of conventional marriage and submissive womanhood.
Jude the Obscure(1895) is not definitely categorized as a New Woman fiction but is often associated with it due to his novel’s portrayal of Sue Bridehead. Investigating the relationship between Olive Schreiner and Thomas Hardy, Shanta Dutta points out that Hardy had a copy of the first edition of Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. The critic notes that Schreiner’s novel, containing Hardy’s autograph on the title page, appears in the descriptive catalogue of the books from Hardy’s Max Gate Library (64). It is not known whether Hardy was directly influenced by Schreiner’s work, but he was deeply interested in the writings of other New Woman authors. According to William A. Davis, Jr., Hardy read Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twinsas well as George Egerton’s stories from Keynotesin 1893, and expressed his enthusiasm about them in his letters to his friend Florence Henniker (53). Hardy had completed Jude the Obscurein the spring of 1895, while he was reading Grant Allen’s bestselling The Woman Who Did. Thus, Davis argues that Hardy’s drawing of Sue in Jude the Obscurereflects his fascination about the New Woman phenomenon when the author calls Sue “a type of woman, comparatively common & getting commoner” (53). Hardy’s characterization of Sue shows a considerable influence from these contemporary New Woman writers.1
Considering Hardy’s enthusiasm about the new type of woman, it is not strange that there is a remarkable affinity found between Hardy’s
Jude the Obscure, and Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, one of the most celebrated novels about the New Woman. As John Goode maintains, The Story and Jude2 both express the contemporary woman’s issues by delving into the question of the New Woman (109). Schreiner was one of the leading proto-feminists of her time, with her fiction tracing the life of a woman who refuses to accept the society-imposed gender roles in order to achieve independence and self-knowledge. Similarly, Hardy’s Judeforegrounds a rebellious woman whose intelligence and defiance lead to misfortune, not only for her but also for her lover. With their portrayal of the unconventional woman, Schreiner and Hardy describe the turbulent age of the Victorian fin-de-siècle, when all traditional values were tested and social systems were undergoing radical change. Their novels address common issues, including the status of women in society, the changing gender roles, and the resulting transformation of sexual relationships between men and women, while revealing the absurdities of social institutions such as marriage and education.
Creating a New Woman as their female protagonist, Schreiner and Hardy depart from the angel-in-the-house character embodying the Victorian feminine ideal and docile womanhood. Schreiner’s Lyndall and Hardy’s Sue are equally complex, neurotic, and inconsistent characters, producing more than a single interpretation of their stories. Although they end up in death (Lyndall) or marriage (Sue), like their sisters from the novels of the high Victorian period, Lyndall’s death is regarded not as the typical tragedy of an unfortunate rebel but a willful act of a woman rejecting the existing principles. Sue’s suicidal marriage is interpreted as her masochistic self-denial, with no romance or family comfort. Anxiety remains in the marriage or death at the novel’s ending, unlike the sense of closure in the realist novels of the previous generation. Providing autopian or naturalist perspective, Schreiner and Hardy recalibrate the Victorian literary tradition, anticipating the next-generation feminism. However, the two authors still differ in their views of the social transformation and possibilities of future progress. In satirizing Victorian society, Schreiner suggests a utopian vision of social progress with her protagonist’s death symbolizing a new beginning. Hardy’s naturalist pessimism draws his characters ultimately defeated by human nature.
This essay aims to illuminate the kinship between Schreiner’s Story and Hardy’s
Jude, whose connection has been noted but not yet thoroughly examined.3 Both Schreiner and Hardy have created their protagonists, modeling them after the image of the New Woman. The arrival of this new type of woman results in a shift of power dynamics in gender relations as well. Yet, their solutions to the conflicts brought by those changes are not the same at the end. While Lyndall’s death is interpreted as the promise of a fulfillment of her feminist ideal, Sue is ultimately punished for her nonconformity, making herself and Jude beaten down rather by human nature than by social norms. In this essay, I will demonstrate how this discordance between Schreiner and Hardy originates from their disparate gender politics and their different worldviews.
1Unlike Hardy, other male novelists among Schreiner’s contemporaries openly expressed their dissatisfaction with her work. For example, H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang were unhappy about her choice of writing about “tackling religious problems, or falling in love on new and heterodox lines, instead of shooting deer, and finding diamonds, or hunting up the archeological remains of the Transvaal.” Another writer, George Moore, said that he found no “art as [he] understand[s] it-rhythmical sequence of events described with rhythmical sequence of phrase” (qtd. in Showalter 199). 2Hereafter, I use the abbreviated title of The Story for The Story of an African Farm, and Jude for Jude the Obscure. 3William Deresiewicz’s essay compares Schreiner and Hardy but in the exclusive context of the friendship between man and woman represented in modern British literature, also including Mary Wollstonecraft’s work.
As Sally Ledger indicates, the New Woman is not a transparent category, as different writers give us conflicting looks (23-24). While Sarah Grand praises a virtuous woman and perfect mother in
The Heavenly Twins, Mona Caird criticizes the burden of motherhood in The Daughters of Danaus. Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Didcreates a woman advocating free love. Despite the elusiveness of the category, New Woman characters commonly embody a threat to patriarchy. Accordingly, Schreiner’s Lyndall and Hardy’s Sue resemble each other in their ambitious pursuit of a worldly education and their agony about women’s position in society. These traits make them ideological mavericks posing a threat to the preexisting social conventions of the Victorian era.
In her landmark criticism about British women novelists, Elaine Showalter particularly praises Schreiner for her “female symbolism,” her dedication to feminism, and her use of “insistent” narrative voice to articulate women’s realities (198). “That voice, soft, heavy, continuous, is a genuine accent of womanhood,” Showalter says, mentioning its influence on Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and Doris Lessing (198). Showalter also regards Lyndall as “the first wholly serious feminist heroine in the English novel”; Lyndall is one “of the few who is not patronized by her author” as well, born after tragic Victorian heroines such as Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s novels (199). Denying the traditional idea of marriage as a harmonious union between man and woman, Lyndall views a marital union as a business contract wherein women gain access to social status and financial security in exchange for their autonomy and independence. For this reason, she rejects the courtship of her unnamed lover and remains friends with Waldo, her childhood friend, for whom she feels the most intellectual and emotional affinity. With no daydreaming or pathetic self-pity, Lyndall criticizes the reality of fixed gender roles in Victorian society. Men are solely responsible for physical and mental labor -- “work” -- but woman are forbidden from any intellectual production or artistic creation because they simply “seem” to exist (135). Men are born with power, while women obtain it through marriage; men create and women merely recreate. Two metaphors are used in the novel to represent the women’s confinement: one is a caged bird chafing against the iron bars (141),4 and the other is a Chinese woman’s foot. Lyndall says:
Lyndall’s plight lies not in the blindness to this reality of captivation like the other women in the novel, but in knowing too well the lack of agency granted to them. If a woman is “wise” enough to understand her social position, she must conform to the norms. She realizes that the time is not ready for her to enact her feminist manifesto. Still, Lyndall lives a full life, experimenting with her feminist ideas; her youth does not seem to wane with experience, and her premature or “untimely” death comes paradoxically when she is done with all her experiments with life. She refuses to accept either of the two options appearing in the above passage; instead, she embraces death as a new beginning.
Elaine Showalter, despite her praise of Schreiner, ultimately concludes that the novelist is “underambitious” and her novels “depressing and claustrophobic” (203). In opposition to this assessment by Showalter, I argue that Lyndall’s seemingly hasty life and death is not the sign of a premature abandonment of her trial but that of fulfillment and promise in a compressed time where the lines separating past, present, and future are blurred. Thus, a future is saved by Lyndall’s untimely death, and “talents wasted and frustrated” according to Dan Jacobson can still create a new possibility for future generations (qtd. in Showalter 204). Lyndall might be granted “only the narrowest of possibilities,” as Showalter claims, but she nonetheless opts out of the two choices given to women in the forementioned passage in order to choose a third alternative of momentary retreat (203). The image of a caged bird appearing in the novel mirrors her situation of retreat:
The bird’s temporary withdrawal in the above paragraph is symbolic of an anticipation of “the new time” that will surely come. The climax of Lyndall’s death clearly reveals Schreiner’s utopian expectation of afterlife -- “the Hereafter” -- and future possibilities. Her death completes her life journey but opens up new possibilities for future generations; for example, it redeems Waldo, who realizes the meaning of death afterwards, saying “there is that which never dies - - which abides” (225). Upon her death, Lyndall goes through an everyday ritual of dressing up, eating, and reading, while consciously recognizing the final moment like a visionary saying, “I am nearly there.” Indicating “a defiant glance of triumph,” the narrator’s authorial voice says: “[o]nly, the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth”; “[h]ad she found what she sought for -- something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter” (218-19).
As Patricia Murphy argues, Lyndall’s death scene suggests her silent defiance, since, “as a successful rebel against gender norms, she has no space she can ultimately occupy in nineteenth-century culture” (n. pag.; my emphasis). The novel’s ambiguous conclusion featuring Waldo’s unfinished letter then indicates the existence of “women’s time” that extends beyond this world, disrupting the hegemonic linear temporality. Lyndall’s death or disappearance to another life delivers a sense of hope for the new era where women may negotiate a conflict between work and romance, and art and love. The setting of Africa in
The Storyprovides a sense of utopianism as well. While the land of colonial brutality speaks for the women’s oppression, Africa is also the space of imagination for Schreiner to unfold her utopian feminism. Considering Lyndall’s death a bodily dissolution into landscape, Hannah Freeman writes, “the symbolic disembodiment of Lyndall’s body at her death scene and its subsequent absorption into the landscape performs the mystical union, the true oneness with the world” (27). Through this union, Schreiner criticizes the colonialism and sexism of nineteenth-century Victorian empire by illustrating the dispersal of the physical boundaries of race and gender.
Not only does Lyndall’s death scene illuminate Schreiner’s utopian politics, but it also hints at her questioning the dichotomy of body/soul, nature/culture, and man/woman. Schreiner’s anxiety over the flesh is noticed in the novel when maternity is marked as feminine “nature” by Victorian scientific discourses. Like many intellectuals living in the Victorian era, Schreiner was hugely influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Herbert Spencer’s biological functionalism.5 Yet, as Nancy Paxton examines, following George Eliot, Schreiner sets up her critique of Spencer’s sexist and racist ideas about women and the colored that rationalize British imperialism in Africa and Asia. Probing the resemblance between
The Mill on the Flossand The Story, Paxton argues that Schreiner is able to “expose and criticize assumptions about maternal instinct that underlie a social Darwinist reading of female nature and motherhood” more explicitly than Eliot (568). Like her predecessor, Schreiner also distinguishes “the moral values conventionally associated with maternity from the involuntary and ‘instinctive’ expressions of female sexuality, pregnancy, and motherhood” (567). Accordingly, in The Story, Schreiner expresses her discomfort about the feminine nature by rendering Lyndall’s beauty and maternity as baffling and troublesome. Lyndall is described as “unwomanly” (150); she, despite her pretty face and graceful figure, manifests the “oppressive beauty” symbolized in the African moon in the beginning of the novel, demonstrating power and superiority rather than meek femininity (1). Her motherhood is more problematic. While she denied her maternal instinct early in the novel, by rejecting childbirth as delivering another miserable being to the world, the novel’s ending affirms the moral values of motherhood including compassion, love, and service in sacrifice (215). It seems that a woman can be unwomanly, but a mother cannot be unmotherly. Nonetheless, Schreiner maintains a critical view of the Victorian motherhood by illustrating Lyndall’s predicament caused by the rigid sex roles forced upon women. Lyndall’s precocious death results from her burden of motherhood and her guilt consciousness feeling responsible for the death of her child. Through this depiction of Lyndall’s plight, Schreiner criticizes the contemporary society, which does not allow women to negotiate the conflicting roles of an independent woman and a loving mother. The author’s anxiety over the female body is additionally revealed by “a grotesque obesity” of other female characters (Showalter 196); for example, the maternity of Tante Sannie, Lyndall’s aunt, looks monstrous with her body reduced to the reproductive function going through incessant pregnancy and childbirth.
Schreiner further denaturalizes sex as a constructed social discourse by disrupting sexual hierarchy and demonstrating gender inversion. Lyndall’s intellectual superiority over her male partners makes her an excellent teacher but an unusual lover, since it violates the men’s dominance over women and upsets the power dynamics of gender relations. It is in her relationship with Gregory Rose that gender inversion is seen most obviously. Gregory, the fiancé of Lyndall’s cousin Em, is a distorted version of a decadent aesthete. Schreiner uses satire for characterizing Gregory as a self-indulgent, sentimental dandy. He is a parody of the “new man” -- a fin-de-siècle aesthete, à la Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde’s
The Picture of Dorian Grayand Jean Des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours. This figure is often depicted as a physically and morally exhausted aristocrat in pursuit of sensual pleasures in an exotic location to overcome his ennui. These traits are illustrated by Gregory’s “distinguished lineage,” his noble blood, and his intention to come to Africa in search of a new venture:
The word, “seeming,” in the first passage insinuates Schreiner’s satire on the “new man.” Gregory’s narcissism in the second passage is the author’s mockery of typical self-indulgence and pathetic self-pity seen in the decadent aesthete character. A parody of the new man, Gregory’s action resembles the stereotypical behavior of a young girl in love, for example, his narcissistic attention to his appearance and his girlish complaint of Lyndall’s indifference. In spite of his “unmanly” traits, he maintains the conventional notion of womanhood in service of man, which role he ironically plays for Lyndall upon being enthralled by her. As if a husband were speaking to his wife, Lyndall tells Gregory that he could serve her by giving her his name (173). Accordingly, Gregory is converted to his “natural” womanhood of nurturing, taking care of the dying Lyndall. Even a latent homoerotic desire is implied by Gregory’s satisfaction with “his” gender role of nurturing and Lyndall’s sensual pleasure of his touches and kisses, with his sexual identity unknown to her (Paxton 573). Through Gregory’s sexual transformation and gender inversion, Schreiner not only mocks the decadent dandy, a figure popularized by contemporary male writers, but also indicates that gender identity is a social construction.
4Shanta Dutta also considers this captive bird representing the women’s aspiration for freedom to escape from the socially-imposed gender roles (69). A caged bird appears in Jude as well when Sue releases her pigeon, in danger of being slaughtered. However, this bird’s release is ironic because Sue is eventually caught in her own cage of matrimony and religion. 5In his early works, Spencer maintained that motherhood is the “supreme end” of woman’s existence, saying that “one of nature’s ends, or rather her supreme end, is the welfare of posterity.” Thus, women’s education should gear towards this goal, since “a cultivated intelligence based upon a bad physique is of little worth, seeing that its descendants will die out in a generation or two” (296). This analysis of women’s sexual functions became one of the core arguments in his major works, such as Principles of Biology (1864-67) and Study of Sociology (1873), influenced by Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) (qtd. in Paxton 568).
Schreiner shows the New Woman’s struggle in negotiating the conflict between feminist ideal and social reality. Her utopian feminism suggests an unending potential of future progress implied by Lyndall’s symbolic death. Hardy’s depiction of Sue as a New Woman is much more ambiguous. In the course of the novel, she undergoes a transformation from a free-spirited woman to a submissive wife of masochistic self-denial. Her inconsistency as a character intimates Hardy’s ambivalent view of women, whom he describes as ultimately unable to be liberated from their female nature of sexuality in
Early in the novel, Sue appears an embodiment of the New Woman with her flashing wit, intelligence, generosity, and nonconforming spirit. The “bachelor girl” and “odd” maid tells about her tomboyish adolescence, being the only girl among a group of boys; she and the unnamed Christminster undergraduate take walking and reading tours, “like two men almost” (118). Having an aura of London life, she is more experienced, urbanized, and sophisticated than Jude, who, “under [her] teaching,” is liberated from conventions (187). Like Lyndall to Waldo, Sue plays a role of a teacher to Jude. She even makes an audacious statement about her (sexual) experience, saying, “I am not particularly innocent” (118). The episode of her purchasing the pagan statues of Venus and Apollo insinuates the New Woman’s aspiration for love and art -- harmonious sexual union and selffulfillment, which are in conflict given the social circumstances. It also exemplifies Sue’s disobedience against Christian authority, as she edits the Bible according to her taste, which is considered sacrilege by Jude (117). Sue, a “Voltairian” malcontent and “the Ishmaelite” (111), ominously compares herself to Eve, whose role of “corrupting” man is played by her later.
But Hardy’s portrayal of Sue drastically changes during the novel. After being ostracized by the community and losing her children to death, she renounces her faith in social transformation and abandons her love for Jude. “Undoing all [that she has] begun,” Sue submits herself to the tyranny of religion and matrimony, which she previously attempted to dispute (279). Jude agonizes about her feminine irregularity, saying, “What I can’t understand in you is your extraordinary blindness now to your old logic. Is it peculiar to you, or is it common to woman? Is a woman a thinking unit at all, or a fraction always wanting its integer?” (276). Sue’s inconsistency, in fact, has been the central topic for scholars to debate about Hardy’s representation of women in
Jude. Kate Millett’s analysis attributes Sue’s inconsistency to Hardy’s own failure, being unable to reveal Sue’s female consciousness, which he represents only through the filter of the male counterpart of Jude (133-34). William Deresiewicz claims that her inconsistency results from the New Woman’s essential dilemma, caught between her physical desires and her intellectual ones (60). On the other hand, William Davis, Jr. indicates Hardy’s ambivalent feeling towards the contemporary feminist ideas as the possible cause of his controversial depiction of Sue. While Hardy had enthusiasm about the works of New Woman writers, he was also a long-time friend of Lady Susan Mary Elizabeth Jeune, known for her notorious anti-New Woman articles published in several renowned journals of her time. Tracing Lady Jeune’s influence on Hardy’s characterization of Sue, Davis concludes that Hardy is neither a reactionary like his friend, nor an outright feminist advocate (67-68). Unlike Lady Jeune, who criticized the New Woman in support of the traditional woman’s role as mother and wife, Hardy creates Sue as admirable for her intelligence and her willful resistance to the existing social principles and sexual practices. Nonetheless, negative stereotypes of the New Woman surface in Sue -- specifically her coldness towards her lovers, her problematic maternity, and her “colossal inconsistency.”
Interestingly, in contrast to Schreiner, Hardy attributes Sue’s inconsistency and her failure as a New Woman to the female nature of sexuality and maternity more than to social restrictions. Her feminine nature annihilates her achievement as an independent woman and enslaves her to animalistic instincts and irrational impulse. She succumbs to “the feminine sexual desire of being loved,” as she recognizes it:
The above statements show that Sue is not free from the woman’s “inborn” desire for being loved which, according to her, transcends moral conscience. It is the arrival of Arabella, Jude’s ex-wife, that brings about a new phase of Sue and Jude’s relationship, transforming Sue from a bodiless phantom to a possessive woman. Referring to the woman’s “natural” craving for love, she says, “love has its own dark morality when rivalry enters in” (210). Her free spirit is finally “caught” or “nested” by the snare of the flesh and the desire to be loved. If her sexual desire thwarts her intellectual pursuit, as the narrator says that “a glow had passed away from her, and depression sat upon her features” (210), the ensuing maternity completely exhausts Sue’s moral strength, leading to her masochistic self-renunciation. In this sense, Shanta Dutta compares Lyndall and Sue in terms of each woman’s tormenting experience of motherhood (63). Their remorse about the loss of their children causes one woman a death (Lyndall) and the other, her surrender to patriarchy (Sue). Lyndall’s suicidal visit to her infant’s grave is echoed by Sue’s sorrow-stricken request for digging out the grave so that she can see her children again. Nonetheless, in
The Story, despite her painful loss, Lyndall remains strong, while recognizing the value of sacrifice and looking forward to what the future holds even on her deathbed. In comparison to Lyndall’s intact spirit, Sue is completely defeated by sexuality and consumed by maternity, together coded as nature in Jude.
Sexuality and maternity, signifying nature, eventually defeat Sue in pursuit of her artistic ambition and independence. As Anne Simpson suggests, there is an innate conflict embedded in the term “New Woman.” Simpson writes: “[Sue] is ‘New,’ for she is emblematic of the nebulous age to come and serves to illustrate Hardy’s perception of the uncertain state of humanity at the dawn of the twentieth century. But it is essential that Sue is ‘Woman’; the feminine serves as trope for a state of being that eludes familiar strategies of description” (58). Lyndall in
The Storyalso struggles in dealing with her roles as a woman and a mother, though she does not lose her faith in social reformation. Sue does not overcome her sexual desire and pre-determined gender roles. Sue remains a woman, which in Hardy’s view is an elusive negativity and absurdity that cannot be grasped.6 Referring to Elizabeth Langland’s criticism, Younghee Son also points out Hardy’s biological essentialism, divulged through the narrator’s voice in the novel (89). Hardy’s sexual bias is revealed when Sue’s intellectual pursuit is described as doomed by her corporeal desire, in contrast to Jude’s aspiration of higher education being ruined by social restrictions, such as class division.
With Hardy’s naturalist view picturing women as limited by their sexual desire and maternal instinct, his pessimistic naturalism also questions the possibility of social change, as his characters are victims of human nature. Hardy poses a social critique of marriage, religion, and the educational system as examples of inhuman and anachronistic social institutions. Sue’s artistic talent is subdued by the disciplines at the Training College, while she is finally beaten down by marriage and the burden of childbearing. Jude is also a victim of these conventions, failing to realize his dreams due to his class status limiting his education, as well as due to his ideological confinement to Christian doctrines. “The letter killeth” both men and women. 7 However, Hardy stresses human nature as the central obstacle to his characters’ pursuit of their ideal, more than social restrictions. Human beings are constantly tested by their sexual desire since they embody the battlefield of flesh and soul, nature and reason. Jude’s disastrous first marriage results from his inability to resist Arabella’s physical attraction and his inborn tenderheartedness. Sue is destined to be ruined by her sexual desire to be loved and her maternal instinct. Hardy illustrates Darwinian naturalism by using metaphors such as a rabbit gin denoting inevitable death (169), and the pig-killing scene suggesting nature’s laws in discordance with human endeavor (54). The survivor in his naturalist world is neither Sue nor Jude but Arabella, a character incarnating sheer lust and shrewdness for survival. 8 Likewise, in Hardy’s world, choice is limited or absent. Heredity plays a significant role in sealing the fate of Sue and Jude, whose “blood” is said to be unfit for wedlock. The characters lack resource or agency for making changes in social conventions, let alone human nature.
Sue and Jude’s rebellion against natural and social laws is described as dignified and admirable, but the novel’s ending causes intense anxiety because Hardy’s pessimism seems to allow little chance for improvement of the human condition. In this sense, Hardy’s criticism of Victorian England is limited since human nature negates any effort toward social transformation. This nature cannot be addressed by human reasoning or overcome by a willingness to change. Thus, unlike Lyndall’s symbolic triumph in The Story, Jude’s death is tragically fateful. No solution is given to the questions raised in the novel. “The grind of stern reality” is the eventual truth that Jude acknowledges, with no sense of hope or promise of future (309). Jude’s liberation upon his death is different from that of Lyndall. Death merely frees a person from misery and illusion, “putting an end to a feverish life”; nothing exists beyond death, neither afterlife nor redemption. No future generation remains to realize their forerunners’ ideal. While little Father Time, the son of Jude and Arabella commits a suicide-murder, killing all his half siblings, Sue’s still-born baby symbolizes the parents’ unfulfilled wishes. It is Arabella who takes up the authorial voice at the final page of the novel, implying that her animalistic instinct makes her sole survivor in the world ruled by Darwinian principles.
6Simpson claims that Sue is “the woman at the center of Hardy’s text,” resisting categorization and always in motion. In spite of her destructiveness ruining Jude’s life, her indecipherability makes the text renewable because, from a narratological perspective, more interpretations and meanings are generated due to her ambiguity (58). 7This is the novel’s epigraph: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Corinthians 3.6). 8Studying Hardy’s revisions of Jude, James Harding argues that the author characterizes Sue as a New Woman in juxtaposition to Arabella embodying a “negative, denigrated, and [vulgarized]” version of feminine sexuality (105). However, as Harding says, “Arabella and Sue are more alike than different, and . . . Hardy uses Sue to further denigrate the vision to which he gave voice in Arabella” (102). Harding follows Ruth Firor’s study claiming that the two women are “variations” of the pagan goddess of love in English folklore, who is associated with phallic worship and death, particularly in charge of dead children. This goddess’s characteristics are revealed in both Arabella and Sue in the novel, which complicates Hardy’s view of the New Woman’s sexuality (qtd. in Harding 102).
Schreiner and Hardy explore the Victorian Woman Question through each creating a New Woman character in their respective novel. Schreiner’s criticism in
The Storyplaces more weight on social injustice and questionable gender relations. While Lyndall’s trouble is representative of women’s issues in contemporary society, it is also the plight of the oppressed, alongside the colored and the working class, dominated by the white-male patriarchy. Schreiner’s answer to this problem is more radical and clear-cut than Hardy’s male conservatism. Hardy still considers the past traditions and social ritual -- which he calls not “vice” but “weakness” -- venerable because they are time-tested and may still be in the service of humanity (52). By contrast, Schreiner proposes the total disjunction from the previous traditions in order to create new social systems. There is no room for the shadow of the obsolete. The narrator of her novel says that people have no God because they found that the new God is also made of “the shadow of [their] highest ideal, crowned and throned” (99). Likewise, Waldo acquires his own philosophy by cutting off his tie to the past intellectual and spiritual traditions, such as Christian doctrines. It is his faith in “the Universal Unity” (225), not of the Transcendental individual greatness, but a belief in the continuity of human existence through generations. Lyndall and Waldo regard death as a sacrifice for the better future.
Schreiner and Hardy portray the predicament of the New Woman in pursuit of autonomy and social innovation. While Schreiner dwells more on social restrictions and gender inequality, Hardy underscores an innate human nature as the main reason for Sue’s unsuccessful attempt. Each author’s view of their respective dilemma is echoed by the disparate ending of each novel. Whereas Lyndall’s death is seen as a fulfillment and future promise, Jude’s miserable death and Sue’s self-denial leave no room for a hopeful future. This contrast originates from each author’s different philosophy and worldview: Schreiner’s utopianism and Hardy’s naturalism. Schreiner’s novel is not strictly realistic, employing a parody of the decadent aesthete and her visionary symbolism in portraying Lyndall. Rooted in naturalism, Hardy emphasizes how his characters are beaten down by their conditions, particularly human nature. Yet, challenging the previous literary tradition of realism, both novelists create complicated female characters instead of those embodying transparent femininity. Accordingly, their novels diverge from the seamless narrative, homogeneous characters, and unified voice of the previous generation of realism (Ardis 3). With their complexity producing more textual interpretation, Schreiner and Hardy produce a new literary model for the novelists of future generations.