Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

From a Metaphysics of Presence to the Blessings of Absence: The Medial Construction of Masculine Identity in Thomas Hardy's Novel Jude the Obscure

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

From a Metaphysics of Presence to the Blessings of Absence: The Medial Construction of Masculine Identity in Thomas Hardy's Novel Jude the Obscure

Article excerpt

Jude the Obscure is not only Thomas Hardy's last but probably also his bleakest novel. Already its epigram on the frontispiece--namely "The letter killeth [but the spirit giveth life]"--can be read as having negative forebodings; it can, however, also be interpreted as a commentary on the 'nature' of language and on the absolute necessity of understanding its founding mechanisms such as absence, difference and deferral if one is to lead a happy and meaningful life and if one endeavors to claim the freedom and the responsibility to construct one's own identity. The subject of this paper thus centers on the extent to which Hardy's protagonist Jude Fawley, a man who desperately clings to the illusion of a transcendental signified, is able to understand and put into practice Hardy's epigram, which does no less than set forth a 'medial', i.e. linguistic, program for the novel in general as well as for its protagonist in particular. In this sense, the focus of inquiry will be the up to now largely neglected discursive construction of an ill-fated male identity in a discursive universe where "nobody did come, because nobody does" (J, p. 31) and where taking words literally has lethal consequences.

It is certainly surprising that a closer look at the hundreds of articles, essays and monographs about Jude the Obscure (1) reveals that most of these publications tend to ignore the eponymous hero of the novel and concentrate instead on Sue Bridehead, "perhaps the most remarkable feminine portrait in the English novel" (Southerington, 1971, p. 145). One eminent critic, Mary Jacobus, even speaks of "Sue the Obscure" (Jacobus, 1975, p. 305), and in a letter Thomas Hardy himself called his novel "the Sue story" (Boumelha, 1982, p. 138). Given this evident neglect of, or even discrimination against, the male protagonist in Hardy studies, it seems appropriate to shift the focus of critical attention. Not, however, back to the humanist phallic and integrated self (Moi, 1990, p. 8), but to a male identity which is insecure, fractured and fraught with problems.

Considering the norms and social codes of the 19th century, there can be no doubt that Jude leads a very unconventional and even progressive life. In contrast to a character such as Michael Henchard in the Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude appears to consist of a complex blend of traditionally male and female attributes and continues to seek a semblance of security throughout his life in a world which clearly "has become unmoored from natural certitude" and in which "to the unappeased spirit in search of articulate paradigms, nothing--not even the body's native stresses--can be reliably categorized" (Weinstein, 1984, p. 139).(2) Lured primarily by the enigmatic Sue Bridehead, Jude is propelled into a kind of obscurity which renders his identity as well as his sexuality highly problematic. If this is an extremely unhappy situation for Hardy's male protagonist, it does have the advantage that it puts the reader in a position first to realize and then to further explore the fact that "all labels that 'ticket' a person, especially the most common ones of gender and class, are false" (Higonnet, 1993, p. 4).

Applying traditional male and female stereotypes (Grimm-Horlacher, 2002, pp. 42-58), there can be little doubt that the two main protagonists in Jude the Obscure are characterized by an odd combination of what Linda Dowling calls "male effeminacy and female mannishness" (Dowling, 1979, p. 445). The overriding consensus in the secondary literature is "[that] Sue assumes the attitudes of the decisive Victorian male", while "Jude appears to take on the qualities of the submissive Victorian wife" (Mickelson, 1976, p. 5). And in Hardy's novel, Jude is indeed depicted as "a ridiculously affectionate fellow" (J, p. 85), as "thin-skinned", "horribly sensitive" and as the born victim; he even complains about being a man and is looking for a partner on whom "he can lean on and look up to" (Mickelson, 1976, p. …

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