“A deadly war between flesh and spirit” in Jude The Obscure

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      Tussle between higher aims and sensuality. Like Shelley, Hardy believed that love is a noble feeling that springs from the affinity of mind and spirit. Hence it is a great deal more important than, and goes far beyond, a sexual connection between a man and a woman. In Shelley's view, to the lover the loved one is a person of divine radiance, really superhuman and hardly a thing of flesh. But Hardy allows the lovers the need for an emotional commitment and therefore the earthly aspects of love such as physical contact and everything akin to it. Therefore Hardy has characters purely devoted to sensuality like Arabella, characters struggling with sensuality and higher aims like Jude and characters soaring practically higher and higher in the realm of a supreme fervour from which all flavour of the flesh has been removed, like Sue. It is Jude who suffers due to his struggle to realise his higher aims. His sensuality is partially responsible for his failure in realising his aims. Hardy specifically draws our attention to this struggle which is practically universal, being present in every human being.

      Arabella and Sue, the symbols of the two dynamic forces. The sensual aspect in the character of Jude is externalised symbolically by Arabella and his intellectual ambition by Sue. There is a conflict between these two female characters who vie with each other in drawing the attention of Jude to themselves in order to get a mastery over him for realising their own peculiar and fanciful whims. It is a different matter if that fancy is restricted to a fleshly contact in the case of Arabella and an ideal spiritual attachment in the case of Sue.

      The manifestation of the crudeness of sensuality. Arabella is a woman with aggressive sensuality. She shamelessly throws at Jude the “pizzle” or the male organ of a slaughtered pig. After attracting the attention of Jude she requests him to call at their house the next Sunday for taking her out. Later on in their frequent association she finds ample opportunities to induce Jude to have sexual relations with her. She behaves like an animal pure and simple although the female of the species even in the animals is not found to take the initiative so very crudely. Thoroughly ignorant of a life of intellectual pursuits, Arabella shows scanty respect to Jude's books and aspirations for learning. Hardy calls her a woman of rank passions and she turns to Dr. Vilbert for sexual allurements as well as economic security when she finds no scope for either in Jude. Thus Arabella is a symbolic representation of the instinct of adherence to the flesh found in Jude who, despite his ardour for intellectual pursuits and ecclesiastical inclinations, succumbs to her seductive charms.

      The manifestation of the spiritual ardour. Hardy portrays Sue as a woman of rare intellectual acumen devoid of animal passion. The complexity of her character and her idiosyncrasies strike us remarkably and Hardy has in all probability intended her to symbolise the spiritual and intellectual aspect of Jude's character. Sue marries the schoolmaster Phillotson only on the understanding that he would not claim sexual contact with her. To satisfy her craving for an intellectual-romantic association with Jude she sets at nought all social etiquettes and norms of behaviour and lives with Jude very unconventionally but without any sexual contact. In so many words she makes Jude understand how different she is from the ordinary passionate women prone to the call of the flesh, love and lust. Jude justifiably addresses her as “You Spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear tantalizing phantom—hardly flesh at all”. Sue herself takes pride in being “a being too gentle to be human”.

      Eternal triangle with a remarkable difference. When two women become eager to associate with one man, although their expectations from him may be different, a battle is sure to be waged between them. That is the fact in regard to Sue and Arabella vis-a-vis Jude. Sue has nothing but contempt for Arabella. The very fact that Jude has spent a night with Arabella in a room in a hotel upsets Sue to the extent of crying. She cannot endure the fact that he has a soft corner in his heart for Arabella. Indeed, it is jealousy of Arabella that ultimately leads Sue to agree to having sexual relations with Jude. Arabella too becomes hostile to Sue and criticises her for having no notion of Love-making. When she loses her Australian husband she lays claim to Jude calling him more hers than Sue’s. She even criticises Phillotson for permitting Sue to live with Jude and betrays her own selfish eagerness to get back Jude for herself. After remarrying Jude she calls Sue a “strumpet”. This antagonism of the two women directed mutually with a terrific vehemence symbolises the deadly war between flesh and spirit in its bearing on Jude’s character and career.

      Jude's subjective struggle. This antagonism between sensuality, one hand, and intellectual and spiritual ardour, on the other, can be witnessed more remarkably in Jude's wavering vacillation between his innate inclination and the dictates of his nobler sense. His spiritual ardour is exemplified by - the desire he evinces to become a Christminster Scholar and when that becomes improbable an ecclesiastical clergyman. He becomes a failure due to his sensuality. The unvoiced call of a woman to a man makes him oblivious of his nobler aims in life. Forgetting all enthusiastic pursuits for scholastic achievements he falls prey to the sexual charms of Arabella. Even after Arabella has left him, Jude does not retrace his steps. He finds Sue and her charm fresh attractions. His temporary ardour in the realm of spirituality with the comforting persuasions of a hymn-composer also flop.

      Spirituality rudely shocked. An ardent kiss from Sue marks a turning point in Jude’s career and gives a rude shock to his theological studies. He blames women for his own weakness. Things proceed so artificially in his concept of life and its problems that he fails to bring about a happy synthesis of normal sex impulses and his own individual spiritual progress. He makes a bonfire of all his theological and ethical books and bids goodbye to them.

      Tussle between Jude and Sue. Jude becomes successful in prevailing upon Sue shortly after her marriage with Phillotson to live with him. But this step does not in any way help him. Sue loves Jude but not in the physical sense. She denies him also the pleasure of bodily contact thus accentuating Jude's struggle between spiritual aims and cravings of the flesh. The state of tension continues in regard to Jude as he is compelled to keep his flesh under control. He admits that the substance that he is made of is grosser and regrets that he has had to dance attendance on her too long with only poor returns. He challenges her to name a man capable of controlling his sensual desires while living in the same house with Sue.

      Unexpressed sourness of grapes. In his conflict Jude fails. He fails in his attempt to become an elite of the Christminster scholastic society. He is disappointed. He does not in so many words comfort himself by expressing openly that the grapes are sour, but her criticises Christminster vehemently saying that it allows horses to be kicked relentlessly. He finds his war as the war between the spirit of man and the obstructive flesh of a callous society. Man is constantly engaged in a fight against senseless circumstance. Whereas, after the death of her children, Sue feels that the wrath of Heaven has descended upon her for her violation of the sacrament of marriage ties, Jude is emphatic that man's enemy is only the society which acts rashly and ruthlessly. While watching the academic procession in Christminster Jude speaks helplessly to the spectators how frustration has undermined all his academic hopes. Thus the novelist hints that the fiery passion in Jude—the conflict between flesh and spirit—does not become extinct with age.

      Conclusion. The tragedy of Jude rises from social causes as well as human failings. Jude the Obscure is the story of a lonely individual involved in a personal terrible struggle, but, in this case, much of Jude’s fight is with himself: there is a constant conflict between his bright-eyed idealism and his grosser desires. Sue Bridehead, who wavers between the sexual attitudes of a normal child-bearing mother and those of the “new woman”, with her bachelor-girl independence and epicene tendencies, has within her own complex make-up an unresolved conflict which has a parallel with Jude’s but is essentially different. With the dry propriety and incompatibility of Phillotson and the fecund amiability of Arabella in the background, Jude and Sue are involved in a sexual struggle during the course of which, as George Wing observes, both are very badly hurt, and during which the whole complexity of normal canons is taken to pieces. The tragedy is not about whether flesh or spirit is victorious; it is the inability on the part of man to reconcile the two, to achieve a balance between the two, that leads to frustration and tragedy.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Consider Jude the Obscure as a tragedy in the light of Hardy’s view that the novel tells of “a deadly war between flesh and spirit”.


How far do you think Jude’s tragedy is due to the incompatibility of his passionate nature and spiritual aspirations?

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