Victorian Sexuality in Literature

Despite the familiar air of propriety so commonly associated with the Victorian Age, sex and sexuality were overtly portrayed and unofficially endorsed by many of the era’s most prominent writers. Novels like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure depicted the two aforementioned taboos as sources of legitimate happiness as well as catalysts for ultimate suffering. Though frequently associated with sin and the antithesis of Christian society, sexuality gradually became addressed and even carried with it several poets’ implications of admiration. Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” is heavy-handed in its acclamation of the female form, whereas Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese” are more suggestive in their content than overtly sexual. Writers would often represent sexuality in its traditional Victorian form, like, for example, an unholy catalyst incompatible with life. By using literary foils, writers could show other sides of sexuality that would erstwhile be condemned by the greater public. Others would suggest sexuality in the manifestation of assertive female characters and their passive male counterparts.

When juxtaposing characters with their foils, Victorian writers such as Hardy present two themes to be accepted. In a sort of political literary move, Hardy presents two situations in Jude the Obscure. The grisly suicide and murders of Jude and Sue’s children, Jude’s passing, and Sue’s consummation of her previous marriage with Phillotson can easily represent Hardy’s disdain with “the weakness of [religious] and social authorities,” who were powerless to prevent an incestuous, adulterous union; the family falls apart and all die but Sue, the only character who insists on returning to the marriages she and Jude once left behind. Hardy may have left Sue untouched to promote reader speculation as to her future, a moral exemplification of “social harmony,” its dependence “on the moral culture of the family,” and its “responsibility for reconciling [contradictory] impulses” regarding “social order and continuity”. Upon the deaths of her children, Sue echoes her wedding vows in futile attempts to win back Phillotson’s trust. She states that she “[supplicates herself]” before Richard, “to whom [she belongs]” and to whom she shall “honour and obey”. Ironically, sex becomes a focal point more during Jude’s marriage to Arabella and Sue’s final consummation with Phillotson than during Jude’s ongoing relationship with Sue. On the other hand, if Jude the Obscure is perceived as a tragedy, then the death of Jude’s children and the dissolution of his union with Sue is a testament to Hardy’s frustration with the Victorian social order and rejection of sexuality outside marriage. Jude’s elder child, Juey, was the only child to be born in wedlock. The son of Jude and Arabella, Juey is representative of society, and to a point, religion’s hand of retribution. It is shortly after the young boy becomes cognizant that his new mother Sue and his father Jude are not married that he learns of the hardships they face. After Jude is dismissed from his masonry projects in the Christminster cathedral, Juey learns of the economic strain his new family bears, and when his parents are away, kills his siblings and himself. Thus, the young boy’s parents are fully punished for their deed at the hand of the only member of their family not born of sin or immersed in it. What furthers Hardy’s novel as a tragic story is Jude’s inability to secure a stable union. Following Sue’s abdication of their relationship, she stays with Phillotson, and they conceivably remain in good health, while Jude returns to Arabella and dies in bed while she is off with another man. The imagery of Jude’s death in the bed he shares with his lawfully wedded wife is the ultimate tragic picture. Defeated by society and finally by the woman he loves, Jude spiritually and physically resigns himself to death, imprisoned into a marriage on which society will not allow him to turn his back. While he dies, his love, Sue, is consummating a physical union with her lawfully married husband, Phillotson. In his book A Prison of Expectations, Steven Mintz purports that Hardy’s disgust with society’s accepted traditions and forms is not entirely unimaginable. Arabella, the perennial social and economic climber, represents the “mean acquisitiveness and narrow selfishness [that dominated the Victorian] public sphere, [turning love into a] quest for power and possession”. Under such circumstances, certain Victorians “declared that the whore was less selfish than the lover”; a whore, after all, sought nothing more than what was owed for service, whereas the maligned Victorian pessimist lover aspired to use its counterpart and its emotions. By vilifying the institution of marriage, Victorian writers humanized sexuality and embraced it as possibly more natural than contractual unions.

The juxtapositions of Arabella and Sue present another side of obliquity in the Victorian representation of sexuality. It is questionable which of the two is the real female protagonist. On the one end is Sue, the devoted woman of propriety who is Jude’s ideological “twin sister and counterpart”; she “can live neither with Jude nor without him”. Sue initially shares Jude’s views on marriage, unable to marry Phillotson and stay enrolled in school, representative of society’s expectations. Arabella is an intolerable, inarticulate, sexually charged woman who constantly mistreats Jude, first in lying about her pregnancy and then in leaving Marygreen for Australia, where she remarries. However, Sue, the formerly accused “sexless” foil to Arabella manipulates Jude, torturing him with her indecision. As soon as “Sue is engaged to Phillotson,” she begins reciprocating Jude’s hints of affection, sending her cousin “passionate letters that seem to close the psychic distance between them in a way that they can never quite imitate in person”. Scholar and critic Ramon Saldivar writes that letters effectively “separate the writer from the effects of the message,” as “the message received is often one created by the reader himself”. Sue’s manipulation is empowered by her ability to dissociate herself from what she wrote; at worst, she could claim that Jude’s feelings of her affection were manifestations of his own desires. When the two are together, Sue initially does not reciprocate any of Jude’s advances, even stripping down before him while he quivers, trying to dampen his lust for her. The so-called “sexless” Sue uses sex as a means of control, exploiting temptation to drive Jude slowly mad with passion. Conversely, Arabella is representative of all things opposite of Victorian propriety. She seduces Jude into marriage, is sexually insatiable, and while she also uses sex to climb socially, she does not toy with his affections, and her departure from Jude’s life rarely causes him to flinch. Arabella, though she is constantly sexually charged, is always with a husband. If not Jude, she is with Cartlett. When not with Cartlett, she returns to Jude. Hardy’s multi-dimensional sexual women beg the question of his true intent. Hardy could have easily intended Sue to become the manifestation of his diatribe against marriage, as Jude is easily happier with Sue than he ever was with Arabella. However, Arabella is not the cause of Jude’s deteriorated health and eventual death. She is consistent throughout her marriages and relationships and is assertive to a point Sue’s indecision cannot afford. In this manner, Arabella’s unchecked sexuality can be perceived as favourable. Sue’s relative propriety and mild sexual drive can be perceived as evil, as she never sates Jude at the onset of their incestuous relationship, nor can she make him happy in the end when she conceivably sates Phillotson. The obliquity of Victorian sexuality’s representation also repeats itself in the manifestation of sex outside wedlock. Jude’s relative harmony and functional relationship with Sue is against all of society’s proprietary boundaries, whereas his tumultuous relationship with Arabella the pig-slayer is one of violent anger and dysfunction (albeit one of social acceptance). Both women have a stronghold over Jude and his aspirations; they mould him as a character, and most importantly, as the male in a Victorian novel. At different parts of the plot, both “Arabella, and most strikingly, Sue, become the figures of an ideal paradise, which is fundamentally inaccessible, insofar as it is one more metaphor in a structuring system of substitutions and exchanges of phantasmal dreams” . Both represent an ideological state once desired by Jude. Arabella is the accepted “paradise,” the one that finds Jude theoretically as a father and husband. Sue, on the other hand, represents Jude’s desires that arguably exist because they are forbidden. Both women also appeal to him sexually, which, with Jude’s aunt’s allusion to an unmarriageable ancestor, ties into the plot point dictating Jude’s inevitable demise. So, while both Arabella and Sue have a commanding control over the novel’s namesake and protagonist, both oscillate from acting within the realm of propriety to asserting themselves in socially unacceptable methods.

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