'Jude the Obscure' by Thomas Hardy and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' by John Fowles

By considering the extent to which individuals and their actions are determined and limited by the rules and conventions of Victorian society, discuss the views conveyed to the reader by Hardy and Fowles - 'Jude the Obscure' by Thomas Hardy and 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' by John Fowles introduction. John Fowles and Thomas Hardy both write on very similar subjects; their stories circulate around very strong, rebellious women who are fighting the social conformities set down by their male oppressors. These male writers use their novels to convey their social and political views by placing their characters in situations in which they usually have two courses of action; that is, either to conform or rebel.

The outcomes of these choices work to highlight the opinions of the writers, and the hardship of characters in both novels communicates the overwhelming pressures of society. However, the two writers were writing in completely different time periods, and this gives the messages of each novelist very different meanings. Hardy was writing in the mid 1800s, when his views would have been considered outrageous. Writing about events occurring around him would have put his reputation at great risk, and his views were seen as blasphemy.

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The first of his kind, Hardy took a great risk in releasing this work to the public, however, in doing so, he was able to draw attention to the very controversial subject of women’s rights, a subject, that was, in his time, taboo. Fowles, on the other hand, took no such risk. Writing in the post-feminist 1960s, he was able to look in retrospect to many years of women’s liberation, and know that he was conforming to popular opinion. Although he shares views very similar to Hardy, and possibly was influenced by them, there is nothing ground breaking about them, and he only works to reinforce the words of Hardy.

However, both writers do make very valid comments on the involvement of society and its conventions in the lives of individuals, and constantly asks the question, ‘How can we strive for individualism in a society which, necessarily, needs rules and conventions to protect its citizens from chaos’, and in the case of each novel, the reader is left questioning their own conformity. In Hardy’s work, his characters Jude and Sue are both considered to be of inferior social groups; Jude because of his class, and Sue for her gender.

Because of the frustrations that they encounter, they fundamentally understand the other’s struggle, and through this they share a common bond and this becomes the basis of their relationship. Likewise, Charles and Sarah from Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ have a bond born of rejection from society. However, in this case their circumstances are far more complicated. Fowles’ Charles rebels against his society so that he would be able to join Sarah in her exile, believing that she too has acted in a dishonourable way.

However, we discover that Sarah did not give away her chastity to the ‘French Lieutenant’, and that her exile has been of her own choosing. Although publicly her reputation has been tarnished, she is safe in the knowledge that she had acted honourably, something that Charles tragically failed to understand. As Diane Saunder says, ‘[Sarah] prefers to be a visible social pariah rather than one who attempts to reform and assimilate into society’, and this is one of Sue’s characteristic traits throughout the novel.

Although she favours her social disapproval because she is able to live a ‘free’ life, she also acts as a Martyr in order to be a representation ‘of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year’, the woman who was forced to undergo the same treatment, but who decide not to speak out about it. The fact that Sarah has in fact not broken any of the rules of society goes to show how important a person’s social image really was, as she was stigmatised for pure rumour.

But Sarah was free in her new life; with this social disapproval she was able to live as she wished, no longer needing the approval of society in order to decide upon her path. Charles, on the other hand, for much of the novel, does not understand how free Sarah really is. He is attracted to her wildness, and he wishes to marry her, which is going against all that she stands for. However, the reader, like Charles, does not begin to understand Sarah until late in the novel, and it is not until the reader discovers what she has voluntarily sacrificed that we realise how much her freedom means to her.

Part of the freedom of both Sarah and Sue was the fact that they were taking control of their lives, and were independent in their thinking. With these two, the authors were making reference to a character trait that was appearing in the Victorian novel, that of the ‘New Woman’. Cedric Watts describes the ‘fictional New Woman’ as someone who is: ‘intelligent, lively, articulately forthright, capable of pursuing her own career, sexually daring … and resistant to the conventional claims of marriage’ nd so, he has described the characteristics of both Sue and Sarah.

Both of these women are educated to an extent so that they are no longer considered to be ‘simple women’ and can engage and challenge their male partners. With these two is created a sense of the unknown, and it is often made obvious of how uncommon their behaviour is, and so to emphasise this, they are juxtaposed against women of very contrasting characteristics with Sue set against Arabella, and Sarah against Ernestina.

With these two, the stereotypical Victorian woman is shown, as they are content with fulfilling the set down ‘wife-and-mother’ role. This juxtaposition also works to show the favourable traits of the ‘New Woman’. However, neither novelist shows this way of life as an easy one, and so, as with the other rebellious characters, they are shown severe persecution, such as was felt by the ‘New Women’ which was appearing in the ‘real’ world. However, the novels were not only written to highlight new ideas, they worked to show the social reactions to these ideas.

Through Charles in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ we are given an insight into the consequences social defiance, we follow him from being a loving fianci??, through to becoming outlawed from his social circles. Although we follow the same journey with Hardy’s characters, Fowles’ retrospective, omniscient perspective means that all aspects of his characters’ being ostracised can be given in great detail. Hardy was not a member of the gentry class, and so had not had experience of a person’s social rejection from that perspective, and this shows in his novel.

Although we see that Jude and Sue’s treatment is a result of society’s reaction to how they are living their lives, we do not see the action actions and opinions of members of the higher classes, and so, in this way, we are only able to see the consequences of society’s actions, not the actions themselves. In Fowles’ case, however, we see how Mr Freeman forces Charles to sign a declaration of guilt, and a number of other cases where the workings and reactions of society are actually shown. The two novels work together to create a fuller picture of how the actions of social constraints affect individual people.

Although Hardy’s limited perspective could possibly have been a disadvantage to the novel’s content, it works so that the reader is left with the same nai??ve perspective of Jude, and so gives a greater insight into his motivations. Jude does not see the corruption of society (represented by the University of Christminster), and so he is left with romanticised notions which prevent him realising the prejudices held against him, as Diane Sauder says, ‘Christminster is seen by Jude as spiritual, in opposition to ugly utilitarian Marygreen’.

Along with this romanticised view of events, Hardy’s characters are very passionate about their choices and the way that they live their lives. By using this trait, Hardy is able to pose arguments about society by having his characters defend their ways. Although ‘Jude the Obscure’ was written partly to be an entertaining story, large portions of the text, more so than is conventional in a novel, are dedicated to communicating the voice of its author.

At several points, such as when Jude is addressing the crowds upon his return to Christminster, where he poses a question discussing whether a young man should ‘follow uncritically the track he finds himself in, without considering his aptness for it’, the reader is removed from the story so that they can be addressed directly. Although the discussion following Jude’s argument is very engaging, it seems completely out of place in the narrative, the novel forgets the story, and the characters’ involvement becomes inconsequential.

At these times the novel becomes more a written argument against the constraints of society than a work of fiction. However, this seems like a criticism, and the way that Hardy has placed his views throughout the novel like this is not entirely surprising. As I have already said, this novel was met with severe disapproval; however, Hardy was able to pose his opinions in a far subtler way by adding them into a story rather than announcing them publicly. He was probably able to reach a far greater audience using this method.

Fowles uses his novel in much the same way, but instead of hiding his views behind a story, he actively removes the narrator and poses arguments straight. This method allows the reader to actually consider the opinions of the author, rather than just accepting the subliminal suggestions of Hardy. However, comparing the two like this suggests that Fowles has been far more open with his audience, and awards him some form of ‘courage’, and this is not the case. Looking at the social context of the novels shows that Hardy had no other way to deliver his arguments than in this way.

As his novel progresses it frequently takes on the form of a piece of persuasive writing, and many of the arguments posed are structured in almost essay form. Ironically, it was social constraints that he was fighting against which forced him to write in this oblique way. Although Hardy and Fowles do have differing styles, their messages are almost exactly the same. They have both written moralistic stories which communicate their views by showing how the pressures of society have caused the degradation of key characters, and although the character’s failure is inevitable, the reader knows that they ‘should’ succeed.

If this destruction did not occur, the fundamental evil of society would not have so clearly been illustrated. It is the hope of success that is the main driving force of each novel, and the reader is compelled to have faith in the naive dreams of the characters. The novelists do pose very desirable visions of the future where people can live as they like and where their choices are not governed by the overbearing opinions of others, a future not too dissimilar from our own present. The problem with these visions is that they invariably conflict with the social systems in place, and so they are fundamentally doomed.

When we first meet Jude he is a young man with aspirations of academia, his innocent view of the world means that he is unaware of the hard truth, that he is having ‘ideas above his station’. With the many people around him telling him that he cannot succeed, his ambitions are only given further strength. It is with this pure ambition that he is able to educate himself, gain some knowledge and become extremely close to his final goal of university acceptance. However, it is then that he must rely on the help of others, others of a higher class, and we are reminded of society’s role in the novel.

And this is how Hardy has structured his whole story, by giving his characters drive he allows them to succeed, up to a point, and from then on he demonstrates the crushing effect that society has upon a person’s life. By allowing them to have some hope of success, their downfall is far more dramatic. Charles, on the other hand, for a long time fails to understand, as his ‘cultured’ upbringing prevents him from doing so, that is until he is forced to undergo the same treatment upon breaking his engagement. Shunned by his town’s popular society, he is pressured into the ‘outside world’ that Sarah has worked hard to become part of.

Although it is a difficult process, Charles begins to realise how free the world is away from society’s ‘sharp eyes’. He soon adapts to his new life, and thrives in the new land of America. This is what makes Charles such an interesting character. Throughout the novel, Fowles is makes references to Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”. Charles is a strong Darwinist, and believes heartedly in a theory call ‘Survival of the fittest’. Darwin said, that in order for a species to adapt, it must have the ability to change and adapt to its environment.

Fowles intended the reader to connect these theories with Charles’ behaviour. By moving to America we are seeing him adapt to his situation, and within this environment he is able to thrive in a community that is young and fresh. Both he and Sarah have adapted to their lives and situations, and so they will survive they considered being ‘fit’ examples of the species. Although looking at this situation from a modern perspective, it might seem as if Charles’ views on evolution are far more logical and intelligent than the strict religious practices of his time, his peers would not have held the same view.

The theories of Darwin were highly controversial in his time, and he did not actually did not release them for many years because he feared their rejection. It is difficult to understand why a sophisticated society would disapprove so dramatically to a theory that we now hold as fact, however there mere suggestion that intelligent human beings had evolved from simple monkey’s was highly offensive, and totally contradicted the teachings of the Christian bible; they were considered by some to be blasphemous.

And so, in this subtle way, Charles is rebelling against the social norm from the very beginning of the novel, and this is a suggestion of his open-mindedness to a way of life different to that set down for him, possibly a life with Sarah. Whereas Fowles is able to create a world away from what his characters have been rebelling against, a world in which they will be able to adapt, represented by the ‘new’ country of America, Hardy’s characters are forced to endure the hardships of a world that they cannot escape.

Trapped by their class and the lack of money which goes with that, we see Jude and Sue unable to adapt to a new environment, and so we see them instead trying to adapt their environment to suit them. Although they are outsiders in their claustrophobic society, they do not have the chance to become fully become detached from it, and so cannot enjoy the freedom of Fowles’ characters. When we first meet Sue, she has already been cast as an outsider, her religious views marking her as different from the norm. However, unlike Sarah she has not found a partner who strives for the same exile.

While Jude’s thinking is different to what is socially acceptable, the life that he wishes to lead is solely reliant on gaining place within society; he dreams of becoming a scholar, marrying Sue, and raising a family with her. Dreams not shared by the independently minded Sue who, as we are frequently reminded, wishes for a platonic life with her love, Jude. While the differences between the two are subtle, and they still share many aspirations, they are finally driven apart by the social pressures that Sue so desperately wanted to escape, and Jude forced upon her.

By allowing Sue to express her objections to marriage in this way, Hardy is able to voice his opinions of the marriage institution. Both authors share the idea that this ceremony is a product of society and so is connected with its many hypocrisies and corruptions. Jude and Sue each endure unhappy marriages, and it is only when they are living in their platonic relationship that they are able to distance themselves from this social contract that Sue believes will be the death of their love.

In this, she is correct, because as soon as the couple begin to behave as an ‘orthodox’ family unit with Jude and Sue playing the roles of man and wife the strains of society really begin to take their toll. Before then they were aware they cannot be part of society, and do not try to be; they are happy in their exile. Trying to integrate themselves into acceptable society proves to be impossible, and so they are finally cast out, their love destroyed as Sue had predicted.

Fowles’ Sarah also sees marriage as a reason for rebellion, as in one of his two endings we see Fowles’ character deciding to live as part of a mixed gender commune. This way of life, which is seen as completely unacceptable by society, is the one way that she will be safe from the prying opinions of others, and she is once again able to live her life as she wishes. However, her lover, Charles, does not share her wish for complete detachment from the world that he has come to depend upon.

Although he is vehement in his wanting to join her in her rebellion, he cannot comprehend her distaste for marriage, and it is only when he discovers that he is father to her child that the reader can see any future for the couple. And so, like Jude, Charles is not totally free of his ties to social acceptance and is unable to fully let himself become detached. These two share many characteristics, one being that they do not share the steadfast, rebellious spirit of the women that they are following, and so they clash because of a difference in objectives.

Without these clashes it is possible that they would have been able to live out their lives in the way that they had wished. Perhaps it is the oppression that the female characters of the novels have suffered which has caused them to rebel to such extremes. Although Jude and Charles feel the need to defy some of the social rules set down, Sarah and Sue have become completely disenchanted with what society has to offer them, and so they are prepared to lose all contact with that way of life, even if that means suffering persecution for their choices.

However, what leads to the tragic end of Sue is the fact that by the latter stages of the novel, she no longer has any anyone to share the problems of her life with. Jude becomes enveloped in his idea of attaining a scholarship (if not for himself, then for his son) and so she is forced to face the burdens of society alone. It turns out that although she is becoming a ‘new woman’, she is not yet fully self-reliant, her spirit is crushed by the fact that she believes that she has committed a sin.

Her conscience forces her to return to her safe but unhappy life with Phillotson. This ending is so frustrating because the reader knows how close she and Jude were in succeeding in their goal of freedom, Sue, however, is a representation of thousands of women who strived for the same goals. Her failure is symbolic of theirs. Without the hardships endured by all characters across the two novels, the authors would not have been able to fully illustrate the crushing effects of society, and so we are shown that suffering is fundamentally part of an independent life.

However, With Sarah, Fowles is able to show how someone with motivation can thrive given the right circumstances. By finding like-minded people, in the form of her commune, she is able to construct her own form of society with its own rules, orders and constraints. Within this microcosm she can thrive in an environment away from that which does not understand her; in a sense, within her own world she is ‘free’.

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