Friday, December 26, 2008

A Bit of Radical-Feminist Analysis, from an Unexpected Source

Here I am, reading Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure --- a novel whose entire plot might well constitute an at least somewhat feminist protest against the constraints and entrapments of patriarchal marriage --- when I come across three passages that would not be out of place in a book of radical-feminist theory.

Sue was silent. "Is it wrong, Jude," she said with a tentative tremor, "for a husband or wife to tell a third person that they are unhappy in their marriage? If a marriage ceremony is a religious thing, it is possibly wrong; but if it is only a sordid contract, based on material convenience in householding, rating, and taxing, and the inheritance of land and money by children, making it necessary that the male parent be known --- which it seems to be --- why surely a person may say, even proclaim upon the housetops, that it hurts and grieves him or her?"
In the above passage, Sue (who is apparently a New Woman, that turn-of-the-last-century participant in and beneficiary of first-wave feminism) bemoans the simultaneous crass economic underpinnings and strict rules of etiquette in marriage, which conspire to cut the married person off from frank and emotionally satisfying discourse, and isolate her in her own doubts, discontents and anxieties.

Jude, will you give me away? ... I have been looking at the marriage service in the prayer-book, and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as there printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don't choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal. Bless your exalted views of woman, O churchman!
This hardly needs explanation; I do like that, though much of Jude is told from a male point of view, and accordingly most of its condemnations of patriarchal marriage issue from male characters' mouths, a female character writes these lines complaining of marriage's role in keeping alive the idea that women are property.

"What --- you'll let her go? And with her lover?"
"Whom with is her matter. I shall let her go; with him certainly, if she wishes. ..."
...
"But if people did as you want to do, there'd be a general domestic disintegration. The family would no longer be the social unit."
"Yes --- I am all abroad, I suppose!" said Phillotson sadly. "I was never a very bright reasoner, you remember. ... And yet, I don't see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man."
"By the Lord Harry! --- Matriarchy! ... Does she say all this too?"
(I love that last line, and the highly entertaining mental picture it leads me to conjure of this "Lord Harry" character. I imagine a pipe, a dressing gown and an expression of refined astonishment).

Finally, Jude himself (whom I have not quoted yet --- the speakers above are Jude's cousin Sue in the first two passages and Sue's husband Mr. Phillotson in the third) has this to say about the nuclear family:
The beggarly question of parentage --- what is it, after all? What does it matter, when you come to think of it, whether a child is yours by blood or not? All the little ones of our time are collectively the children of us adults of the time, and entitled to our general care. That excessive regard of parents for their own children, and their dislike of other people's, is, like class-feeling, patriotism, save-your-own-soul-ism, and other virtues, a mean exclusiveness at bottom.
Let's compare this last passage with some of Shulamith Firestone's thoughts on child-rearing; she, too, thought communal child-rearing* would be a more humane scheme:
But what about children? Doesn't everyone want children sometime in their lives? There is no denying that people now feel a genuine desire to have children. But we don't know how much of this is the product of an authentic liking for children and how much is a displacement of other needs. We have seen that parental satisfaction is obtainable only through crippling the child: The attempted extension of ego through one's children --- in the case of the man, the "immortalizing" of name, property, class, and ethnic identification, and in the case of the woman, motherhood as the justification of her existence, the resulting attempt to live through the child, child-as-project --- in the end damages or destroys either the child or the parent, or both when neither wins, as the case may be.
...
I shall now outline a system that I believe will satisfy any remaining needs for children after ego concerns are no longer part of our motivations. Suppose a person or a couple at some point in their lives desire to live around children in a family-size unit. While we will no longer have reproduction as the life goal of the normal individual --- we have seen how single and group nonreproductive life styles could be enlarged to become satisfactory to many people for their whole lifetimes and for others, for good portions of their lifetime --- certain people may still prefer community-style group living permanently, and other people may want to experience it at some time in their lives, especially during early childhood.

Thus at any given time a proportion of the population will want to live in reproductive social structures. Correspondingly, the society in general will still need reproduction, though reduced, if only to create a new generation.

The proportion of the population will be automatically a select group with a predictably higher rate of stability, because they will have had a freedom of choice now generally unavailable. Today those who do not marry and have children by a certain age are penalized: they find themselves alone, excluded, and miserable, on the margins of a society in which everyone else is compartmentalized into lifetime generational families, chauvinism and exclusiveness their chief characteristic. (Only in Manhattan is single living even tolerable, and that can be debated). Most people are still forced into marriage by family pressure, the "shotgun," economic considerations, and other reasons that have nothing to do with choice of life style. In our new reproductive unit, with the limited contract (see below), childrearing so diffused as to be practically eliminated, economic considerations nonexistent, and all participating members having entered only on the basis of personal preference, "unstable" reproductive social structures will have disappeared.

This unit I shall call a household rather than an extended family. The distinction is important: the word family implies biological reproduction and some degree of division of labor by sex, and thus the traditional dependencies and resulting power
relations, extended over generations; though the size of the family --- in this case, the larger numbers in the "extended" family --- may affect the strength of the hierarchy, it does not change its structual definition. "Household," however, connotes only a large grouping of people living together for an unspecified time, and with no specified set of interpersonal relations.


Though the two books approach the same problem from opposite angles --- Firestone's is a purely structural and political analysis, while Hardy's characters, lacking political consciousness, have only their own thoughts, feelings and experiences to guide them. They feel trapped by marriage laws and social strictures, and suspect that a freer, humaner way of life might be possible.

*At least, to the limited extent Firestone believed in childhood and the need of children to be reared at all, she felt it would best be handled communally, with the child hirself choosing which adults would feature most prominently in hir life.

5 comments:

shiva said...

I read Jude last year (while extremely depressed), and, while it didn't necessarily help me mood-wise, i was very impressed by it, especially as someone who generally dislikes Victorian literature - and, like you, i was surprised by how apparent and how radical Hardy's critique of marriage, religion and the nuclear family was in it.

Apparently (according to the introduction of the edition i read) it was regarded as scandalously radical at the time (critics called it "Jude the Obscene"), and several editions of it were censored in fairly major ways, including the removal of important plot points (won't say which ones as i don't know how far you've got...) - the critical reaction to it apparently caused Hardy to give up writing fiction.

I was vaguely planning to make Jude the subject of one of my future "Neurodiversity and Literature" posts, as i think (like with Jane Eyre) there's arguably an overlooked neurodiversity subtext/context to it - both Jude and Sue could, IMO, be interpreted as, if not on the autistic spectrum per se, then as neurodiverse individuals, and the stuff about their family history of failed or tragic sexual relationships hints at some sort of idea of some people being biologically not suited to mainstream social and relationship structures. (Sue's arguable asexuality and how that is pathologised by other characters is particularly interesting in that regard IMO...)

Then again, i do tend to deliberately read queerness and/or neurodiversity into texts where authors almost certainly didn't intend them (or at least argue for such interpretations)... but i do find a lot in both Jude and Sue to identify with.

If you like Hardy, i'd be very interested in your opinion of Mary Webb's Precious Bane, which i've just read...

Lindsay said...

I finished it now, so don't worry about spoilers. And yes, the introduction to mine also mentioned the "Jude the Obscene" thing.

I also agree that Sue and Jude read like neurodiverse people, although their difference was explained within the book as them being far to the "mind" side of the body-mind duality. Sue is obviously even further along this path than he is, with her asexuality and with his tendency, when she's not around, to dissolve into drink.

She actually reminded me a lot of what I've seen other autistic women write about gender, and not feeling themselves to be women really. Also, both she and Little Father Time had something I've always connected with my autism, which is being both too old and too young for one's age.

I like some Victorian writers; Hardy and Austen are two that reliably work for me. Emily and Charlotte Bronte, though --- judging by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights --- I don't like all that much, though the lady who wrote that article on Jane Eyre you showed me does say that Charlotte Bronte's Villette is the most "autistic" work by any of the sisters, and that she believes Emily Bronte to have been actually on the spectrum.

Lindsay said...

Also, I can't imagine reading this book while extremely depressed. I thought it was one of the saddest books I'd ever read!

shiva said...

Well, Austen is the writer who put me off Victorian literature in general...

I've heard claims that she was on the spectrum, but to me the books by her that i read in school seemed the epitome of neurotypical, gender-conforming shallowness. (Although i suppose it may have been that she was *satirising* such shallowness, and i wasn't satire-savvy enough to "get" that at the time...)

Re the censorship in Jude, in the serialised edition, Jude and Sue never had sex, and their children were retconned into adopted children. The murder-suicide and the miscarriage were edited out entirely.

Good to know that you also read both Jude and Sue as neurodiverse - i wasn't sure if on my part that was simply self-insertion and my tendency to always identify strongly with the protagonists of novels.

Body/mind dualism and "age-queerness" are two topics that i really need to post on...

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