(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Dharmendra Kumar Singh
In this world, each and every one is worried about the existence and essence of one’s current life—its meaning, purpose, and confrontations— and impending death. In reality, the thought of life and death exists in each and every sphere of one’s thoughts without giving any comfort, except discomfort in all situations, circumstances and conditions. However, one makes it worse by worrying more, thinking more, and fretting more, unnecessarily. Day by day, one turns one’s life from bad to worse. One makes one’s life hell without enjoying what one has in hand. Such hellish life gives birth to the suicidal thoughts, consequently, one commits suicide. Existentialism, as a philosophy, deals both with life and death— natural and voluntary. Where there it talks about life, there it talks about the both types of death—natural and voluntary—without any partiality. But, when it deals with the question of death, it tries to answer the unanswerable question whether natural death is good, or unnatural. Both the groups of the existentialists (Theist and Atheist), try to present their ‘cause and effect’ along with their pros and cons. Additionally, they present the circumstances in which the suicidal thoughts take birth. This present paper makes an attempt to explore the philosophical problem of suicidal thoughts which give birth to suicide in the text of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure through the eyes of the existentialists—Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Jaspers. In the present article, textual as well as contextual praxis of suicide as a philosophical problem is explored, analyzed, and presented with the help of the appropriate references and contexts descriptively. The characters who commit suicide are put into two groups, the first group is of those who commit suicide, and the second is of those who live with the suicidal thoughts and die in bits every moment. From the existentialists’ lenses, after an impartial exploration in the novel Jude the Obscure, the findings which this paper finally presents is that suicide is permitted, but in conditions.
Keywords:Abnegation, Divine irresponsibility, Proto-existentialist, Nausea, Menny, Rota Fortunae, Existence, Essence
Thomas Hardy who is, chiefly, considered as a renowned ‘Victorian realist’ is often called the ‘Proto-existentialist’. For, most of his works as well as his ways of life, his works as well as his biographies witness his leaning towards the philosophy of existentialism— its approaches, issues, beliefs, concepts, and themes. Wikipedia reports that “many of his novels concern tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances” (Wikipedia-Thomas Hardy). In most of his tragic novels, a few romances, and a few fantasies— whether it is Mayor of Casterbridge, or Tess of the d’Urbervilles; whether it is Return of the Native, or A Pair of Blue Eyes, whether it is Jude the Obscure or Far From the Madding Crowds, etc.—there is persistently self-made, self-imposed, and self-conscious isolation, maddening alienation, brooding tension, ceaseless confrontation, hearty boredom, and self-abnegation which often arouse the whirlwind of suicidal thoughts in both major and minor characters. They are often seen with the feelings and passions of sickness unto death caused by the confrontations between their visions and the realities of the cosmos. These confrontations snatch the calmness of their soul, serenity of their mind, and peace of their heart. They force them to pass through the furnace of such a hellish life as is full of mental agony, physical torture, and psychological estrangement, and which lead combinedly to resurgent suicidal thoughts which paves the rough road for hara-kiri—the destruction of the self or self-inflicted death.
In English language and literature, the neology of suicide is related to Sir Thomas Browne. The credit of coining the word ‘SUICIDE” goes to him. He does so in the book Religio Medici in 1643. Coining does not matter lots. What matters lots is the question and condition of suicide. For, it poses difficult questions as whether it is ethics, or metaphysics; whether it is epistemology, or aesthetics; whether it is logic, or ontology, or any other branch of philosophy. It is answered variously by various philosophers. Here, everywhere is Munde Munde Matir Bhinna. None agrees others to disagree. Such is with the existentialists and their philosophy of recurrent thoughts of suicide. Most of the forms of existentialism primarily start with the notion that life is objectively meaningless, birth purposeless, and cosmos absurd; and pursue the question as to why one should not commit suicide. They (existentialists), then, answer this question by suggesting that one has the potential capability to give personal meaning to life. For, one is free to choose one’s way what one likes and for what one is responsible. This freedom of choice and sense of responsibility makes one’s essence which, if satisfactory, mothers will to live long and long, and if unsatisfactory, fathers the existential crises, frustration, and depression, the parson of the suicidal thoughts which lead to suicide. When one scrutinizes the existentialists, especially, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers, one finds that they have made a great fuss about the philosophical problem of suicidal thoughts, the father of suicide. In existentialism, its philosophical stances are generally divided into two groups. The first group of the existentialists which is called ‘Theist’ is dominated by Soren Kierkegaard, while the second group which is called ‘Atheists’ is dominated by Sartre, Camus, and Nietzsche, the trio of the group. But in the context of suicidal thoughts or self-immolation, where the former group condemns it, there the latter group tends towards it with a great toleration. They give it a conditional support.
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian as well as a philosopher, poet of suffering torments, trenchant social critic, and religious author, is often called the father of existentialism. He belongs to the first group of the existentialists. It is the book Sickness unto Death, in which, he mostly reflects his views on suicide. According to him, “despair is the root and cause of all suicidal thoughts which cause self-destruction. He discards the rumination of self-homicide as an outright barrier to an awakening of the self to its own sinful condition. He writes that suicide “for spirit is the most crucial sin” (Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death. P. 46), and goes on describing comparatively what attitude towards suicide (death) is that of the Pagans and of the Christians. In other words, on the basis of the aforementioned book, it can be said that he is against the suicide. For, he considers it as a sin both on intellectual and religious grounds. In this context Wittgenstein, who was mostly affected by Kierkegaard, writes:
Wenn etwas nicht erlaubt ist, dann ist alles erlaubt. Wenn etwas nicht erlaubt ist, dann ist der selbstmord nicht erlaubt. Dies wirft ein Licht auf das wesen der Ethik. Denn der selbstmord ist sozusagen die elementare sunde. Und wenn man ihn untersucht, so ist es, wie wenn man den quecksilberdampf untersucht, um das wasen des Dampfes zu erfassen. Oder ist nicht auch der Selbstmord an sich weder gut noch bose! (Ludwig Wittgenstein 187)
(“If suicide is permitted, then, anything is permitted. If there is anything that is not permitted, suicide is not permitted. This illuminates the essence of ethics because suicide, so to speak, is an elementary sin. And when one examines it, it is as though one were to examine mercury vapor to capture the essence of vapor. Or is it that even suicide is neither good nor evil as such!” (Translated by Martin Klebes, in the article “Mutiny of an Error: Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on Suicide”).
After Soren Kierkegaard, next comes Albert Camus, the French-Algerian essayist, novelist, playwright, and one of the chief theoretician of existentialism who, in the opening line of the first paragraph of his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, writing on suicide says—
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether mind has nine or twelve categories—comes forwards. These are games; one must find the answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it precedes the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays 4).
Further, in the same book, he regards seppuku only as a ‘social phenomenon’ which is not good. It is utterly and completely wrong. One must pay attention to the ‘relationship between individual’s thought and suicide. For, without understanding their correlation, it can never be understood. For, the ground for it is always prepared within the silence of one’s heart. In this context, he writes:
Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that that experience had "undermined" him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man's heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays 5).
If aforementioned lines are observed with the view of grasping denotative meaning, it becomes clear as crystal that, for Camus, the goal of ‘Absurdism’ is in the initiation whether suicide is an irresistible response to a world which appears to be mute on the question of God’s existence, and on one’s search for meaning and purpose of life in this universe. The chief object of his ‘Absurd’ discourse is to solve the tangle of suicide. It is another thing that for Camus, suicide is the rejection of freedom. He thinks that running away from the absurdity of reality into illusion, into religion, or into demise is not off-centre. In lieu of escaping from the nothingness of the absurd life, one must cuddle life devotedly and fervidly in all conditions and situations. Finally, it can be said, as it seems, that he has greater advocacy for embracing life, as it is, rather than committing suicide.
But for Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre, one of the key figures of existentialism, French novelist, playwright, political activist, and literary critic, it (the philosophy of suicide’s suicidal thoughts) is completely and utterly changed. According to him, by nature, existentialism is optimistic, not pessimistic. One’s destiny resides within oneself, whatever one feels, whatever one thinks— be it nausea, or absurd, or anguish, or anything else— affects one’s freedom of choice. One does not choose one’s existence, but one is responsible for it. One discovers one day that one exists. On the other hand, one also discovers one day that one does not wish to exist. One wishes to run away from one’s self, from one’s own being. Consequently, one sees the rays of hope in suicide, and, thus, catches its ways. For one, death seems to be a possibility. But it can’t be understood as a possibility of consciousness because it can’t conceive of its own death. Sartre states that self-destruction is always chosen. It is not a choice to die rather than to live. In the context of Sartre’s views on suicide, in the article “Sartre: Suicide and Responsibility”, Mollie Lord writes:
Suicide is both a personal and an ultimate act. To reflect upon it is to reflect upon that which we call ‘the self’ and about the value and meaning of life. When we look at john Paul Sartre’s metaphysical way of looking at self destruction we learn that the way we look at suicide equates to the way we look at life itself. The way we look at life in the natural world. This could be described as natural metaphysics. It requires an examination of what we call courage, morality, loyalty, and humility (1).
In the same context of the moments of utter despair in which suicidal thoughts take birth, Sartre writes:
Nothing is ever too much what occurs is acknowledgement of defeat. I never have to have an excuse, this freedom is mine and mine alone I am defeated. I never have to have an excuse, this freedom is mine and mine alone. I assume for ever that terrible responsibility not only for my own death but for the consequences of that death. (From Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted by Mollie Lord 2).
Further, in this context, in the Character Analysis of Meursault in the Sranger by Albert Camus, describing the position of the protagonist Meursault who is condemned to death, Sartre writes:
The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusion…and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the “divine irresponsibility” of the condemned man (The Stranger 6).
What Sartre writes here, can’t be ignored. For, as he thinks, the cosmic absurdities can’t kill one who is really absurd. If something kills one, it is one’s suicidal thoughts which are caused by fear, anguish and responsibility. Giving an emphasis on existence, he says that one is free to choose different alternatives. Suicide is one of them. It is one’s choice which can’t be taken away from one in any condition. Whatever it is, it is one’s choice to die rather than to live. Condemnation of Altona, in his play The Condemned of Altona, is the witness of this thought.
In this context, Martin Heidegger does not seem to be agreed to Jean-Paul Sartre. So for as, when Martin Heidegger’s views on suicide and death are looked at, it is found that he thinks that the existence of human beings can be established on a purely phenomenological basis without reference to a deity or the concept of immortality. About death, he thinks “The end of the world – is death. The ‘end’ that belongs to existence limits and defines the whole of Existence….Death is just a fellow Existence” (Heidegger, 302). He views death as a fate that allows one to find meaning, and thus be one’s most authentic self. For him, death by suicide is a bogus experience for existence. To him, it causes disturbance for existence. Thus, he never advocates for suicide.
In the frame work of linguistic context, Karl Jaspers transcends the word “Suicide” by three meaningful open-ended phrases—‘the law of the day’, ‘the passion for the night’, and ‘free death’. According to him, human existence is suspended between ‘the law of the day (Objective thought)’ and ‘the passion of the night (existential aspirations)’. In-between of the twos (‘the law of the day’ and ‘the passion of the night’), dwells the ‘free death (in Nietzsche’ word voluntary death)’ which may go either way—the way of making, or the way of marring. For him, dying decisions involve excruciating pain. It (self-dying) can be difficult, and if unsuccessful, there are great risks not only for the self, but also for others. Consequently, he never votes for suicide. About all it, in his article “Jaspers’ Thought, Its Meaning, Effect, Timeline”, Leonard H. Ehrlich writes:
There is also the opinion abroad according to which the concept of Existenz was a mark of the early Jaspers and, that of Reason of the later period. This myth can easily be disproved simply by reading Jaspers. One of many possible examples: in volume 3 of Philosophy, he discusses the opposites “Law of the Day” vs. “Passion for night”. According to Jaspers’ subtle formulation, with the law of the day, i.e., the light of reason, Existenz is at one with itself; but Existenz is removed from its integrity in the passion for night, i.e. in the darkness of human drives, in what is natural, in imponderable nature (Leonard H. Ehrlich 2010).
Additionally, he talks about ‘Free Death’ which indicates ‘Voluntary Death’ that depends on conditions. In-betweens ‘The Law of the Day’ and ‘The Passion for the Night’ dwells ‘The Free Death’ which sets all right.
As a matter of fact, when Nietzsche is read between the lines, it is found that he often deals with the issue of suicide on several occasions, but in such a way which is full of diversions. For, his earlier thoughts differ from his latter thoughts. In his earlier days, as his works reflect, he considers, self-slaughter, as a fully logical and natural act for its nature of (re)affirming one’s freedom and will. In the book Beyond Good and Evil, he writes: “people should leave life as Odysseus parted from Nausicaa— with more blessing than ardor” (Nietzsche. 62). But in his latter days, he changes his views. These are the days when due to his bending towards religion, he thinks voluntary death, as it seems, unnatural. For, the religious sermons ignore the meaninglessness of the man’s existence and the absurdity of the cosmos. To him, it (voluntary death) is multiple—a freedom over body and a freedom over death as well. Thus, it becomes a supreme affirmation of freedom and will. But again, he defends the rationality of suicide—self-dying. According to him, “The thought of suicide is a strong means of comfort: it helps get us through many an evil night” (Nietzsche 70). But in his latter days, as his works witness, he rejects his earlier thoughts. He says that to live or not to live depends on our spiritual strength which can be obtained only through a revaluation of the old values which have been devalued at present. With the help of these old values, one can endure the vacuity of existence and absurdity of the cosmos. Such revaluation of the old values, thus, becomes the key to conquer the nihilistic attitude towards life and the resulting pining for death. This is the reason why he rejects his former thoughts related to suicide in the latter days of his career.
On the basis of the thoughts of the major existentialists, especially of Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers, it can be said that the suicidal thoughts which are the result of the existential vacuum and which lead to suicide, are an extreme form of existential angst where one rejects the freedom begotten by the act of being responsible for one’s action and gives into the inherent meaningfulness of the world. Thus, for the most of the existentialists, suicidal thoughts which lead to suicide are not absurd. They are the things which do not let one yield to the absurdity of the cosmos. Although most of the existentialists differs lots with one another in this context, such ideological differences of their own present the pros and cons of suicidal thoughts which lead to suicide. Where Sartre supports it as an alternative, there Kierkegaard, Camus and Heidegger successively condemn it calling a sin, a rejection of freedom, and an inauthentic experience for existence. Where Karl Jaspers talks about the risks of the failures of suicide, there Nietzsche swings like a pendulum for sometimes supporting and sometimes opposing it.
The circumference of existentialism is too broad. Although it is centered on the axis of philosophy, its radius with the help of the arcs of its themes and concepts touches each and every segment of learning that combinedly help to complete the apprehension of the circle of man’s existence and essence which are diametrically spread from birth to death. The field of literature does not remain untouched. Throughout the world, a number of the writers are, directly or indirectly, affected by the thoughts, concepts, and themes of the existentialism which the existentialists set.
English literature is also not aloof from it. For, it affects many writers, but, chiefly, W. H. Auden, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett. Thomas Hardy is no exception. He seems to be a progeny of the existentialists in the context of thoughts, themes, and concepts which they contribute to humanity to surmount the puzzle of existence and essence. He too resembles the Existentialists lots in the context of suicidal thoughts which lead one to suicide. Most of his novels, for instance, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Return of the Native, Mayor of the Casterbridge, Far From the Madding Crowds, and Jude the Obscure either deal with suicidal thoughts or with suicide. Where in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess is often bounded with suicidal thoughts, but mostly when she is unable to tell Angel her past, there in Return of the Native, the death of Eustacia Vye is thought to be an act of suicide. Where in Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard is seen haunted by suicidal thoughts, there in Far from the Madding Crowds, Farmer Boldwood is portrayed as a suicidal character. But Jude the Obscure is exemplary for two things: firstly, for dealing the suicide or suicidal thoughts with three generations of Jude’s unhealthy family relationships, and secondly, for dealing with a number of instances of cause and effect of suicidal thoughts which force the characters to commit suicide. He, as it seems, purposefully presents the scenes, characters, and situations related to suicide or suicidal thoughts in his novels with the aim at showing its universality and conveying the inner struggles of the characters’ mind and soul.
In his fictions, Hardy usually uses suicide to criticize the society to show the rigid social structure, to condemn the social institutions, and to illustrate the effect of the prolonged isolation and willed alienation. To him, as it seems, one’s horoscope is full of never-lasting powerlessness, helpless abandonment, senseless indifference, perpetual alienation, miserable nausea, and ceaseless boredom which pave the way for suicidal tendencies, i.e., sickness unto death, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. His leaning towards these propensities, as he reflects in his novels, is the cause and effect not only of his society, zeitgeist, and existentialists, but also his study of Schopenhauer who has a great effect on a few existentialists. About Schopenhauer’s influence on Hardy, Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine writes:
Hardy’s own reading clearly influenced the storyline of the novel. From 1883 Hardy had been reading the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who appealed to Hardy’s desire to find an explanation for, rather than a Judaeo-Christian Justification of, suffering. For Schopenhauer, death was equivalent to ‘Salvation’, since human life was largely driven by irrational impulse, itself an expression of the underlying ‘Will’ driving life onwards. At the same time true tragedy existed in the idea of death as ‘Payment’ for the ‘Original Sin’ of being born. For Schopenhauer, contentment can only be achieved either through the suppression of the will, or if individualism is replaced by passivity. Our ‘powerful attachment to life is…blind and irrational’, wrote Schopenhauer, and ‘we are at bottom something that ought not to be’ (1).
What Schopenhauer says about birth and death is also said by the existentialists in their own ways in the discourse of (free) death which naturally runs on the national highway of existence and essence facing the wild winds of the suicidal thoughts. And such thoughts, which are the result of aforementioned facts, which lead to suicide, are presented well in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.
Jude the Obscure, the last of Hardy’s finished novels and one of his most tragic novels, has multiple characters as who either commit suicide, or are crowned with suicidal thoughts. The black clouds of suicidal thoughts hover around the novel from the very beginning to the end. First Part of the novel, contextually, describes the suicide of his mother, while the Part sixth of his issues textually. But Jude’s suicidal thoughts are described throughout the novel. It does not matter, whether it is presented textually, or contextually. The praxis of suicide as a philosophical problem is scattered throughout the novel. Each and every page of the novel tells its universal tale. Suicide is suicide whether it is of his (Jude’s) mother, or of his son named Little Jude—nicknamed as Little Father Time—who commits suicide after killing his two (half) siblings, or of Jude, the protagonist of the novel, who commits suicide at every moment after losing his will to live. For, to live with the suicidal thoughts is also a kind of living death. He becomes prey to them. Owing to them, he just exists, he does not live. He remains nothing, but a walking suicide. His existence and essence melt into nothing like snow as the novel progresses. It is impossible to forget the pathetic words, which are the result of suicidal thoughts of the realm of his mind, which bring him solace and sound sleep as well: “Teach me to live, that I may dread the grave as little as my bed. Teach me to die” (Jude the Obscure 76). As a man, he is a mélange of life and death, but to learn to die is rest for him.
The very first death, which is mentioned in the first part (chapter 10-11) of the novel Jude the Obscure, is that of Jude’s mother. It is not a natural death, but an unnatural death—death by suicide—which, in the terminology of Nietzsche, the existentialist, is ‘Voluntary Death’. Although Jude’s parents have no textual existence in this novel, their contextual essence affects not only the Jude Fawley, but also Little Father Time. Although his parents have died or disappeared before the novel begins, it is his Great-Aunt Drusilla’s comments about his family which open the history and mystery of his father’s disappearance and mother’s committing suicide. The family history of the Fawley family is given in bits and pieces, chiefly through her (Drusilla’s) fore-bidding. It is told that Jude’s parents could not get on together when he was a baby, that his father ‘ill-used’ (64) his mother, and that shortly after they parted by the Brown House Barn, his mother drowned herself. In this context, Hardy writes in the text of the Jude the Obscure:
‘Going to ill-use me on principle, as your father ill-used your mother, and your father’s sister ill-used her husband? She asked. ‘All you be a queer lot as husbands and wives!’….Here he called upon his great-aunt. ‘Aunt—did my father ill use my mother, and my aunt her husband? Said Jude abruptly, sitting down by fire. She raised her ancient eyes under the rim of the bygone bonnet that she always wore. ‘Who’s been telling you that?’ she said. ‘I have heard it spoken of, and want to know all’. ‘You med so well, I s’pose; though your wife— I reckon ’twas she—must have been a fool to open up that! There isn’t much to know after all. Your father and mother couldn’t get on together, and they parted. It was coming home from Alfredston market, when you were a baby—on the hill by the Brown House Barn—that they had their last difference, and took leave of one another for the last time. Your mother soon afterwards died—she drowned herself, in short, and your father went away with you to South Wessex, and never came here anymore” (Jude the Obscure 64-5).
If the story of the suicide of Jude’s mother is seen from the existential lenses, it becomes quite clear that her suicide, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, is ‘the most crucial sin’. What though it is done in despair? Sin is sin. Thus, it is a sin to kill not only herself, but also to deprive her issues of their right of getting mother’s love and care. Her ‘SELF’ is deprived of its dwelling place, and her issues of their mother. While for Sartre, as it seems, that each and every one is free to choose various substitutes for dying, and suicide may be one of them. Choosing suicide as an alternative, thus, she sets herself free from all the worldly despairs and conflicts which have made their resting place in her mind and soul. Darkest days choose darkest ways is also natural in her case. In the phrasal terminology of Karl Jaspers, it can be said that the law of her days burden so badly and bitterly the passion for her nights that she has to choose free death—suicide.
As the novel, Jude the Obscure displays significantly the dehumanization and the standardization of the late Victorian era which are caused by the force of science and technology, social and religious dogmas, intellectual taboos, and the loss of one’s individuality. To study his individuality, if one glances over the novel, one finds that Jude Fawley, the protagonist, is born only to bear life’s misery and suffering of the world. They (suffering and misery) have become his identity. About him, in chapter two of the first part of the novel, in sardonic tone the narrator says: “He was the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal before the fall of the fall of the curtain upon his unnecessary life” (Jude the Obscure 11). Such is both the life and individuality of Jude. Although, he remains obscure throughout his life, he is not a nondescript persona. From very childhood, he is with barometric sensitivity to feels the pains and pangs of others’ heart, but it has no use. What he gets are only suicidal thoughts which have become his colleagues. Like most of the existential characters—Hamlet, Tess, Binx, Navidsons, Deckard, etc.—he suffers from identity crisis which is the inextricable part of one’s essence. The mentioned novel witnesses that both Jude and Sue are metaphysical rebels. They experience that there is a great threat to their identity. In the terminology of the existentialists, it is nothing but the question of the existence of their essence for which one struggles throughout one’s life. Both Jude and Sue pine for creating their essence in their own ways. But they are unable to do so. The result is despair which gives birth to suicidal thoughts which lead, chiefly, to Jude to the ways and rays of suicide. It is another thing, that he was unable to commit suicide, but to live with suicidal tendencies is also a form of living death.
To make his essence with the help of Knowledge, Jude makes a journey to Christminster. For Jude, this city is ‘a heavenly Jerusalem’ (Jude the Obscure 15), ‘a city of light’ (Jude the Obscure 20) and ‘a tree of knowledge’ (Jude the Obscure 20). But soon, he discovers that his pursuit of knowledge only brings about a ‘wall’ (80)—between the rich and the poor. He feels that it is only for high-ups. He is disillusioned with this cause. Consequently, he is with a feeling of great distress and sickness about life. Thus, he turns back from this intellectual hollowness. He burns his books. He retreats into his subjectivity and loneliness. He feels that such desire of his mind and soul is only “a social unrest which had no foundation in the nobler instinct; which was purely an artificial product of civilization” (Jude the Obscure 123). This incident, in the terminology of Kierkegaard, is the ‘leap of faith’ that changes Jude’s thoughts about Christminster and learning. It is his leap into sin. But for Jean-Paul Sartre, it is not his ‘good faith’, but his ‘bad faith’ due to which he suffers throughout his life. His dream of being a teacher is shattered and the result in him is to pass the rest of his life with pining passions and profound hopes. Consequently, he is disillusioned not only with his society, but also with his life. His encounter with Arabella, drives a sense of anxiety and angst to him. His marriage with her made his life brutally short and cynical. Such dismay and distress cause suicidal thoughts in his heart and mind. Consequently, he is seen always with suicidal thoughts.
Sense of the cosmic absurdity, contemplation of death, quandary of life, false modes of people’s behavior affect Jude’s life so bitterly that he begins to long for death. He regards his birth vain and his existence purposeless. About his appearance, Hardy writes: “His face wearing the fixity of a thoughtful child who has felt the pricks of life somewhat before his time” (Jude the Obscure 5). He is an orphan, utterly unwanted child. As his existence is ‘uncared’ and ‘undemanded’ (Jude the Obscure 12), his essence is continually being shattered into pieces by degrees. In this context, he says as Hardy writes: “Let the day perish where in I was born, and the night in which it was said ‘There is a male child conceived’… “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul” (Jude the Obscure 264-5)? An acute sense of boredom and sickness arising out of life’s absurdity often leads Jude to a death wish. College, Church, and social convention—the very things, in which he seeks a way out, frustrate him. A sense of nausea and despair that he is somehow only wasting his existence induces in him a cloying and stifling sensation. He finds himself caught in the hostile world “as a hooked fish” (Jude the Obscure 10), and feels himself existing “upon his unnecessary life” (Jude the Obscure 11). He feels this world full of despair and frustration, as he finds neither the comforting words, nor a helping hand to sooth and to help him. Fed up with such a trivial and monotonous mode of life, he walks to a large pond to commit suicide. About it, Hardy writes:
In the dusk of that evening, Jude walked away from his old aunt’s as if to go home. But as soon as he reached the open down he stuck out upon it till he came to a large round pond. The frost continued, though it was not particularly sharp, and the larger stars overhead came out slow and flickering. Jude put one foot on the edge of the ice, and then the other: it cracked under his weight: but this did not deter him. He ploughed his way inward to the centre, the ice making sharp noises as he went. When just about the middle he looked round him and gave a jump. The cracking repeated itself; but he did not go down. He jumped again, but the cracking had ceased. Jude went back to the edge, and stepped upon the ground (Jude the Obscure 66).
If all the activities—whether it is mental, or psychic, or physical— of Jude Fawley is glanced from the lenses of the existentialists, it becomes quite clear that he is a man with a number of confrontations—confrontation between his principles, between his nuptial life, between his pining visions and dashing reality— caused by the chaos of his principles which he always treasures in his mind and soul. This chaos of the principles gives birth not only to existential anxiety but also to sickness unto death in him. This is why Jude, a man of principles, becomes the man of principal suicidal thoughts. He says:
I am in a chaos of principles—groping in the dark—acting by instinct and not after example. Eight or nine years ago when I came here first, I had a neat stock of fixed opinions, but they dropped away one by one; and the further I get the less sure I am. I doubt if I have anything more for my present rule of life than following inclinations which do me and anybody else any harm, and actually give pleasure to those I love best. There, gentlemen, since you wanted to know how I was getting on, I have told you. Much good may it do you! I can not explain here. I perceive there is something wrong in our social formulas: what it can only be discovered by men and women with greater insight than mine—if, indeed, they ever discover it—at least in our time. (Jude Obscure 317)
Again and again, he wishes to do some good deed to mould his essence. He says: “I may do some good before I am dead” (Jude the Obscure 316). He dies, but leaving an ironical tense and sense that this world is only for such people who are absolutely selfish and insensitive. His last words, which display his bitter tense and sense about his birth, also reflect his suicidal thoughts:
‘Ah—yes! The Remembrance games,’ he murmured. ‘And I here. And Sue defiled…. ‘Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, there is a man child conceived.’… ‘Let that day be darkness; let God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it. Lo, let that night be solitary, let no joyful voice come therein’…. Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I come out of the belly?.... For now should I have lain still and been quiet. I should have slept: then had I been at rest? ...‘There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor…. The small and the great are here; and the servant is free from his master. Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter soul (Jude the Obscure 392-93)?
The minute study of Jude’s suicidal thoughts reminds three myths of two different cults—the first one belongs to an oriental myth, while the rest two belong to occidental. The first one is of king Trishanku and in the rest twos, the former is of Cumaean Sybil and the latter is of Grecian Sisyphus. Although their conditions and situations differ, their wish is same. Whether, it is Jude, or Trishanku, or Sybil, all of them are fed up with their life. Like King Trishanku, he (Jude) is hanging between the heaven and earth of life and death with Hamletian phrase of being or not being in his mind, and like Sybil who being fed up with her life, longs for death, continually crying: “I want to die. / I want to die” (Eliot 75), he also appears with the same will. But table is turned in the case of Jude and Sisyphus. As the various studies reveal, they differ to each other by their nature. In spite of being under a curse spelled by cruel gods, where he (Sisyphus) never loses hope, never faces boredom, and never commits biothanatos, and never says no to life. He lives happily with strife changing meaningless life into meaningful, there he (Jude) is seen hopeless, facing boredom, with the wish of hara-kiri, and frequently tries to say no to life. He lives unhappily with strife changing meaningful life into meaningless. Their rays and ways of life contrast. It is another thing that both of them are the hero of their script.
Next comes the turn of Little Jude who is nicknamed as Little Father Time. He is Jude Fawley’s illegitimate child by Arabella, born in Australia and latter on, sent to England to live with him years later. In the novel Jude the Obscure, Hardy portrays him as a result of the divorce; without love, but with obscure destiny. He is not just a symbolic character, but larger than it. For, the theme of boredom and anxiety, acute sense of death-wish— a universal wish not to live—, and a sense of loneliness along with estrangement find most lucid embodiment in his queer figure. As a boy, he is neither baptized, nor given love and care. Consequently, he turns to be a ‘world-weary’ (357) and depressed child lacking curiosity and joy of life. Already, at the age of 10, he is too obsessed with the misery confronting human life to effect for him to smile. What he says, Hardy writes: “I should like the flowers very much,” he says, “If did not keep on thinking, they would all be withered in a few days” (Jude the Obscure 286).
Little Father Time is an effective and arresting child symbolizing a man who lives in full consciousness of the conformations of life and the absurdities of the cosmos as well. He bears ‘a small, pale, child’s face with frightened eyes (Jude the Obscure 265)’ illustrating acute consciousness of the misery of his situation and represents the people of such country of the blind as live with the blissful forgetfulness of the horror and terror of their conditions. He reflects and represents the quandary of his existence. Like Jude, he also feels it to be better not to be born. He is the incarnation of the ‘coming universal wish not to live’ (Jude the Obscure 326). Like Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare’s tragedy of same name, he also ponders over the question of “to be or not to be” (Hamlet. Act III, Sc. i, L. 55), but actively, not passively like him. During an utterance, he convinces the peculiarity of his character and indeed, wishes not to be born and exist. Like Hamlet, he feels that “time is out of joint” (Hamlet. Act I, Sc. v, L. 188). The best example of his frustration with this world is seen when Sue and Jude are frustrated in their search for lodging in Christminster, the city of his dreams. At this, what he (Little Father Time) asks Sue the best testimony of his exasperation. In this conversation, what he asks and what she replies is mentionable here:
‘Can I do anything?’
‘No! All is trouble, adversity, and suffering!’
‘Father went away to give us children room, didn’t he?
‘It would be better to be out of the world than in it, wouldn’t?’
‘It would almost, dear’.
‘’ Tis because of us children, too, isn’t it, that you can’t get a good lodging?’
‘well—people do object to children sometimes.’
‘Then if children make so much trouble, why do people have ’em?
‘O—because it is a law of nature.’
‘But we don’t ask to be born?’
‘And what makes it worse with me is that you are not my real mother, and you needn’t have had me unless you liked. I oughtn’t to have come to ’ee—that’s the real truth! I troubled ’em in Australia, and I troubled folk here. I wish I hadn’t been born!’
‘You couldn’t help it, my dear.’
‘I think that whenever children be born that are not wanted they should be killed directly, before their souls come to ’em, and not allowed to growing and walk about’ (Jude the Obscure 322-23)!
The most terrible scene in the world of Hardy’s Fiction, or rather in the world of English fiction is Little Father Time’s killing of his two (half) siblings and later on, his committing suicide. The cause behind such infanticide and suicide is Sue’s depressed words which he takes to heart. Doing so, he tries to free both Jude and Sue from their burden. Describing this heart-wrenching incident, Hardy writes:
When he got back Sue had come to herself, and the two helpless women, bending over the children in wild efforts to restore them, and the triplet of little corpses, formed a sight which overthrew his self-command….The children were past saving, for though their bodies were still barely cold it was conjectured that they had been hanging more than an hour. The probability held by the parents later on, when they were able to reason on the case, was that the elder boy, on waking, looked into the outer room for Sue, and, finding her absent, was thrown into a fit of aggravated despondency that the events and information of the evening before had induced in his morbid temperament. Moreover a piece of paper was found upon the floor, on which was written, in the boy’s hand, with the bit of lead pencil that he carried: ‘Done because we are too menny’ (Jude the Obscure 325).
Another incident which is related to the suicide of Little Father Time is of his two half siblings. This incident tells another tale—the tale of the infanticide besides the tale of his suicide. Before self-betrayal, he kills them. Those innocent infants are unknown to the reason why they are being killed. This happening reminds a famous African proverb which says “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”. Indeed, those two innocent infants are trampled of their life in such a battle with which they have nothing to do. It is the side effect of the battle of life in which Little Father Time is seen constantly fighting. It is his battle of existence and essence, of survival and suicide, of option and compulsion, of being burden and setting free which is horrifying, devastating and far-reaching. It tells the tale of the battle of the existence and essence in which the bold survive; cowards commit suicide, and a few die in vain.
No doubt, that Jude the Obscure, like Hardy’s other novels, reflects his concern with the character’s feeling of anguish, alienation death-wish, and depression on the hostile region of Wessex which symbolically represents this blue planet. Most of his characters, whether major or minor, do not wish to occupy their place in their realm because of the social, religious, and cosmic forces which do not let them live freely and independently. Besides it, this novel of Hardy shows his discourse of existential themes of isolation, alienation, boredom, anguish, and suicide or suicidal thoughts which the existentialists like Heidegger, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Karl Jaspers have reflected in their writings. In this novel, Jude is a weak and emotional creature who, with all efforts wants to live happily, yet he is frustrated at every stage by the hostile forces of the world which are always indifferent to his hopes and aspirations which are forbidden to him. Like Michael Henchard, the protagonist of the novel Mayor of Casterbridge, He feels that the scheme of some sinister intelligence is bent on punishing him constantly. He feels that he has fallen victim to rota fortunae. Consequently, he becomes the victim of suicidal thoughts in despair. Such is not only with him, but also with his mother and his son Little Time Father. They also can’t escape the black eyes of the suicide. The story does not come to an end here. Even those two infants, whom Little Time Father hangs, also come in the grip of the side effect of the suicide or suicidal thoughts.
If one minutely observes the moments in which the suicidal thoughts germinate in the mind and soul of the characters— who either commit suicide, or are always with suicidal thoughts— in the novel Jude the Obscure, one can’t remain aloof from remembering the opening lines of the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities which, although present the pros and cons of the time of French Revolution, can be applicable in the context of suicide or suicidal thoughts for describing the crucial time when they take birth. Dickens writes:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of beliefs, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only (A Tale of Two Cities 7).
What Dickens writes about the times of French Revolution in the aforementioned paragraph of the novel, is quite applicable in the case of the climacteric times of suicide or suicidal thoughts in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Whether it is the time of French Revolution, or the time of suicide or suicidal thoughts, both are good for some and bad for others. Borrowing the structure of the lines of Dickens’ aforementioned paragraph, it can be said that the time of suicidal thoughts and the action of committing suicide also have their pros and cons. The above discussion can be led towards conclusion with the imitated structure:
It is the best of deeds, it is the worst of deeds, it is the slog of wisdom, it is the slog of foolishness, it is the exertion of belief, it is the exertion of incredulity, it is the result of treasured light, it is the result of treasured darkness, it is the feat of hope’s spring, it is the feat of despair’s winter, they will have many options before them, they will have no option before them. They are all going direct to heaven, they are all going direct the other way—in short, the action that some of its noisiest confrontations insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only (Parodied structure).
The telescopic vision of the suicide of the three characters (first of Jude’s mother’s; secondly of Little Father Time, and thirdly of Jude—who indirectly commits suicide) in the novel Jude the Obscure suggests that their causes— circumstances and conditions— differ, yet their effects are same. Jude’s mother and his son commit suicide to resolve the internal and external dilemmas and the confrontations. They think it (suicide) as one of the best and the last options to set all things right in the terminology of the existentialists of the second group who think it as an option, while Jude accepts the absurdity of the world with the wish for not violating the divine rule of the self. He does not think it as first and last option. He does not think it as one of the best options. With the aim at setting all right, he tries to have two hands with the dilemmas and the confrontations, the mother of the suicidal thoughts, of his mind and soul. It is another thing that he is mentally tortured, psychologically cleft, and physically broken. But he does not break the ‘Divine Command Theory’ to which Soren Kierkegaard support with a little if and but. All is well with him, indeed, all must imagine Jude is happy. Must imagine….
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’ Brien. Random House, 1955.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Modern Critical Interpretations. Edited with an Introduction by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House, 2001.
Dickens, Charles. “A Tale of Two Cities”. Works of Charles Dickens. Illustrated from Drawings by F.O.C. Darley and John Gilbert. Household Edition. Vol. I. Sheldon And Company, 1863.
Eliot. T. S. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Second Edition. Edited by Lawrence Rainey. Yale University Press, 2006.
Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Oxford World Classics. Revised Edition. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Patricia Ingham. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Heidegger, Martin. What is Metaphysics? Translated by Sivash Jamadi. Phoenix Publishing. 2014.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton University Press. 1980.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Edited by Rolf Peter and translated by Judith Norman. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet”. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by W.J. Craig. Magpie Books, 1992.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Werkausgabe. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1989.
Ehrlich, Leonard H. “Jaspers’ Thought Its Meaning, Effect, Timeline.” Existenz (An International Journal in Philosophy, Religion, Politics, and Arts), vol. 5, no. 2, 2010, pp. 60-65. Retrieved on 24 Oct. 2022 from https://existenz.us/volumes/Vol.5-2Ehrlichl2html#fn2.
Hardy, Thomas. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Hardy. Retrieved on 30 Oct. 2022.
“How did contemporary critics view the suicide and murder scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure?” Blackwood Edinburgh Magazine. Retrieved on 6 Nov. 2022 from https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/article-on-suicide-from-blackwoodedinburghmagazine#:~:text=The%20scene% 20where%20’Little%20Father, most%20disturbing%20scenes%20in%20literature.
Klebes, Martin. Mutiny of an Error: Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard on Suicide. Konturen (An Interdisciplinary Journal dedicated to the analysis of borders, framing determinations, and related figures of delimitation of all kinds.), vol. 7, 2015, pp. 216-234. Retrieved on 24 Oct. 2022 from https://journals.oregondigital.org/index.php/konturen/article/view/3664/3466.
Mollie, Lord. Sartre: Suicide and Responsibility. Retrieved on 29 Oct. 2022 from linkedin.com https://wwww.linkedin.com/pulse/sartre-suicide-responsibility-mollie-lord.
About the Author:
Dr. Dharmendra Kumar Singh works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at MHPG College Moradabad, affiliated to MJPRU Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, the Republic of India. Creative writing along with critical writing is his passion. He can be contacted at email@example.com.