Just Keep Swimming

Water as an Agent of Change and a Means of Escape in Jude the Obscure and The Awakening

Free-flowing, ubiquitous, and all too necessary for the existence of human life, water was revered as one of the ancient world’s four classical elements, remaining a keystone of civilization and culture well into the modern day. On the surface, water appears to be a weak and pliable element that bends to the whims of stronger forces, much the same way as women appear to the men around them throughout the 19th century, as reflected in the literature of that time. However, water’s malleability belies its raw destructive potential. Like an almighty god, water can grant life and sustain it, but just as easily rip it away, visiting characters in a myriad of shapes to test their will and faith. In Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, water takes the form of a frozen pond on the verge of shattering beneath one’s feet and a roaring river that stands between confinement and freedom. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the expansive ocean and its ever-looming promise of a watery grave take center stage. Like a ripple growing into a wave, the bodies of water in both novels offer drastic choices and means of escape to each protagonist. As a literal force of nature, water offers Jude, Sue, and Edna an opportunity at what they believe to be ultimate liberation from the restrictions and tribulations of a society they find themselves drowning within.

As a manmade construct rather than a body of water, the Marygreen well, seen in chapter one of Jude the Obscure, can be thought of as the opposite to the natural bodies of water found later in the novel. Instead of escape, the well represents confinement. Described as “ancient as the village itself,” the well remains a primitive yet important vestige of society and its reliance on water (11). When Jude gazes upon the well, he sees “a long perspective ending in a shining disk of quivering water at a distance of a hundred feet down” (11). While the water is described as both “shining” and “quivering,” words that denote life and light, it is the “hundred feet down” that concludes the sentence with a dismal prospect. The later observation of a “lining of green moss near the top” of the well reminds us that no life can exist inside of it despite it presumably hydrating the entire village (12.) Overcome with a presumably existential sadness, Jude lets a single tear fall from his eye into the well. Jude’s tear can be seen as a manifestation of sorrow, one that is completely blotted out by the overpowering presence of the water in the well. An unwanted orphan, Jude feels he has little to no place in the world. Just as a lone tear in a well makes little to no impact or change to the supply of fresh water, Jude’s sadness goes largely unrecognized by the community at Marygreen, society almost always placing the needs and wants of its least fortunate individuals at the bottom of its priorities.

After his failed marriage with Arabella, Jude contemplates suicide by stomping his way into a frozen pond in an attempt to follow his mother’s fatal footsteps, but he cannot bring himself to go through with it. Jude begins by recklessly walking onto the frozen surface of the water; “it cracked under his weight but this did not deter him” (58). The numerous cracks against the ice can be read as a metaphor for the immense pressure Jude has felt within his marriage, the stresses and fractures of his tormented soul made physical. Jude is prevented from succeeding in taking his own life because he underestimates the strength of the ice, “He jumped again, but the cracking had ceased.” (58) In his thoughts, Jude aestheticizes his attempted suicide as both “dignified” and a “peaceful death” (59). His language depicts death by drowning as a passive, almost serene way to go, traits that could be read as feminine. Most telling of all is the damning knowledge that Jude’s mother drowned herself to escape her own marriage (58). Through the pond, Jude presumably hopes to emulate his late mother and relieve himself from what he believes is suffering on a similar level. One might even argue that this can be read as a misguided embrace of his feminine side or an attempt to channel the likeness of a mother he did not truly know. Regardless, there is no doubt that Jude associates drowning with a kind of feminine powerlessness. He sees his life as so wretched and worthless that he tries to claim a death he views as womanly. In imagining his potential death as a kind of euthanasia, Jude disregards the violent effort it would have taken him to break the ice—effort or perhaps physical strength he was unable to muster. At first glance, Jude sees the frozen pond as a chance for him to wrest control of his own destiny, but upon finding its rigid layer does not bend to his will just at the moment he wishes it, he gives up. Jude instead settles on a second, perhaps more masculine method of drowning himself: drinking his way into a stupor.

In contrast to the Jude of the earlier parts of the novel, Sue actively challenges the obstacles around her, leaping into a rushing river when she is unfairly detained by her training school for violating curfew. Compared to the aforementioned well and frozen pond, stagnant and blocked off, a river is a body of water that is constantly in motion. Despite feeling “clammy as a marine deity” to Jude’s touch after her bold and daring action, Sue’s behavior reflects a strong will and a desire to break free from the constraints of society—in many regards the exact opposite of Jude’s incident at the frozen pond. (149) Whereas Jude wished to destroy himself at a frozen pond after succumbing to his depression, Sue very much wants to live above and beyond her status as a woman, refusing to submit to the oppressive, sexist institution of the training school and its ridiculous curfew. The act of rebellion generates a great deal of gossip among both Sue’s peers and her higher-ups, who can only wonder if she “walked through the river…or drowned herself!” (114). The matron later expresses relief that Sue did not drown herself, but only because it would have “brought disgrace upon the school” (114). The very fact that Hardy suggests a potential suicide at all in this section undoubtedly draws a parallel between this scene and Jude’s episode on the ice, especially considering that suicide by drowning was a common method performed by women of this time period. Even after Sue’s dramatic departure, the training school refuses to recognize Sue’s individual rights or desires, thinking only of the dishonor she might bring to their reputation. Sue’s loss as a student never crosses their minds—her insubordination against her gender and station might have made a veritable splash, but her individual presence to the community remains as insignificant as a drop of salt water within a well. Sue’s action is spirited, reckless, and one that could traditionally be viewed as masculine. Jude’s gaze even likens her to the boyish figure Ganymede after she dries off and settles down. When Sue tells Jude “I have never yielded myself to any lover” (119), she still stands at the apex of her philosophical and spiritual independence. Despite its roughness and presumably chaotic nature, the river represents an avenue of agency and free will that Sue strives to attain, something that Jude failed to imagine for himself despite the privilege of his gender.

Unfortunately, after becoming Jude’s lover and assuming a more feminine role, Sue’s agency is weakened and tested by the struggles of raising a family. The rainy weather at Christminster begins to erode away at her spirit on top of all her other troubles, namely being pregnant, poor, and essentially homeless with three children and a fourth on the way. Right after arriving in Christminster, Sue’s stepson, Little Father Time, declares that “It do seem like the Judgment Day!” in a massive crowd of people beneath a sky rumbling with thunder” (254). Immediately after, it starts to rain: “While they waited big drops of rain fell on their heads and shoulders, and the delay grew tedious” (254). After Jude must explain himself to his working class peers, the rain worsens with only Sue carrying a flimsy umbrella. Hardy writes that Sue “had gone pale, though Jude did not notice then” in response to the precipitation. (257). Shortly after, Little Father Time’s ominous premonition comes true with Sue blaming herself for the decline of her stepson’s health and the death of her children. If one retroactively considers the storm in light of Sue’s belief that she and Jude have been punished for their sins through Father Time’s murder-suicide, a metaphor analogous to Noah’s Ark can be drawn. They are a family cast away from haven after haven by a society that views them as abnormal or even evil. Rather than the rush of water she was once so apt to fight, it is the slow drip-drop of a difficult and non-traditional domestic life with Jude that wears away at Sue, a downpour eventually becoming unbearable for a woman who once did not hesitate to leap into a river when she felt trapped by society.

Edna Pontellier, desperate housewife and protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, has a special relationship with water, seeking sanctuary in the sea. Her foray into The Gulf of Mexico proves to be much more than a simple escape, however, instead acting as the catalyst for a sexual and intellectual awakening. Long before beginning her attraction to Robert or her affair with Arobin, Edna finds herself seduced like a sailor by the siren song of the ocean. After being berated by her husband for the umpteenth time, Edna leaves the bedroom and sits outside, where she is haunted by “the everlasting song of the sea,” which breaks “like a mournful lullaby upon the night” (Chopin 27). Listening to the ocean, Edna begins to perceive it as a kind of companion, and it directs many of her later action. While Edna soon develops feelings for Robert, she does not acknowledge them before she goes swimming with him (34-37). The ocean claims Edna’s heart and inspires her mind before anyone else in New Orleans; Chopin devotes almost the entirety of chapter six to its charms, which are described more erotically than any of Edna’s sexual relationships. Compare Edna’s first glorious experience with the ocean, “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (35) to her fling with Arobin, “He did not say good night until she became supple to his gentle, sensuous entreaties” (116). Unlike Arobin who must work to make Edna responsive to his touches with a method that borders on coercive, the ocean draws her in without her consent appearing at all compromised.

Just like Sue, Edna swims with courage and in opposition to the stifling male-dominated society she knows on land. The men in Edna’s life frequently try to control or manipulate her—whether it be in claiming the authority of a husband, as Leonce does, or sweeping Edna off her feet, like Arobin. Only the ocean provides the love and attention Edna craves without ripping away her agency. In chapter 10, Edna swims further into the ocean than usual and is overtaken by a “feeling of exultation” that rocks both her body and soul (49). Impulsively and bravely, she resolves to swim “where no woman had swum before” (49). Chopin writes of the men onshore and how “each one congratulated himself that his special teaching had accomplished” Edna’s newfound swimming achievements (49). However, it is Edna’s awakening and hers alone that drives her to this unexpected, unchartered territory, described by Chopin as “the unlimited in which to lose herself” (49). It is this existential hunger that drives Edna to abandon her family and go against her husband’s wishes and briefly pursue a life of physical pleasure and art.

While one might argue that Robert serves as a catalyst for transformation for Edna, I would argue that her attraction towards him is more of a symptom than a cause. Edna does aggressively try to woo Robert upon his return from Mexico. Chopin even writes of his voice haunting Edna (62). However, this is only long after her revelations within the water. Edna may believe that her relationship to Robert has inspired a great calling within her, but to do so would be to misjudge and underestimate the strength of her own character. I believe that Edna ultimately catalyzed her own transformation with the ocean, which served as the perfect realm for the self-reflection to bring about her awakening. Chopin’s words support this, as she writes that “The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in its abysses of solitude” (138). Aimless and heartbroken after Robert rejects her, Edna returns to the body of water that originally empowered her.

In death at sea, Edna finds release, rebirth, and unconditional love. Leaping into the ocean without any clothes on, Edna revels in the physical sensation of being free, feeling like “some new-born creature” (138). This sentiment resonates even more strongly when paired with Edna’s earlier remark, “Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby” (49). By drowning herself in her beloved Gulf of Mexico, Edna believes she is seizing control of her life for one single, fleeting moment. The process of suicide arguably robs one of agency, but by making a choice for herself at all, Edna sees the ocean as the last place she can enjoy any agency at all. And unlike Robert, the ocean will never spurn her.

In several regards, Edna’s behavior can be seen as a fusion of Jude and Sue’s approaches to their own bodies of water. Like Sue, she has tasted freedom and thirsted for more in swimming away from the patriarchy that binds her, but like Jude, she does not believe there is anywhere else for her to go or anyone who can truly help her, and chooses to drown herself within water rather than metaphorically live a drowned life without Robert on land. Edna’s determination to escape combined with the hopelessness she feels regarding her situation at home fatally propel her to succeed with her suicide attempt, and unlike Jude with the frozen pond, the ocean offers Edna no resistance, only its “soft, close embrace” (35).

Contrary to Chopin and Hardy’s portrayals of it, drowning is far from a tranquil way to die, almost always culminating with a terrible struggle for air that no person can peacefully overcome. Still, both Chopin and Hardy went out of their way to portray it in their novels as a benevolent sort of alternative to the prolonged, lifelong agony of an unhappy marriage. The 21st century humanist within me must restrain itself in rejecting these idealized suicides as their writers’ blithe misinterpretation of a very real issue. Rather, I am convinced by the writer within me that Chopin and Hardy wrote these attempted self-drownings because they were speaking for a number of people who really did take solace in having the freedom to take their own lives—many of them women, who were just beginning to discover they had a voice that deserved to be heard, lest the patriarchy drown them beneath its ocean of oppression.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford, 2000. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. Ed. Norman Page. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.