The depiction of the female body in Hardy and Moore.
A focus on the body, especially that of the female body, is integral to Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ and Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’. However such an exploration is to extremely different effects. ‘Zola repeatedly made use of the metaphor of dissection to describe the task of writing fiction… this gave prominence to the body.’ (1) In this manner, both Hardy and Moore attempt to dissect the female body within the dissection of the writing of fiction. Moore’s dissection revolves around the body of the servant girl specifically, a trope in which such a body is multifaceted and deceitful. Hardy uncovers something rather different. His dissection of the body, despite an apparent persistence of a ‘women’s inherent physical weakness’, (2) largely focuses on an ungendered body. Rather than the man and woman of married life, Sue and Jude consist of two androgynous halves of a single neutral being.
‘The female servant was an ideal subject for the naturalists because she was in their view not fully herself and was composed of many parts. Indeed, servants had to adjust to and adopt their master’s timetables and habits, to fit into their master’s clothes.’ (3) This appears to describe Esther perfectly. The dissection of her body will find that it is as much her own as it is a product of her ‘master’s’. ‘I daresay my daughter might find you something – you are about the same height – with only a little alteration-‘ With ‘only a little alteration’ Esther’s body would be somewhat identical to that of one of her employers. The similarities between bodies alludes to Esther’s body being far more that of her employers than that of her own and introduces a sense of duplicity. It is this ‘imputed multifaceted nature of the female servant ‘ (4) that serves as an ‘invitation to look beyond appearances and to experiment with literary dissection.’ (5) Upon dissection of the female servant’s body one may continue to find a sense of commodification of this human body, under the ruling class. Tess O Toole argued, that in a similar way in which the needs of the master dictates the body of Esther as a kitchenmaid, ‘wet nursing trespasses on the heroine’s body.’ (6) It is described as a ‘colonisation of of the working class women’s body.’ (7) The servant body becomes somewhat a geographical location which is colonized at Woodview by the colonizer imposing their clothes on Esther but her body is also colonized, as in drained of resources for the purpose of the colonizer, by Mrs Rivers. Moreover, her role as a wet nurse is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of prostitution. She is in essence, selling the resources of her body. This is honed in on by Moore by the ‘semantic import of the word flesh’. There is a strong focus on body, and especially ‘flesh’ throughout. ‘The sinfulness of the world and the flesh’ ‘her flesh filled with a sense of happiness’ ‘her flesh was soft and flabby’. It is made clear, that what is occurring is a simple trade: flesh for money. Hence the body becomes an item of economic value but also a subject of moral degradation as she uses it much in the way a prostitute might.
However, it does not quite appear to be Moore’s intent to degrade the value of the women’s body or that of the female servant’s. Esther’s body is just as much a symbol of life and rejuvenation as it is a symbol of commerce and commodification. ‘By suckling different babies with her vital lymph, Esther somehow epitomizes regeneration too.’ (8) Perhaps, it would be wrong to see her role as a wet nurse as anything other than a noble, invaluable and life-giving role. Moore may even be trying to suggest this through Esther’s name as it ‘aptly suggests, she stands for the river of life.’ (9) This lends Esther’s body a somewhat ethereal, divine quality. Her body becomes a feeding ground for life itself, it is crucial perhaps from the beginning that her body was described as so bounteous and healthy. ‘Firmly built, with short strong arms’ and that she is able to produce such a healthy and ‘beautiful boy’, highlighted by the juxtaposition of her mother’s fatal and sickly birth. Her body is transformed into that of life giving Goddess with the power of creation and nurturing.
Esther’s role as the ‘multifaceted’ servant girl and also as a ‘life-giver’ gives her body a mysterious, ineffable quality. The ‘fallen’ servant girl is a trope somewhat fetishized by Moore. Despite such a profound focus and interest in her body throughout, the child itself being an extension and creation of her body, there is surprisingly very little description as to what she actually looks like. At best we know she is ‘good-looking’ aside from basic descriptions of her height and build. This leaves the reader to ‘flesh-out’ the appearance of Esther Waters and project or impose our own vision of a body on to her. She is an easy and deliberate target to be fetishized by the reader. Just as her ‘master’s’ dress is imposed on her, symbolically imposing an appearance or ‘body’ onto her, the reader is able to do the same. She is profoundly vulnerable target for such sexualization as she is ‘the ideal body of femininity’ (10) . Sandra Lee Bartky explains this by arguing that she she is ideal in the sense that she possesses ‘a practised and subjected body, that is, a body in which an inferior status has been inscribed.’ (11) Her body is in now way a symbol of proto-feminism but it is a commodified item which is consistently used and sexualized throughout the novel. It is used by William and Mrs Rivers and it is objectified and fetishized by the reader and by those around her. For example, her employer who would mould Esther’s body to be more ‘fashionable’, or as seen through the male gaze, sexually appealing. That she wished her to be ‘an inch or two taller’.
Despite whatever role Esther’s body takes on, her body is always focused on as that of a woman whether it is degraded or praised, that of the mother or servant. Hardy’s focus on the body of Sue however, remains largely ungendered. What is similar between the two texts however, is the strong link between body and mind. Despite the claim that ‘[servants] had to deny their own desires and relinquish any privacy, with the result that they become estranged from their own bodies.’ (12) Both the minds of Esther and Sue are inseparably linked and literarily manifested in their own bodies. That is to say the mind and the body are within one another. ‘Her flesh filled with a sense of happiness’ once again uses the repeated diction of ‘flesh’ linking sensation and emotion to the corporeal. Happiness is not only a feeling, but a feeling within the body. Within ‘Jude The Obscure’ this is a similar theme. From the basis of victorian science, especially within a woman, the mental and physical or mind and body did indeed share a close connection. ‘Hysteria, neurasthenia, and chlorosis, the three great diseases of the victorian bourgeois woman, were all commonly diagnosed as ‘nervous disorders’ arising from some frequently undefined disturbance to the all determining reproductive system.’ And Sue Bridehead conforms to these expectations in accordance with Hardy’s own personal views that women’s ‘inherent physical weakness… makes them vulnerable to mental conflict.’ (13) She is therefore a ‘fine-nerved’ mind in a body that is ‘slight’.
However, it is not for long that Hardy allows gender to morph his presentation of Sue’s ‘body’. She is depicted somewhat androgynously. ‘Not exactly a tomboy, you know, but she could do things that only boys could.’ It is interesting to explore the way in which this mind, is manifested into the closely linked, body. ‘You spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet tantalising phantom – hardly flesh at all’. On one level, although she is ‘tantalising’ him, the semantic field of the supernatural invokes that she is ‘haunting’ him. Not that this is unwelcome but this suggests the fact that she is something he cannot get rid of, even if he wanted to. That is to say, they are inextricable from one another, or two halves of a whole. But the main extrapolation to be gained from this quote is an inference of Sue’s gender dysphoria. Despite such a close link between body and mind there is a sense that gender of her body is not a defining characteristic of her mind. She is therefore ‘disembodied’ or a ‘phantom’, that is to say bodiless.The way in which clothes impose an identity on the body in ‘Esther Waters’, clothes play an identical role in ‘Jude the Obscure’. Sue’s underclothes are described as ‘sexless’ and the passage following her escape sees her asleep by Jude’s fire in his working clothes. It is therefore inferred that despite such a close connection between the mind and body there is a chasm between the sexuality of the body and the mind.
To conclude, the body is treated in a similar fashion by both Hardy and Moore. Clothes are used to imprint identity or ownership onto the body and the mind and body are seen to intersect and affect one another as per the dictates of common scientific belief and Hardy’s own personal values. Where both novels differ however, is in their treatment of the feminine or gendered aspect of the body. Esther’s feminine identity, in mind and body, is crucial to the roles her body undertakes. Her body is both an esteemed symbol of motherhood and life but also an object of fetishization and sexualization. Sue’s ‘body’ however, is integral more to the narrative as the counterpart to Jude’s body, regardless of gender. ‘The extraordinary sympathy, or similarity, between the pair. He is her cousin, which perhaps accounts for some of it. They seem to be one person split in two!’ Not only do both their bodies correspond in terms of blood as they are cousins but rather than man and woman they are simply two halves of a non gendered body. That is to say the main difference between the two texts are the differences in the relation of body and gender. Moreover, Esther’s body is life-giving, or something ultimate, yet the bodies of Jude and Sue must combine to form a single entity or body in its entirety.
1) Nathalie Sando-Welly ‘The Deceitful Character’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
2) Bounelha, P. (1981) Female Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce in the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. University of Oxford Thesis.
3) Nathalie Sando-Welly ‘The Deceitful Character’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
4) Nathalie Sando-Welly ‘The Deceitful Character’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
5) Nathalie Sando-Welly ‘The Deceitful Character’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
6) O’Toole, T. (2010) The Victorian Wet Nurse and George Moore’s Esther Waters. Taylor and Francis.
7) Michele Russo ‘Spatial Metaphors and Liminal Elements in Esther Waters’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
8)Michele Russo ‘Spatial Metaphors and Liminal Elements in Esther Waters’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
9) Michele Russo ‘Spatial Metaphors and Liminal Elements in Esther Waters’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
10) Bartky, S. Foucalt, (1988) Femininity and Patriarchal Power. Northeastern University Press
11) Bartky, S. Foucalt, (1988) Femininity and Patriarchal Power. Northeastern University Press
12) Nathalie Sando-Welly ‘The Deceitful Character’ Huguet, C. (2013). George Moore: across borders. Amsterdam [u.a.]: Rodopi.
13) Bounelha, P. (1981) Female Sexuality, Marriage and Divorce in the Fiction of Thomas Hardy. University of Oxford Thesis.