Sue Bridehead remains a pretty tough nut to crack: even her creator, Thomas Hardy himself questions what, exactly, her deal is.
In Hardy's "Postscript" to the first novel of Jude the Obscure, he quotes a German critic describing Sue as the 'first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in the thousands every year – the woman of the Feminist movement…the "bachelor' girl."' In other words, this German critic claims that Sue is the first representation of a new social type of woman becoming more and more common: the unmarried feminist.
In response, here is what Hardy had to say: 'No doubt there can be more in a book than the author consciously puts there.' (Hardy, "Preface to the First Edition")
In other words, it is not that Hardy disagrees with the German critic exactly. Hardy just wasn't intending to present Sue as the first representation in fiction of a feminist. There is more to Sue than even Hardy quite expected—which is a good thing, right? Sue takes on a life of her own in the novel, beyond the strict intentions of her author.
Hardy, like Sue, had some controversial ideas about the institution of marriage, which he uses Sue to voice throughout the novel. However, Sue's complex, frustrating, emotional responses to her relationships with Jude and Phillotson make her much more than a mere mouthpiece for Thomas Hardy to express his social criticism.
One of the most intriguing things about Sue is that she is often described as being like something other than a woman: 'She was not exactly a tomboy, you know, but she could do things that only boys could do, as a rule' (2.6.22). Already, we get the sense that Sue is supposed to stand out among the other women in the novel, that there is something not stereotypically feminine about her.
But beyond whether or not Sue seems womanly by the standards of her time, we find it even more striking that she sometimes appears almost other than human: 'you spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet tantalizing phantom – hardly flesh at all' (4.5.108).
Jude's description of Sue in this passage makes her sound like a fantasy, a dream woman. And let's be honest, if this were a fantasy novel, Sue would totally be an elf: beautiful, otherworldly, and distant. What is more, Sue's elf qualities go deeper than her appearance: she also seems to be a shape-shifter when it comes to decisions and emotions.
One minute, Sue wholeheartedly feels one way, and in the next, she completely changes her mind. The best examples of Sue's sudden contradictions probably come from her letters throughout the novel—take, for example, the end of Part Third, Chapter Nine, when Sue absolutely forbids Jude to visit her again. That is, until Part Third, Chapter Ten, when she sends him a letter inviting him to come by. We sometimes get whiplash from Sue's abrupt about-faces.
We may not always agree with Sue Bridehead's decisions, but no matter what we may think of her, we have to agree that she is a lady way ahead of her time. Her insight into the ways that marriage will change over the twentieth century is almost dead on—even though she (and Hardy through Sue) are speaking in 1896, before the twentieth century even begins:
I am certain one ought to be allowed to undo what one has done ignorantly! I daresay it happens to a lot of women; only they submit, and I kick….When people of a certain later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say!' (4.2.88)
In other words, Sue believes that women should be allowed to undo marriages that are clearly mistakes. She's also sure that lots of women feel this way, only they don't say so and Sue does. Unfortunately for Sue, she lives in the late nineteenth century, and the rules of her social environment won't let her live as she wants.
And here's where the social criticism comes in: Hardy clearly sees it as a problem that Sue isn't supposed to get a divorce, and once she does, that she isn't supposed to be happy again with another man outside the bonds of marriage. Jude the Obscure presents a strong argument against the waste and heartbreak that bad marriages can cause, in both women and men.
(By the way, when it comes to bad marriages, Hardy was no peach: his first wife Emma actually kept a diary about all of his flaws as the two of them grew further and further apart.)
We could argue that Sue's tragedy goes beyond the horrifying death of her children. The true tragedy comes in the end, when she entirely changes who she is.
Sue embraces the same rigid religious views that she criticized when she was younger and trying to build her life with Jude. She chooses to pursue a sexual relationship with Phillotson, even though she absolutely does not want to and he does not ask it of her. In the end, guilt forces Sue to transform herself into all of the things she most seemed to hate in her earlier life. Even though she may survive the end of the novel, she's no longer the Sue Bridehead we have come to know and Jude has come to love—and if that's not tragedy, we don't know what is.