An orphaned child, Jude Fawley comes to live with his great-aunt at Marygreen and is inspired by his schoolmaster to move eventually to Christminster, a university town, obtain his education there, and enter the Anglican priesthood. Jude is kind, noble, appealing, and capable, but very much a loner, unnoticed and insignificant in grand scheme of things. He is easily swayed by others' strong opinions and loves more than he is loved. Jude's dreams and ambitions are thwarted from the beginning—first by a disastrous marriage and then by class barriers that make it impossible to enter the university. Later his desire to live with his soulmate is thwarted by social conventions. Eventually everything Jude cares for is taken from him, even the idea of turning toward God.
Sue Bridehead is a nonconformist, an independent individual, even from childhood. In Christminster she earns a living as an ecclesiastical designer and lives as a free woman. She becomes involved with Jude and as a result makes a bad marriage with an older schoolteacher whom she then leaves to live with Jude without the benefit of marriage. Her actions often show her as masochistic or, at best, carelessly self destructive, at war with herself, and uninterested in physical intimacy. Sue is an agnostic, but after losing her children she comes to think God is punishing her for defying convention and spends considerable time in church and living according to Christian doctrine.
Young Jude's bland old schoolteacher, Mr. Phillotson, leaves Marygreen for Christminster with the idea of attending university and becoming a clergyman. He fails in that dream but resumes an acquaintanceship with Jude years later. Mr. Phillotson meets Sue (20 years his junior), takes her on as a student teacher, falls in love with her, and convinces her to marry him. When she demonstrates her aversion to him and asks for a separation, he allows her to join Jude and start a new life, at great personal cost. He shows himself both kind in allowing her to leave and selfish in taking her back.
Arabella Donn is the daughter of a pig farmer and butcher and, although very attractive, is coarse and underhanded. She is frank about her sexuality and lures Jude into a sexual relationship that ends in their disastrous marriage because she pretends to be pregnant. Selfish and conniving, she reappears several times and tricks Jude into marrying her again after her second husband dies.