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Jude the Obscure | Plot Summary

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Summary

The novel, set in Wessex (Thomas Hardy's fictional version of southwestern England) in the latter part of the 19th century, traces the short and obscure life of Jude Fawley, a righteous man who loved deeply and suffered greatly.

Part 1: At Marygreen

Jude, an 11-year-old orphan, has come to live with his great-aunt, Miss Drusilla Fawley, who thinks he would have been better off to have died with his parents. Other than sharing her nihilistic views with the child, she is for the most part decent to him. Sensitive and intelligent, he feels the pain of his fellow creatures, including animals. Jude is one of Mr. Phillotson's night pupils and is saddened when his teacher leaves for Christminster, a town about 20 miles away that boasts a great university. Phillotson hopes to take a degree there and advance in his career by becoming a churchman. Jude, too, begins to dream about Christminster, which he can see if he climbs on a barn roof and looks out on a clear day. It seems to be a City of Light, and Jude decides he too will go there to study. Thus he begins to school himself, ambitiously trying to learn Latin, Greek, and mathematics.

At the age of 16 he apprentices himself to a mason to have a trade, but he expects to use it only as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal. One day, when he is about 19, he is waylaid by Arabella Donn, a pig farmer's daughter, who decides the nice-looking and earnest young man is a good catch. She ensures they quickly become intimate, and he marries her when she says she is pregnant, a ruse suggested by her friends, who see pregnancy as a means of entrapment, but altered to Arabella's convenience. Shortly after the wedding she tells Jude she was mistaken about the pregnancy. The couple soon begin having marital problems, and after a serious argument she leaves him and emigrates with her parents to Australia.

Part 2: At Christminster

When Jude finally moves to Christminster, he quickly finds work since he has a broad array of skills in his trade. He hunts down his cousin, Sue Bridehead, whom he already has a crush on from a photo his great-aunt showed him. Sue is his first cousin, the daughter of his aunt on his father's side. He convinces himself he is lonely and just wants a friend and intends to look her up, along with his old schoolmaster, Phillotson. Sue works as an ecclesiastical designer, most often on decorative lettering for religious objects. She finds him first, hearing he is in town, and they develop a friendship, which on his side immediately turns into love. Jude introduces Sue to Phillotson, who was unable to matriculate at the university and has gone back to teaching. After Sue loses her job and lodgings, Jude asks Phillotson to take her on as an apprentice teacher, and Sue goes to live with a widow near Phillotson's school. Sue is a "new woman," independent, well-educated (mostly through her own reading), agnostic, and wary of marriage. Not long after she goes to work for Philloston, the older man falls in love with her.

When Jude finally plucks up the courage to inquire about studying at the university, like Phillotson he finds he has neither the money to begin university training nor the educational background to pass a scholarship exam. One of the heads of college advises him to stick to his own class and trade. Jude is heartbroken and goes to the tavern to get drunk, making a spectacle of himself. He ends up on Sue's doorstep, and she takes him in for the evening. He sleeps in the front room and then slinks away early in the morning, embarrassed. He also loses his job and returns to Marygreen.

Part 3: At Melchester

Jude determines to become a lower-level clergyman and begins studying for this profession, which does not require university education. Sue writes to him from Melchester, where she is attending teacher-training college. She has taken a scholarship exam to get a place, which Phillotson helped arrange. He has proposed marriage to her, and she has tentatively accepted; he imagines they will be schoolteachers together when she finishes her training. Feeling lonely and miserable, Sue asks Jude to come to Melchester, and he immediately complies, thinking they can just be friends. Jude gets lodgings and work in Melchester.

One day he and Sue have a day out in the country and miss their train back to town. They are forced to stay overnight in the house of a shepherd, but they sleep in separate quarters. When Sue gets back to school the next day, she is severely chastised and segregated in her own room for a week. The other girls are forbidden to speak to her. Sue escapes from her isolation by climbing out of the window and walking through a river, ending up at Jude's lodgings. He takes her in for the night and gives her his clothes so she can dry off. Sue then leaves for Shaston, where Phillotson is to stay with a friend, hoping the scandal will blow over, but she is expelled from the college. She returns to Melchester to collect her things, and when she sees Jude, he finally confesses he is a married man.

Soon after Sue writes from Shaston to say she is getting married to Phillotson and asks Jude to "give her away" at the ceremony. A crushed Jude agrees to do so, and after Sue is married, he returns to Christminster. Aunt Fawley is very ill; he goes home to see her and writes to Sue offering to meet her train in Aldbrickham if she wants to visit their mutual relative. Sue agrees, but Jude gets sidetracked when he runs into Arabella by surprise, back from Australia. They have supper, and he ends up in bed with his estranged wife. The next morning Sue finds him in Christminster, and they travel together to Marygreen, both full of emotion. Sue admits she shouldn't have married Phillotson. Jude returns to Melchester, which is nearer Sue's home in Shaston, where she and Phillotson are teaching.

Part 4: At Shaston

Jude makes a visit to Shaston, and he and Sue have a heartfelt conversation, full of sexual heat and emotional compatibility. Later she writes and asks him not to visit again. Meanwhile Miss Fawley's caretaker, the Widow Edlin, writes to tell Jude his great-aunt is dying. Jude goes to Marygreen but arrives too late. He notifies Sue so she can attend the funeral. Sue and Jude again have a few painfully emotional scenes between them, and Jude confesses his love. When he takes Sue to the train station, they share a passionate kiss.

Back home Sue can no longer bear to have Phillotson near her, and he agrees to sleep separately, but then goes further by allowing her to leave him. She writes Jude, and he tells her to come to Aldbrickham, a larger town than Marygreen, where they can live in peace. He also tells her he has granted Arabella a divorce so she can legally wed the husband she married illegally in Australia. When the school board in Shaston learns Phillotson has allowed his wife to go to her lover, he is fired. He stands fast in his position, however, and even agrees to give her a divorce.

Part 5: At Aldbrickham and Elsewhere

Sue insists she and Jude remain in a platonic relationship. This state of affairs continues for several months, and both are happy, although Jude feels sexually frustrated. Arabella appears on his doorstep one day, and Sue, terrified of losing him to Arabella's trickery, immediately enters into a sexual relationship with him. As it turns out, Arabella wants only to turn her child over to Jude's custody. Called Little Father Time because he seems to be an old man already rather than a child, he was born to Arabella in Australia eight months after she left Jude. Arabella's parents no longer want to care for him, and Arabella cannot keep the child with her new husband. Jude and Sue take the child and continue happily until one day they decide to get married in a civil ceremony.

At the last minute Sue backs out of the marriage, fearing the effect of a legal contract on their freely given love. As a result of their filing papers to marry, however, the townspeople learn they are not. Jude and Sue are thus ostracized and forced to leave to find work. They begin a three-year period in which they move from place to place, following the work. At the end of this period Sue runs into Arabella, now widowed; soon after the meeting Jude and Sue move back to Christminster, where Jude still feels a deep personal connection.

Part 6: At Christminster Again

Jude returns to Christminster on Remembrance Day, which is bittersweet for him as he waits with his family for the procession of new doctoral graduates. He ends up making a speech to a small portion of the crowd as they wait for the ceremony to begin, recounting his failure and preaching against the evils of the class system.

Jude and Sue now have two children of their own, as well as Father Time, and Sue is pregnant with a fourth. When the family finally goes looking for temporary lodgings, no one wants to take them in, and Jude is forced to lodge elsewhere, away from Sue and the children. The landlady is suspicious, and when Sue confesses, without thinking, she and Jude are not actually married, the woman says Sue and the children will have to leave in the morning. Father Time, a morose child to begin with, gets more and more agitated when he accompanies Sue to look for lodgings for the next day and they return unsuccessful. Again without thinking, Sue speaks to him as if he were an adult and admits people don't want to rent when there are so many in the family. She also tells Time, now called Little Jude, she is pregnant, and he is furious with her, blaming her for bringing more trouble on the family.

The next morning, while the children are sleeping, she leaves very early to have breakfast with Jude and discuss their predicament. When the parents come back to fix the children breakfast, they find Father Time has hanged his two siblings and himself because they are "too menny."

Both parents are devastated, but Sue practically loses her mind. After months of grieving, she decides she must go back to Phillotson, since she is his lawful wife, despite the divorce, and never actually married Jude. Her agnosticism and scorn of convention disappear, and she wants to sacrifice herself to atone for living in sin, bringing children into the world out of wedlock, and being responsible for their deaths—God's punishment. Phillotson agrees to remarry her, and a devastated Jude, now on his own, is again tricked by Arabella after she keeps him drunk for a few days and then says he promised to marry her. Jude does remarry her, and they are miserable.

Meanwhile Sue is married to Phillotson but still won't sleep with him. Jude wants to die, so he goes out in a rainstorm when he is already sick and travels to Marygreen to see Sue. When Jude gets there, Sue embraces him and they kiss passionately, but she refuses to return to him. He knows he will never see her again and returns home. As a penance, she finally moves into her husband's bed. In Christminster Jude remains sick for months becoming weaker and weaker. When Remembrance Week rolls around, Arabella leaves Jude in his room to join the festivities, and he dies while she is gone. He is buried with only Arabella and the Widow Edlin in attendance, and Arabella declares Sue will never find peace, try as she might, as long as she is above ground.

Jude the Obscure Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Jude aspires to become a scholar and clergyman.

Rising Action

2 Jude learns the masonry trade to support himself.

3 Jude is coerced into marrying a seemingly pregnant Arabella.

4 After the marriage fails, Jude goes to Christminster.

5 Jude meets Sue and introduces her to Phillotson.

6 Rejected as an undergraduate, Jude returns to Marygreen.

7 Jude moves to Melchester to be near Sue in her college.

8 Sue is expelled from college and marries Phillotson.

9 Sue leaves Phillotson to live with Jude in Aldbrickham.

10 Sue and Jude adopt Father Time and have more children.

Climax

11 Father Time kills himself and his siblings in Christminster.

Falling Action

12 Sue grieves and recants her previous agnosticism.

13 As penance, Sue remarries Phillotson.

14 Jude is tricked into remarrying Arabella.

Resolution

15 Jude purposely gets sick and dies after months of illness.

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