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Jude the Obscure | Themes

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The themes in Jude the Obscure are closely intertwined. The problem of marriage, the pain of a godless existence, religious hypocrisy, the brutal class system, and gender inequality conspire to destroy the lives of Jude and Sue. Nonetheless, they try to live their lives honestly and with kindness according to their beliefs and principles and the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

Problem of Marriage

A major theme in the novel is that people often make wrong choices in marrying. Given human error and the consequences of a poor choice in a marital partner, the story shows that people should not be bound to remain in unhappy relationships and suffer a lifetime of penance. Critics accused Hardy of attacking the institution of marriage, but he defends himself in the second preface—the 1912 Postscript—by saying "I have been charged ... with ... the present "shop-soiled" condition of the marriage theme. My opinion at that time, if I remember rightly, was what it is now, that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties—being then essentially and morally no marriage—and it seemed a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy."

Hardy distinguished between the true marriage of minds and hearts and the legal contract that becomes void once the relationship dies. Despite the contractual nature, marriages die quite frequently, as evidenced by today's divorce statistics in a time when people are freer to dissolve their unions. Couples in Hardy's time, however, were forced to remain chained together like two unhappy convicts. It is easy enough to see the disastrous union between Jude and Arabella brought about originally by trickery and entrapment. However, had Arabella remained in Marygreen, the marriage would not have been easily dissolved. Nor does her departure for Australia free Jude from legal entanglements, although it does free him from the daily misery of her company.

The marriage between Sue and Phillotson is more complicated. Phillotson represents an enlightened view when he lets Sue go to live with her soulmate, an action for which he is punished by a hypocritical society. Society cares much more about the letter than the spirit of the law ("the letter killeth") and upholds a superficial morality that negates people's deepest feelings. But the problem of marriage in Hardy's novel is intractable; even though Phillotson is willing to take Sue back as his wife, his complicity in her martyrdom is sure to destroy her. Going along with Sue helps him get back his livelihood and status in an unforgiving society.

On the other hand, the real marriage of Jude and Sue causes people to persecute and ostracize them because the couple does not have a legal contract. The relentless hounding of the nonconformist couple results in their losing their livelihoods and relatively pleasant home in Aldbrickham. Their return to Christminster as paupers leads to the tragic destruction of their family.

Sue resents the accepted fact that women are reduced to using marriage as a way to ensure financial stability rather than choosing marriage freely to express love and desire to live with a soulmate. Sue rebels against the hypocritical standards of society, which deem her immoral because she is not legally married to her children's father, and her failure to hide this information leads to the terrible murders perpetrated by Father Time. Ultimately Sue is broken by the tragedy and surrenders to social norms, returning to her actual husband to atone for what she sees as the sin of having and then losing her children.

Pain of Existence without God

While most of Hardy's early critics were outraged by his social critique, more shocking is the depth of the author's pessimism and doubt about the goodness of existence. Early in the novel Miss Drusilla Fawley tells the young Jude it would have been better if he had died with his parents. She says also the Fawleys should not marry, a viewpoint that indirectly reflects the sentiment that it is best not to procreate and continue the species. In fact, Jude's mother kills herself after she separates from her husband—another bad marriage—and Jude unsuccessfully tries to kill himself after his rift with Arabella by breaking the ice on a frozen pond.

Jude gets a second chance to build a life for himself when Arabella leaves him, but no matter how much he tries to create something enduring, he is knocked down and defeated by a hostile, or at best an indifferent, universe. His dream to become a scholar is squelched, and the love of his life deserts him. His second suicide attempt (when he travels to see Sue in the driving rain) proves successful, though it takes him months to die. Jude's faith is not a refuge, and God, in the way Christians perceive him, never makes an appearance. It is thus clear why Jude abandons religion.

Indeed the name Jude itself calls into question the author's religious motivations. It may refer to the "General Epistle of Jude" in the New Testament, which, according to Cedric Watts, is not well known (hence, obscure) and warns against corruption of the flesh, a recurring problem for Jude. In addition St Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases, and Jude Fawley is a hopeless case whom neither St. Jude nor religion can save. Jude can do little else but abandon religion because it has caused him nothing but rejection and pain: There is no saint who will aid him. Jude's dreams are obscured or obliterated in Christminster, the "city of light." The presence of a benevolent divinity remains obscured in his short, wretched life, no Christ to "minister" to him ever.

Father Time, Jude's son, is a study in the meaninglessness of life. Continuing the Fawleys' nihilism or belief in meaninglessness, he tells Jude and Sue not to marry, and he believes it would have been better if he had not been born. When he first comes to Jude and Sue, he is without a name, "[b]ecause, if I died in damnation, 'twould save the expense of a Christian funeral," he tells his new parents. At the end of the novel Father Time succumbs to despair, knowing his parents' lives have been difficult because "we are too menny"; better, therefore, to take oneself out of the world. No older than nine, Father Time is the frightening embodiment of pointless existence, and the horror of his outlook on life is made more devastating by his youth. In Father Time's world God does not exist; thus, there is no recourse to divine help or even divine comfort.

Religious Hypocrisy

Religious hypocrisy is an important theme in the novel, in which men become priests simply because it is a comfortable career choice, not a vocation. There is a distinct absence of genuine religious feeling or experience in the novel; people use religion simply as a way to enforce society's rules and norms. Religion makes hypocrites of people because it forces them to despise and reject their natural urges (such as the desire for sex) and to violate natural morality: to leave partners who no longer suit them or make them miserable and to refrain from marrying unsuitable partners to establish paternity.

Religion is also a tool to subjugate women, who must get permission from husbands and fathers to do anything of consequence. For example, Sue points out that while a man gives himself freely in marriage, a woman is "given away" by a patriarchal figure, usually her father, to the husband who will become her keeper.

In Hardy's view religion is a crutch as well—to help the self-conscious creature that is a human being face the terrible existential angst (anxiety about existence) that is his or her fate. People comfort themselves with the idea of an afterlife, as when the organist plays the 73rd psalm at the children's funeral, and Sue hears, "Truly God is loving unto Israel." But where is God in their deaths? Without a belief in God, people must create their own reason to live, and if they are not able to come up with one, life becomes unbearable, as it did for Jude's mother and does for Jude's unearthly son, and eventually for Jude.

Related thematically are the words of the entire novel's epigraph: "The letter killeth." The sentence is a shortened version of St. Paul's words in the Book of Corinthians in the New Testament: "Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." In this quotation St. Paul is contrasting the "old covenant" of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) with the "new covenant" created by the teachings of Jesus. However, Hardy means the letter of the law in religious matters may violate the tenets of Christianity if people do not interpret them with mercy and compassion. The words echo thematically throughout the novel as they apply to marriage and religion. In a wider context Hardy saw orthodox religion as a soul-killing philosophy, and the novel's characters reflect those who mercilessly follow the letter—inflicting heartlessness, cruelty, abuse—and those who do not.

Brutality of the Class System

The brutality of an impenetrable class system haunts Jude, who has the misfortune to be born into the working class. Despite being hard working, ambitious, and highly intelligent, he cannot escape from the restrictions of his class. He is doomed to remain basically in place, and the best he can do is become a craftsman in a skilled trade.

Jude cannot gain entry into the university because he has not had access to schools that teach Greek and Latin, and his efforts at self-study are not enough for him to catch up. Thus, he doesn't have enough knowledge to take an examination to qualify him for a scholarship. Neither does he have the money to pay—another route to a university education, and the one generally taken by the upper classes. Although Christminster was made for people like him—a genuine scholar with a thirst for knowledge, as Sue points out—Jude is doomed to remain outside its gates of learning and denied the opportunities to which learning can lead.

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is an important theme in the novel, and Sue Bridehead represents, to an extent, the "new woman" who would prefer to remain independent. Given a choice Sue probably would not marry but feels constrained to do so. Sue has a trade as an ecclesiastical or church designer, and she has more than enough intelligence and talent to become a certified teacher, although she closes that opportunity by violating the rules of the teaching academy. Moreover, she rebels against her unjust punishment rather than meekly submitting to it, and as a result she is expelled. Readers may wonder whether male students would have similarly harsh restrictions and similarly harsh punishments for violating them.

Sue does not wish to get married because she understands the obligations of matrimony, the bondage of it, are worse for a woman than for a man. A wife is subject to her husband, and if he decides to treat her with physical or psychological cruelty, she has little recourse but to endure her pain. Sue resents the notion of women as property to be given and used in marriage. And she resents the accepted fact that women are reduced to using marriage as a way to ensure financial stability rather than choosing marriage freely to express their love and desire to live with a soulmate. Sue rebels against the hypocritical standards of society, which deem her immoral because she is not legally married to her children's father. Her failure to hide this information leads to tragedy that completely breaks Sue's spirit. As penance she surrenders to social norms, returning to her unlovable husband to atone for what she sees as the sin of having and then losing her children and living on her own terms.

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