Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy: Summary, Themes & Characters

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth holds a PhD in English language and literature from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She also holds a Master of Arts in English literature from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and a BA in English from Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. Since 2005, she has taught literature, writing, and philosophy courses at the university and graduate levels. Though Terri Beth loves books and writing of all kinds, her heart lies especially with British Victorian and Modernist literature, as well as the novels of Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and, to mix things up a bit, Salman Rushdie!

Thomas Hardy's final completed novel, Jude the Obscure, encompasses the story of a young worker, Jude, who has aspirations of a future in academia. Follow the themes of the Victorian Working class struggles, and the characters' attitudes towards marriage, religion, and sexuality. Updated: 10/31/2021

Jude the Obscure Background

Thomas Hardy's last finished novel, Jude the Obscure, is widely considered to be his best. Hardy explores all the big issues: class, faith, hope, love, sex. In the process, this seemingly simple story of a doomed love affair transcends the Victorian era in which it is set, making it a timeless classic, a universal tale of longing and despair.

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Jude the Obscure Summary

Jude the Obscure is the story of a working-class young man from southern England, Jude Fawley, who dreams of someday becoming a scholar at the prestigious university at Christminster, modeled on the world-famous Oxford University.

Before this can happen, however, Jude is tricked into marriage by the seductive, but opportunistic, Arabella Donn, who falsely claims she is pregnant. The marriage soon falls apart and Jude travels to Christminster, only to be denied entry to the university. The classical studies he has pursued all his life, almost entirely on his own, have been for nothing. He has neither the education, nor the money, to become a scholar.

While at Christminster, he meets and quickly falls in love with his cousin, the vivacious and rebellious, Sue Bridehead. She, however, marries Jude's former schoolmaster and mentor, Richard Phillotson, who is cruel to her. Their marriage also fails; Sue and Jude divorce their spouses, but Sue refuses to marry Jude.

Then Jude discovers that he has a long-lost son with his estranged wife, Arabella. Jude's son comes to live with him and Sue. Still unmarried, Sue and Jude bear two more children, but are shunned by their community. Jude loses his job as a stonemason, the family is denied lodgings, and so the five of them embark on a seemingly endless search for work and housing.

Ultimately, Jude's namesake, his son with Arabella, known as Little Father Time because of his grave manner, hangs the younger children and himself, leaving behind a note which says only, 'Done because we are too meeny (many).'

Devastated, Sue returns to Phillotson and a life of religious devotion. They remarry, as do Jude and Arabella. After one more attempt to reconcile with Sue, Jude falls ill and ultimately dies at the age of 30. Arabella immediately moves on in search of her next husband, while Sue lives out the rest of her dreary life with Phillotson.

Jude the Obscure Themes & Analysis

Let's now take a closer look at the different themes and overall analysis of Jude the Obscure one step at a time.

The Struggle of the Victorian Working Class

Jude, though born into the working class, has big hopes of social and class mobility. He dreams of the kind of education and the kind of social and financial success from which those of his class are too often barred. But Jude's impoverished background is not so easily shaken.

An orphan raised by his aunt, Jude learns that his classical academic pursuits have all been for nothing: he's studied the wrong things. His head is stuffed with useless and probably incorrect information, and, what's worse for the scholars of Christminster, he has neither the resources nor the 'breeding' to become a scholar. He's, quite simply, not the right class and, all too often in Victorian England, the class in which you're born is the class in which you remain.

Love, Marriage, and Sex

Troubled relationships fill Hardy's novel. Jude and Arabella's disastrous marriage highlights an issue that Hardy himself frequently condemned: the Victorians' always judgmental and frequently cruel attitude toward sex.

Jude succumbs before marriage to Arabella's seductions and feels compelled, both by honor and by religious and social conviction, to marry her, tying himself eternally to a shallow woman whom he doesn't really love.

Conversely, the truly loving relationship between Sue and Jude is destroyed because it exists outside of marriage. The social condemnation and ostracism they incur ravage what might otherwise have been a very happy family. Sue, Jude, and their children are brutalized, and made hungry and homeless, through the scorn leveled against them.

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