Jude the Obscure

by Thomas Hardy

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Discuss the theme of marriage in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.

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Hardy critiques marriage and the way it limits individuals in this novel. Jude, for example, finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage with Arabella, a woman with whom he has no affinity. Sue, likewise, makes a loveless marriage with Phillotson. Both marriages are completely respectable in the eyes of society, though each one is a sham.

The genuine love and affinity Jude and Sue share is not, however, respectable in the eyes of society as long as the two are nor married. The reality of their relationship matters far less than the legal protocol of having a marriage certificate. When Sue's landlady finds out the pregnant Sue, who already has two children with Jude, is not married, she asks the family to leave.

After Father Time kills her two children and himself, Sue returns to and remarries Phillotson. In doing so, she embraces conventionality, not a positive act but a measure of her fear. Fear, not love, tends to drive people into marriage in this novel. Further, Sue's remarriage to Phillotson helps destroy Jude.

Hardy critiques a society that puts too much emphasis on legal marriages, no matter how empty they are, and that condemns a relationship, no matter how authentic, that is not legitimated by a marriage contract.

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This novel certainly offers a commentary on the way that marriage was such an institution in Victorian England, and how those that did not "conform" to the expected norms of living in a married state were treated and ostracised. Consider Hardy's sympathetic treatment of both of his main protagonists. Jude and Sue both make loveless marriages that cause them despair and hurt. However, when they "find" each other, they are able to experience a love and union that they had never experienced prior to this point, in spite of their socially acceptable marriages. However, it is clear that the ostracism they experience shows the cruelty and the negative side of religion and social norms and expectations. The fact that both main characters return to their original marriages at the end of the tale perhaps suggests Hardy's unwilling recognition of the strength of this institution rather than a final judgement on the value of marriage as a social institution.

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How can we talk about the theme of marriage in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy?

Marriage is the central issue in this novel. This is true in the practical aspects of marriage as well as the ideological elements of the institution. 

Jude's marriage to Sue is the most significant one in the novel, but far from the only one. Jude also marries Arabella and Sue also marries Phillotson. Arabella also has a second marriage. 

Each of these unions is examined in terms of its honesty and in terms of its balance. Conversations abound regarding the logic of a permanent bond formed between two humans fated to change their minds about their preferences. 

Jude's marriage to Arabella, like Sue's marriage to Phillotson, grows out of obligation and deceit, not love. Yet the legal bond endures long after the emotional bond is broken. This lamentable fact also is discussed at...

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The bitterness of "false" marriage marks both Sue and Jude. 

Sue’s marriage to Phillotson has led her to despise the institution, much as Jude’s problems with Arabella Donn had caused him to be fearful.

The practical and legal difficulties that grew from their failed marriages are clearly drawn in the novel. The ideological difficulties of marriage are explored throughout the novel but find fullest expression in the extended pseudo-betrothal between Jude and Sue. 

As Jude and Sue are freed to marry one another after each getting divorced from their first marriages, they postpone doing so.

Several debates take place that articulate varying challenges to the legal structure of marriage, the moral (and demoralizing) effects of marriage on individuals, and the natural resistance of free spirited people to such a permanent institution.

Marriage is defined by rules. Society sees marriage, in this novel, as a set thing. To play with the rules of marriage is to endanger the society. This notion is demonstrated when Phillotson is fired from his teaching position after the town discovers that he permitted Sue to leave him so that she could live with her lover.

Phillotson gives his consent to her departure; when his superiors at the school discover the arrangement, he is relieved of his position.

The town, as a representative of society, was not even slightly interested in allowing a breech of the well-understood protocol surrounding marriage. To challenge the institution of marriage is to challenge the moral authority of society at large. Acting unconventionally leads to ostracism, as we see with Phillotson and later with Jude and Sue as they are run out of town. 

Marriage, in light of these arguments, can be seen to symbolize social rules generally, which often stand in opposition to the will of the individual. 

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