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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