Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
When he is eleven years old, Jude Fawley says good-bye to his schoolmaster, Richard Phillotson, who is leaving the small English village of Marygreen for Christminster to study for a degree. Young Jude is hungry for learning and yearns to go to Christminster, too, but he has to help his great-grandaunt, Drusilla Fawley, in her bakery. At Christminster, Phillotson does not forget his former pupil. He sends Jude some classical grammars, which the boy studies eagerly.
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Anticipating a career as a religious scholar, Jude apprentices himself at the age of nineteen to a stonemason engaged in the restoration of medieval churches in a nearby town. Returning to Marygreen one evening, he meets three young girls who are washing pigs’ chitterlings by a stream bank. One of the girls, Arabella Donn, catches Jude’s fancy, and he arranges to meet her later. The young man is swept off his feet and tricked into marriage, but he soon realizes that he married a vulgar country girl with whom he has nothing in common. Embittered, he tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide; when he begins to drink, Arabella leaves him.
Once he is free again, Jude decides to carry out his original intention. He goes to Christminster, where he takes work as a stonemason. He hears that his cousin, Sue Bridehead, lives in Christminster, but he does not seek her out because his aunt warned him against her and because he was already a married man. Eventually, he meets her and is charmed. She is an artist employed in an ecclesiastical warehouse. Jude connects with Phillotson, who is again a simple schoolteacher. At Jude’s suggestion, Sue becomes Phillotson’s assistant. The teacher soon loses his heart to his bright and intellectually independent young helper, and Jude is hurt by evidence of intimacy between the two. Disappointed in love and ambition, he turns to drink and is dismissed by his employer. He goes back to Marygreen.
At Marygreen, Jude is persuaded by a minister to enter the church as a licentiate. Sue, meanwhile, wins a scholarship to a teachers’ college at Melchester; she writes Jude and asks him to visit her. Jude works at stonemasonry in Melchester to be near Sue, even though she tells him she promised to marry Phillotson after completing her schooling. Dismissed from college after an innocent escapade with Jude, Sue influences him away from the church with her unorthodox beliefs. Shortly afterward, she marries Phillotson. Jude is despondent and returns to Christminster, where he comes upon Arabella working in a bar. Jude hears that Sue’s married life is unbearable. He continues his studies for the ministry and thinks a great deal about Sue.
Succumbing completely to his passion for Sue, Jude at last forsakes the ministry. His Aunt Drusilla dies, and at the funeral, Jude and Sue realize that they cannot remain separated. Sympathizing with the lovers, Phillotson releases Sue, who now lives apart from her husband. The lovers go to Aldbrickham, a large city where they will not be recognized. Phillotson gives Sue a divorce and subsequently loses his teaching position. Jude gives Arabella a divorce so that she might marry again.
Sue and Jude now contemplate marriage, but they are unwilling to be joined by a church ceremony because of Sue’s dislike for any binding contract. The pair lives together happily, and Jude continues his simple stonework. One day, Arabella appears and tells Jude that her marriage did not materialize. Sue is jealous and promises Jude that she will marry him. Arabella’s problem is solved by eventual marriage, but out of fear of her new husband, she sends her young child by Jude to live with him and Sue. This pathetic boy, nicknamed Little Father Time, joins the unconventional Fawley household.
Jude’s business begins to decline, and he loses a contract to restore a rural church when the vestry discovers that he and Sue are unmarried. Forced to move on, they travel from place to place and from job to job. At the end of two and a half years of this itinerant life, Jude and Sue have two children of their own and a third on the way. Jude, in failing health, becomes a baker; Sue sells cakes in the shape of Gothic ornaments at a fair in a village near Christminster. At the fair, Sue meets Arabella, who is now a widow. Arabella reports Sue’s poverty to Phillotson, who is once more the village teacher in Marygreen.
Jude takes his family to Christminster, where the celebration of Remembrance Week is underway. Utterly defeated by failure, Jude still loves the atmosphere of learning that pervades the city.
The family has difficulty finding lodgings and is forced to separate. Sue’s landlady, learning that Sue is an unmarried mother and fearful that she might have the trouble of childbirth in her rooming house, tells Sue to find other lodgings. Sue becomes bitter, and she tells Little Father Time that children should not be brought into the world. When she returns from a meal with Jude, she finds that the boy hanged the two babies and himself. She collapses and gives premature birth to a dead baby.
Her experience brings about a change in Sue’s point of view. Believing she sinned and wishing now to conform, she asks Jude to live apart from her. She also expresses the desire to return to Phillotson, whom she believes, in her misery, to be still her husband. She returns to Phillotson, and the two remarry. Jude is utterly lost and begins drinking heavily. In a drunken stupor, he is again tricked by Arabella into marriage. His lungs fail; it is evident that he will die soon. Arabella will not communicate with Sue, whom Jude desires to see once more, and so Jude travels in the rain to see her. The lovers have a last meeting. She then makes complete atonement for her past mistakes by becoming Phillotson’s wife completely. This development is reported to Jude, who dies in desperate misery of mind and body. Fate grew tired of its sport with a luckless man.