Jude the Obscure may be thought of as the argument of Tess of the D’Urbervilles taken one step farther. Whereas the latter focuses on the loss of a unified order and meaning, the former begins with the premise of that loss and deals with the epic search for meaning. The novel is the archetypal story of everyone who searches for a basis of meaning and value. The problem for Jude is that all of the symbols of meaning for him—education, religion, the beauty of Sue Bridehead—are illusions. Jude is “obscure” because he is in darkness, trying to find an illumination of his relationship to the world but failing at every turn.
The novel begins with Jude as a young man losing his only real friend, the schoolmaster Phillotson, who has been the center of his world. Thus, from the first Jude must find a new center and a new hope to relieve his loneliness. His first projection of hope is toward the celestial city of Christminster, where his teacher has gone. In the first section of the book, his dream is like an indefinable glow in the distance. His ideal value system, represented both by the Christian and the classical framework of Christminster, is put aside, however, when he meets Arabella, described by Hardy as “a substantial female animal.” Seduced by the flesh, Jude marries Arabella when she says she is pregnant and gives up his hope of an education. His discovery that Arabella has deceived him is the first disillusionment he suffers in his quest for meaning.
The second phase of Jude’s spiritual journey involves his actual journey to Christminster, a city the vision of which is made even more specific by his seeing a picture of Sue Bridehead, who becomes for him a concrete image of his idealizations. Jude’s first disillusionment at Christminster comes when he is turned down by all the colleges to which he applies. Thus, he shifts from the life of reason to the life of religion, practicing the rituals of the church.
During the next phase of his search, after having lost Sue to his old schoolmaster Phillotson, Jude becomes aware of the aridity of the religious life and burns all of his theology books. When Sue leaves Phillotson and returns to Jude, he has new hope, in spite of the fact that Sue is unwilling to live with him as a wife. The return of Arabella frightens her into giving in to his sexual desires, and the couple have children together.
When the most morbid of the children kills himself and the others, Sue makes an extreme shift from her former rebellion and accepts a supreme deity whose laws she believes she has transgressed. As penance, she leaves Jude to return to Phillotson. After Sue leaves, Jude goes to “a dreary, strange flat scene, where boughs dripped, and coughs and consumption lurked, and where he had never been before.” This is a typical Hardy technique for presenting moments of existential realization: The natural world becomes an inimical reflection of the character’s awareness of the absurd. Subsequently, Jude’s reaction to the world around him is complete indifference. Jude’s final journey to see Sue is a journey to death and a final rejection of the indifferent universe of which his experiences have made him aware. Jude the Obscure is the most crushing example of Hardy’s vision. It may be one of his last novels because it is difficult to imagine pushing the tragedy of lost hopes beyond this point.
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.
Anticipating a career as a religious scholar, Jude apprentices himself at the age of nineteen to a stonemason engaged in the restoration...
(The entire section is 2,650 words.)