(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 593 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)