At Melchester Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934

New Characters:
Shepherd and his Mother: country people who invite Sue and Jude to spend the night in their home

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Students at Sue’s College: busybodies who spread rumors about Sue after she spends the night away from school

Miss Traceley: school official whose duties include roll call

Porter: the school worker who hears splashing in the river

Mr. Cockman: flirts with Arabella

The Undergraduate: deceased student with whom Sue had a long intellectual relationship

The Musician: author of a piece of religious music; he rejects Jude because he is poor

Jude’s Landlady: the landlady at Melchester

Minister: marries Sue and Phillotson

Once again, in Chapter I, Jude makes plans to move to be near Sue. She is entering a training college for teachers at Melchester. Jude decides to apply to the Theological College at Melchester. He has recast his ambitions and decided that to be a threadbare village curate is a more noble goal than that of becoming a scholar. However, while he is saving up the money to do this, Sue writes to him to say that she is miserable and asking that he come see her. When he arrives, she tells him that Phillotson has asked her to marry him in two years’ time. Although Jude is upset, he finds a place to stay and a job repairing cathedrals.

In Chapter II, Jude and Sue set out on a walk in the country. They wander farther than they intend and miss the train. A shepherd lets them spend the night in his cottage. Chapter III begins with Sue missing her curfew. The mistress discovers her absence. When Sue returns, she is punished by being confined to her room. However, she escapes and goes to Jude’s lodgings.

Then, in Chapter IV, Sue tells Jude of her experience in London where she shared an apartment with an undergraduate. He taught her much, but became ill and died. Sue has, however, maintained her virginity, as she fears giving another power over her. She speaks of her disdain for Christminster, which she feels is merely an organ of Anglicanism. The discussion becomes heated when Jude expresses a view of religion more conservative than Sue’s. Sue clearly wishes to alter Jude’s views so that they conform to her own.

At the beginning of Chapter V, Sue departs for Shaston, intending to stay with a friend. She fears that the training college will not allow her to return. After she tells Jude not to love her, she quickly sends him a letter rescinding the admonition. Upon his return to Shaston, she reveals that she has been expelled from the training college and told that she ought to marry as soon as possible to avoid further damage to her reputation. She will probably marry Phillotson, since Jude waited too long to declare his feelings for her. Again, he leaves feeling put off, only to receive a letter shortly thereafter apologizing for the rejection.

In Chapter VI, Phillotson also moves to Shaston, where he was born, and sets up a school. He is very much in love with Sue, and his discovery that she has been expelled from the training school upsets him tremendously. Finding Jude in the stonemason’s yard, he asks him about the incident. Jude essentially tells him the truth.

Jude then finds Sue and tells her of his previous marriage to Arabella. Sue is at first suspicious, but eventually she accepts Jude’s explanation.

In Chapter VII, Sue writes Jude that she and Phillotson are to be married shortly. She requests that Jude give her away. Though deeply hurt, he complies. He and Sue rehearse the ceremony together and
Jude buys Sue a wedding present. The wedding takes place and the wedding party returns to Jude’s lodgings for a meal. As Sue and Phillotson are getting into the carriage to leave, Sue realizes that she has forgotten her handkerchief. She runs back into the house to get it and seems close to confiding something to Jude, but says nothing and goes with her husband.

Chapter VIII finds Jude returning to Marygreen to see his aunt, whose condition has worsened. While there, he takes a trip to Christminster where he runs into Arabella, who is a barmaid. She has returned from Australia where she was briefly married to another man. Jude expresses his disapproval, but they spend the night together.

Subsequently, in Chapter IX Jude sees Sue by chance. She has also come to see Aunt Drusilla, so they visit her together. Sue questions her aunt about reasons that one might marry. When Aunt Drusilla replies that it is wrong to marry someone one does not love, Sue runs out of the room crying, realizing that is what she has done. She then returns to Shaston. Jude receives a letter from Arabella saying that her Australian husband has come to England and that she will go off with him.

Jude returns to Melchester in Chapter X, having decided he lacks the temperament for the clergy. He does sing in the church choir and when he hears a hymn he particularly likes, he goes to Kennetbridge to tell the composer how much he likes his work. The composer is responsive until he realizes that Jude doesn’t have money, at which point he treats Jude coldly. He himself has decided that there is no money in music and plans to go into the wine business. He had hoped that Jude would be a potential customer. Disillusioned, Jude writes to Sue, asking if he might visit her. She agrees to let him visit.

The most important development in this section is probably the description of Sue’s views both on religion and on relationships between men and women, and her revelations of past experience. The character of Sue Bridehead is largely responsible for the controversy surrounding Jude the Obscure, whether or not her views mirrored Hardy’s views.

First, her relationship with the undergraduate shocked many nineteenth century readers. The fact that she kept her virginity probably had little mitigating value. It was the appearance of illicit activity, as much as the actual activity, that bothered Victorians, as Sue discovers when she is expelled from the training college. Sue’s preservation of her virginity does, however, demonstrate the limitations on the literalness of her outlook. Her rebellion is highly cerebral—she cannot commit herself physically to her beliefs.

Second, Sue is clearly intellectually superior to Jude, thereby violating the conventions of the time. It is she who controls the conversation, and she who wishes to educate him. Also, she is of the middle class, and it was considered inappropriate for someone of her status to marry a working-class man.

The restrictions typically placed on young Victorian women are depicted in Chapter III, where Hardy gives a poignant description of the training college which Sue attends. Aged nineteen to twenty one, the women are prohibited from seeing men, and the overall atmosphere is highly repressive. Hardy makes it clear that the women are restricted, not as a function of social class—as they come from a range of backgrounds—but as a result of gender.

The handicap Jude endures for his working-class status is, however, not entirely unlike the oppression felt by women. Women too, had few opportunities to study at the university level. The common feeling of oppression is another factor that unites Jude and Sue. They must find ways around social norms rather than fitting into them.

The issue of social class is evident in Jude’s encounter with the musician in Chapter X. Even an artist is motivated by money and is unreceptive to praise from someone poor. The pattern has clearly developed wherein Jude develops an attraction to something that he cannot achieve or possess due to social and economic status. The other effect of class barriers in the novel is the difficulty of marriage between members of different classes. Sue’s initial choice of Phillotson, over Jude, results at least in part from Phillotson’s middle-class status, whereas both Jude and Arabella would be considered working class.

In addition to her actions, Sue’s opinions distinguish her from other young women. While Jude is attracted to the somewhat controversial, but conservative, Tractarian Movement, Sue insists on an individualistic reading of the Bible. Whereas Jude relies heavily on the church, Sue rebels against organized religion. Jude has somewhat conservative morals. Paradoxically, he passes harsher judgment on Sue’s past than does Phillotson.

Sue and Jude also disagree in their views of the university. Despite his rejection, Jude remains worshipful, whereas Sue is skeptical and critical. This is based, in part, on her rejection of the Anglican Church, which she sees as a controlling influence at Christminster. It is also based on her reading of Edward Gibbon, a politician and historian who harshly critiqued Oxford. An interesting contrast develops between Sue and Arabella which parallels, to some extent, the contrast between Jude and Phillotson. Each woman represents a different side of Jude. Arabella is largely a negative character, but in the end she survives. She is pragmatic and able to operate within social boundaries. She essentially commits bigamy, but is not so severely punished as Sue is for merely spending the night in the same house with Jude. This discrepancy results from Arabella’s willingness to stay within the confines of her social role. She is ambitious, but does not attempt to transcend gender and social class. Arabella knows that sex and money are interconnected, and so she is economically motivated. She does not concern herself with ideology, as Sue does.

To some extent, Phillotson, too, does not equivocate and straightforwardly tells Sue his feelings, whereas Jude fears such revelation. Jude also argues with Sue, and judges her rather than taking charge of the situation as Phillotson does. Like Arabella, he takes the more pragmatic course. However, his social position allows him to do so, in that he offers Sue some social acceptability. Sue clearly feels the conflict between her feelings for Jude and her desire for social respectability. Arabella and Sue present Jude with a dichotomy; Jude and Phillotson create such a conflict for Sue. Phillotson represents social acceptability, whereas Jude represents love and friendship, as well as being a receptive listener for her ideas.

Aunt Drusilla is a relatively minor character. However, she is the link between Sue and Jude. There is little in Jude about a traditional nuclear family. The characters seem to be set apart, to live in something of a vacuum. For a long time Jude knows only Aunt Drusilla, who is not even an aunt, but a great aunt. Sue, also, has no one else after her father dies. Even Arabella has a stepmother rather than a natural mother. In part, Hardy portrays this lack of connectedness in a positive light. The characters are freer to follow their hearts. No parent is controlling them. Arabella and Phillotson do have more of a support system—Arabella consults Anny and Phillotson consults Gillingham. However, this consultation is depicted somewhat unfavorably, as the characters are influenced into taking cruel actions. In the end, however, the absence of family will also have dire consequences.

The severed family is a common theme in Victorian novels. Orphaned characters are led by providence to lost relatives. This is not the first Hardy novel to deal with such a theme; Tess of the D’Urbervilles involves the discovery of rich relatives. However, in Tess, and eventually in Jude, the families are not successfully rejoined. Outside influences are stronger than familial ties.

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