At Shaston Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1503

New Characters:
Gillingham: Phillotson’s childhood friend, he offers comfort when Sue leaves

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Waiting Maid: hotel staff member who tells Sue that Jude was there with Arabella

Chairman of the School Committee: demands that Phillotson resign after Sue leaves

Itinerants: people who defend Phillotson at his public hearing

“At Shaston” begins with a description of the town, remote and known for its wantonness. Jude arrives to visit Sue and together they play hymns on the same piano that Phillotson had at Marygreen. Both are moved by the music and their hands clasp. They discuss religious views again. Jude is interested in learning more about the New Testament. Sue recommends that he read Cowper’s Apocryphal Gospels. Sue also confides in Jude that she is not entirely happy in her marriage. Before Jude leaves Shaston for Melchester, he walks past the house where Sue and Phillotson live and watches them through the window.

In Chapter II, Sue writes to Jude, telling him not to visit again as their flirtation is dangerous for a married woman. Then, Aunt Drusilla dies and Jude and Sue see each other at the funeral. Sue complains to Jude, relating her dissatisfaction with her marriage. He informs her that he plans to go back to Arabella. As she continues to bemoan her fate, they embrace.

In Chapter III, Sue kisses Jude good-bye as she leaves for Shaston. This is their first real kiss. Jude subsequently burns all of his religious books. When she arrives home, Sue tells Phillotson, after some discussion, that she wishes to leave him and live with Jude. She quotes John Stuart Mill, to which Phillotson replies: “What do I care about Mill?” At school the next day, they exchange notes in which Sue confirms her desire to leave him and he expresses his regret, but agrees to think about it. She begins to live in another part of the house.

At the beginning of Chapter IV, Phillotson discovers that Sue has jumped out of a second-story window, nearly injuring herself in an attempt to escape. The next evening, Phillotson goes to see his friend Gillingham, who tells him he is crazy to consider letting Sue go. However, when he returns home, he tells Sue that she may leave.

In Chapter VI, Sue joins Jude, and they decide to move to Aldbrickham to avoid scandal. Phillotson faces such a scandal in Chapter VII. When the head of the school discovers that Sue has left and that Phillotson did nothing to prevent her, he is fired and ostracized, although some itinerants in the town support him, as does Gillingham. He falls ill and Sue comes to see him. Still, Phillotson does not try to win her back.

No town in the novel, except perhaps Christminster, is described with such detail and vividness as Shaston. On the whole, Hardy gives far less description of the landscape than he has done in other novels. However, he does not omit description here. Hardy may have done this to create a contrast between Shaston and the towns where Jude previously lived. He also may have wished to establish the importance of sensory perception at this stage of the novel. Jude has put aside both scholarship and religion, and becomes driven by desire. Shaston’s remoteness may be particularly significant and warrant more descriptive detail because it serves as a metaphor for Jude’s “obscurity.”

As in the rest of the novel, light—of both candles and the sun—is an important image. It can be either warm and inviting or forbidding and vengeful. The evening light creates an atmosphere conducive to the romantic encounter in the Shaston schoolhouse. When Phillotson leaves his house to see Gillingham, the lights in the windows seem to be watching him. When he is ill, he sees the sunset as “tongues of fire.” Light is symbolic both of religious enlightenment and human affection. As in the rest of the novel, there is constant interplay and conflict between religion and sexual attraction.

Jude and Sue are brought together by a common interest in religion, yet it would be impossible for the relationship, at least from Jude’s perspective, to be seen in asexual terms. They do not, however, find a place for their relationship within the contemporary religious and social scheme.

The major event that takes place in “At Shaston,” Phillotson’s agreement that Sue may leave to live with Jude, is somewhat remarkable for people of the middle class in rural England. First, Sue is planning to live with a man out of wedlock. Second, Phillotson, though he wants Sue, does not try to enforce his claim on her. To an extent, Phillotson takes an attitude similar to Sue’s in his willingness to live outside the rules.

The earlier break up of Jude and Arabella does not cause a scandal, basically because of the low social status of the characters. The split of a barmaid and a stonemason does not have the same effect as that of two teachers. Entry into the middle class leads to a sacrifice of freedom.

There is a paradox in the scandal caused by Sue in that she is anything but sexually wanton. She holds back both from Jude and Phillotson, as she did with the undergraduate in London. Many readers have considered her a tease, even cruel. She manipulates Jude by allowing him “just one kiss” and admonishing him not to love her. When Sue leaves Phillotson, although Phillotson believes that she and Jude will live together as man and wife, she does not immediately consent to sexual relations with Jude. She is disturbed when she finds that they are going to the same hotel where Jude stayed with Arabella, and refuses to do so.

Sue’s departure from Phillotson is certainly precipitated by the death of Aunt Drusilla. An impediment to
Jude and Sue’s relationship has been removed, but so has a link. The loss of the sense of cousinship creates a vacuum, a need for a sexual connection.

Phillotson’s character is an important issue in the surprising turn of events. A more passionate person would not have allowed Sue her freedom. Like Sue, however, he is ruled first by ideas. Her decision to marry him was made rationally, rather than emotionally; his decision to let her go is the product of reason. He is objective enough to recognize the affection between Jude and Sue, and to see that his own relationship with Sue cannot match it.

At the beginning of the novel, Phillotson encouraged Jude to pursue an education; he was a father figure to Jude. However, it was Jude who introduced Sue to him. This relationship is an important dynamic in the story. He does not seem to hate Jude, at this point, and it is probably this lack of animosity that enables him to let Sue go.

The role of Phillotson’s friend, Gillingham, is to tell Phillotson the opinion that the average person will have about his decision to let Sue leave. It does not seem that he is married, yet he holds a traditional, male-centered view of marriage. He comes to understand his friend’s view, but he does not share it.
Music plays a role in this section, as it did at the end of “At Melchester. ” Both Jude and Sue are greatly moved by the hymn Jude plays. It is the hymn written by the composer whom he had approached. This enables Jude to transcend the composer’s rejection and, in fact, begins the physical relationship between Jude and Sue. While they have different backgrounds and conflicting ideas and tastes, music is a common ground. Music had, of course, played an important role in Hardy’s own upbringing.

Illness, too, is an important theme here, and throughout the novel. Unnamed illnesses seem to be depressions. Sue becomes “ill” when she leaves the training college and Phillotson becomes “ill” when Sue leaves. Sickness provides a reason for visits that would otherwise be inappropriate. Aunt Drusilla’s illness and death bring Jude and Sue together.

The poet mentioned most frequently in Jude is Percy Bysshe Shelley. Jude and Sue quote him to each other, and Phillotson tells Gillingham that Jude and Sue remind him of Laon and Cythna, lovers from Shelley’s “The Revolt of Islam.” This long poem is an imaginary version of the French Revolution, set in Asia. Laon and Cythna are brother and sister who commit incest and have a child. Sue asks Jude to recite lines from “Epipsychidion,” Shelley’s wedding ode. Shelley is an apt muse for the novel, both in the romantic nature of his work and in the rebellious nature of his life. His skepticism appeals to Sue.

Another interest common to several characters in Jude is the search for meaning in classical antiquity. Phillotson studies Roman ruins, Sue collects pagan statues; Jude reads Greek. Like Walter Pater, a major Victorian writer and art critic, they attempt to define and utilize the past.

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