(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy

The following entry presents criticism of Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure (1895). See also Thomas Hardy Criticism (Introduction), Thomas Hardy Short Story Criticism, and Far from the Madding Crowd Criticism.

Hardy's last and by most accounts bleakest novel, Jude the Obscure details the failed life and ignoble death of Jude Fawley, a bright and ambitious, but ultimately inconsequential, man. The central dieme of the work is the inability of individuals to surmount the social and psychological forces that determine their lives. This theme also appears Hardy's earlier novels, notably Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, which likewise dramatize his belief that individuals are powerless to affect their own lives in an attempt to achieve happiness. In Jude the Obscure Hardy further explores this theme in relation to the constricting forces he observed around him in Victorian society: class, religion, and sexuality. Thus, the novel recounts Jude's unrealized dream to enter the university at Christminster (Hardy's fictionalized version of Oxford University), and his powerlessness to remain happily with the woman he loves, Sue Bridehead, outside of the socially accepted institution of marriage.

Plot and Major Characters

Jude the Obscure opens as a young Jude Fawley watches his school teacher, Mr. Richard Phillotson, depart the small town of Marygreen and travel to the university at Christminster. Sharing Phillotson's goal of earning a degree, Jude hopes to one day follow the same path and so studies intently. Meanwhile, he lives with his great-aunt, Drusilla Fawley, and learns the trade of stonemasonry in order to earn money for his future. Several years pass and Jude, now nineteen years old, meets Arabella Donn, the daughter of a local pig farmer. Sensuous and physically attractive, Arabella pursues Jude, and the two become lovers. Eventually Arabella convinces Jude that she has become pregnant by him, and they marry. Quickly growing tired of her new husband, however, she leaves him and emigrates to Australia. Jude than resumes his original plan and journeys to Christminster. There he meets his distant cousin Sue Bridehead, an intelligent, unconventional woman with whom he immediately falls in love. He later learns that Sue has also attracted the attention of Phillotson. Disheartened by this news and his inability to gain acceptance to the university, Jude departs Christminster for Melchester, where he hopes to pursue theological studies instead. Now also in Melchester at a training college, Sue spends time with Jude, but grows cold when he professes his love to her. After a fearful Jude reveals to her that he is married, she responds by proclaiming her own marriage, to Phillotson. However, the marriage is not to Sue's liking, and the return of Arabella, who has since married an Australian man, prompts Sue to change her mind about Jude.

At the funeral for Jude's recently deceased aunt, Sue kisses Jude passionately. Thinking himself no longer suitable for a career in the Church, Jude forsakes his theological studies. Sue, meanwhile, asks Phillotson for his permission to leave. Sue and Jude move in together in the nearby town of Aldbrickham, while Phillotson eventually grants Sue a divorce. After a year Sue still refuses to make love to Jude, until Arabella appears once again, and Sue and Jude, though unmarried, consummate their relationship for the first time. Arabella notifies Jude that they have a son together, a gloomy boy who is called Little Father Time. The boy arrives shortly from Australia to live with Jude and Sue. Meanwhile, public dislike for the couple's unwed lifestyle costs Jude his job, and the two leave Aldbrickham for Kennetbridge. More than two years pass, and Jude and Sue now have two children of their own, while Sue carries another unborn. When Little Father Time hears his adopted mother's unhappy reaction to the pregnancy he mistakenly believes that he and the other children are the source of the family's woes. He responds by hanging his siblings and then himself. He leaves a note nearby that reads "Done because we are to menny." Soon after, Sue delivers her child stillborn. Jude, meanwhile, falls ill and works only irregularly. Arabella then reappears—her Australian husband has since died—with a revived interest in Jude. She contacts Phillotson, who writes to Sue, urging her to return to him. Sue, feeling that she has been wrong to live with Jude unmarried, agrees. Arabella then contrives to get Jude back, and the two remarry. Jude, who has grown more and more ill over time, professes his enduring love for Sue, but both remain, unhappily, with their former spouses. When Jude dies one year later, having never realized his ambitions, he is attended only by Arabella and Mrs. Edlin, a family friend.

Major Themes

Hardy called his final novel "a tragedy of unfulfilled aims," and critics have since interpreted Jude the Obscure as his most thoroughly pessimistic statement on the inability of human beings to escape the deterministic forces of nature, society, and internal compulsion. For Jude such an escape lay in his dream of attaining a degree from the university at Christminster, yet the reality of Christminster proves wholly unlike Jude's fantasy. Because Jude is unable to enter the university, it becomes a source of bitterness and a symbol of defeat. Likewise, Jude's relationship with Sue Bridehead ultimately yields only futility and leads to another of the crucial conflicts critics perceive in the novel, that between the flesh and the spirit. Unable to give herself physically to Jude, Sue is trapped both by Victorian conventions of marriage and by her deeply held fear of sexuality and desire. Ironically, critics observe, Jude's love for Sue forces him to forsake the spiritual path he had set out for himself at Melchester, as he thinks himself unfit for the Church because of his physical longings for her—longings that she avoids for most of the novel. The result is to reinforce Hardy's overall theme of human inconsequentiality in the face of an insurmountable fate.

Critical Reception

The first complete appearance of Jude the Obscure in 1895 provoked a considerable uproar among Hardy's contemporaries. Most negative assessments objected to its frank portrayal of a man and woman living together out of wedlock, taking this to be a critique of the institution of marriage and the religious foundations upon which it is based. Hardy objected, contending that his novel was moral, but soon capitulated. He wrote in his postscript to the 1912 edition of Jude the Obscure that these reactions had the effect of "completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing," causing him to devote his literary attentions from that point forward solely to poetic and dramatic works. Still, many during Hardy's lifetime disagreed with this narrow interpretation and hailed the novel as a masterful work of art. Later criticism has generally shared this conclusion. With certain reservations, such as Hardy's occasional lapses into melodrama, critics have acknowledged Jude the Obscure as one of the masterpieces of late Victorian literature and a story that offers a glimpse of the ensuing modern era, an age forced to reckon with the crumbling certainties of the past.

W. D. Howells (essay date 1895)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Jude the Obscure, in Thomas Hardy and His Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited with a commentary by Laurence Lerner and John Holmstrom, Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1968, pp. 115-17.

[In the following review, which was originally published in Harper's Weekly in December 1895, Howells praises the "artistic excellence" of Jude the Obscure and defends it to his contemporaries, many of whom found certain images and events in the narrative displeasing.]

It has never been quite decided yet, I believe, just what is the kind and what is the quality of pleasure we get from tragedy. A great many people have said what it...

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Edmund Gosse (essay date 1896)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Jude the Obscure, in Thomas Hardy and His Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited with a commentary by Laurence Lerner and John Holmstrom, Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1968, pp. 117-22.

[In the following excerpt from a review that originally appeared in Cosmopolis in January 1896, Gosse remarks favorably on characterization and plot in Jude the Obscure, calling the novel "irresistible." Gosse also notes that the Jude wanders into some improprieties, but observes that censure "is the duty of the moralist and not the critic."]

[Jude the Obscure] is a study of four lives, a rectangular problem in...

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Margaret Oliphant (essay date 1896)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Jude the Obscure, in Thomas Hardy and His Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited with a commentary by Laurence Lerner and John Holmstrom, Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1968, pp. 126-30.

[In the following excerpt from a review originally published in Blackwood's Magazine in January 1896, Oliphant describes Jude the Obscure "as an assault on the stronghold of marriage."]


[The] inclination towards the treatment of subjects hitherto considered immoral or contrary to good manners, in the widest sense of the words—and the disposition to place what is called the...

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Havelock Ellis (essay date 1896)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Jude the Obscure, in Thomas Hardy and His Readers: A Selection of Contemporary Reviews, edited with a commentary by Laurence Lerner and John Holmstrom, Barnes and Noble Publishers, 1968, pp. 138-44.

[In the following excerpted review, originally published in The Savoy in October 1896, Ellis calls Jude the Obscure "a singularly fine piece of art," adding "this book, it is said, is immoral, and indecent as well. So are most of our great novels."]

… Your wholesome-minded novelist knows that the life of a pure-natured Englishwoman after marriage is, as Taine said, mainly that of a very broody hen, a series of merely physiological...

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Arthur Mizener (essay date 1940)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jude the Obscure As a Tragedy", in Southern Review, Vol. 6, 1940-41, pp. 193-213.

[In the following essay, Mizener argues that Jude the Obscure is not a tragedy in the sense that it represents the contrast between the ideal life and the "permanently squalid real life of man," but rather a "history of a worthy man's education."]

… who cannot see
What Earth's ingrained conditions are.
—"Seventy-four and Twenty."

I suppose no one will question Hardy's right to the title of "the first great tragedian in novel form," taking tragedy in its looser sense. Yet there seems to be a general feeling that somehow his...

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Frederick P. W. McDowell (essay date 1960)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hardy's "Seeming or Personal Impressions: The Use of Image and Contrast in Jude the Obscure", in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1960, pp. 233-50.

[In the following essay, McDowell explores the symbolism of Jude the Obscure, contending that the novel's images "parallel events and deepen realistic and psychological aspects of the narrative" and afford the work a "richer texture" and greater depth of meaning.]


Sixty years after publication, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure still elicits controversial judgments. The majority of recent critics, such as William R. Rutland, Lord David Cecil, R. A....

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A. Alvarez (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jude the Obscure, in Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955-67, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1968, pp. 178-87.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Alvarez claims that "the power of Jude the Obscure is … fictional rather than poetic" and sees the novel as essentially a study of loneliness rather than of character or of the workings of fate.]

Jude the Obscure is Hardy's last and finest novel. Yet its publication in 1896 provoked an outcry as noisy as that which recently greeted Lady Chatterley's Lover. The press attacked in a pack, lady reviewers became hysterical, abusive letters poured in, and a bishop solemnly burnt...

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Robert B. Heilman (essay date 1966)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hardy's Sue Bridehead", in Nineteenth Century Fiction, University of California Press, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1966, pp. 307-23.

[In the following essay, Heilman examines Hardy's complex portrayal of the character of Sue Bridehead, calling it "an imaginative feat" that expresses Hardy's perception of modern human reality.]

In Jude the Obscure, a novel in which skillful characterization eventually wins the day over laborious editorializing, Thomas Hardy comes close to genius in the portrayal of Sue Bridehead. Sue takes the book away from the title character, because she is stronger, more complex, and more significant, and because her contradictory...

(The entire section is 6983 words.)

Richard Benvenuto (essay date 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Modes of Perception: The Will to Live in Jude the Obscure", in Studies in the Novel, Vol . 11, No. 1, 1970, pp. 31-41.

[In the following essay, Benvenuto observes two differing modes of perception in Jude the Obscure: an objective, amoral mode that is indifferent to humanity and Jude's idealist, personalizing mode wherein lies the stonecutter's desire to live.]

The Fury that greeted the first appearance of Jude the Obscure has long since subsided, yet we are no closer than its reviewers were to an agreement upon Hardy's intent in the novel or the caliber of his performance in it. Jude is not an especially difficult...

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Shalom Rachman (essay date 1972)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Character and Theme in Hardy," in English, Vol. 22, No. 110, Summer, 1972, pp. 45-53.

[In the following essay, Rachman perceives two major themes in Jude the Obscure—those relating to the flesh and those relating to the spirit—and describes how these two themes come into conflict in the novel.]

Whether it be The Return of the Native, Tess of the D'urbervilles, or Jude the Obscure that is Hardy's best, all-round achievement in the field of the novel is a matter not yet indisputably settled. Divided opinion in this respect can only lead to further fruitful critical discussion. What needs to be recognized however, is that...

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Mary Jacobus (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sue the Obscure," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. X X V , No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 304-28.

[In the following essay, Jacobus accepts Hardy's contention that Jude the Obscure is a novel of contrasting ideas, and thus analyzes the work by focusing on the character of Sue Bridehead, rather than that of Jude.]

Hardy's account of Jude the Obscure raises the problem at once:

Of course the book is all contrasts—or was meant to be in its original conception. Alas, what a miserable accomplishment it is, when I compare it with what I meant to make it!—e.g. Sue and her heathen gods set against Jude's reading...

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Kathleen Blake (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sue Bridehead: The Woman of the Feminist Movement," in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. XVIII , No. 4, 1978, pp. 703-20.

[In the following essay, Blake probes Hardy's portrayal of the feminine in Jude the Obscure, noting that Sue Bridehead, in repressing her sexual urges as part of a "deliberate effort at widening her possibilities" represents "a daring and plausible try at personal liberation."]

Curiously enough, I am more interested in the Sue story than in any I have written.

Sue is a type of woman which has always had an attraction for me, but the difficulty of drawing the type has kept me...

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John Goode (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sue Bridehead and the New Woman," in Women Writing about Women, edited by Mary Jacobus, Croom Helm, 1979, pp. 100-13.

[In the following essay, Goode concentrates on the character of Sue Bridehead as he examines Jude the Obscure in terms of late nineteenth-century feminism, and explores the means by which the novel exposes the mystifications of ideologically structured reality.]


Criticism of Jude the Obscure usually takes it to be a representation; hence, however hard such analysis tries to come to terms with the novel's radicalism,-it is inevitably ideological. Criticism of this kind necessarily dissolves...

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Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Perspective of One's Own: Thomas Hardy and the Elusive Sue Bridehead," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XII , No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 12-28.

[In the following essay, Langland investigates Hardy's portrayal of Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure, concluding that she is an "unevenly conceived character" riddled with inconsistencies, but that these flaws point to the novel's "distinctly modern" narrative sensibility.]

Form and content are inseparable. Story depends on technique, depends, Henry James claimed, on "every word and every punctuation point." Although Thomas Hardy could be expected to resist his contemporary's strict attention to minutiae, James's...

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David Sonstroem (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Order and Disorder in Jude the Obscure," in English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1981, pp. 6-15.

[In the following excerpt, Sonstroem focuses on Jude's at times "disorderly, random, [and] repetitive" migrations within the structured course of Jude the Obscure to illustrate the thematic implications of Hardy's framing of chaos in "intricate order."]

In his thought-provoking "A propos de la construction de Jude the Obscure,"1 Fernand Lagarde presents Hardy's novel as a rigidly balanced quasi-architectural construction, within which characters dance an intricate "ronde" or quadrille. In support of his...

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Alexander Fischler, (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A n Affinity for Birds: Kindness in Hardy's Jude the Obscure," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XII I No. 3, 1981, pp. 250-65.

[In the following essay, Fischler comments on the bird motif in Jude the Obscure and its relation to the theme and structure of the novel.]

Though the manuscript evidence concerning the first pages of Jude the Obscure is still open to differing interpretations, those who have considered it agree on two points: (1) that the opening of the novel as we have it is not part of Hardy's original draft; and (2) that Hardy composed it, obviously with great care, after deciding that his heroine, Sue, should not be Jude's...

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Carol Edwards and Duane Edwards (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jude the Obscure: A Psychoanalytic Study", in University of Hartford: Studies in Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1981, pp. 78-90.

[In the following essay, Edwards and Edwards interpret the unconscious motivations of Jude, arguing that he "fails ultimately because he is too rational and too controlled."]

When Thomas Hardy wrote Jude the Obscure, he hoped that the novel would be "cathartic," but it isn't. Despite the fact that Jude becomes increasingly rational and, in some important ways, comes to know himself, the ending offers no consolation, no purgation. Instead, it fizzles out before Jude can discover answers to the questions which baffle...

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William R. Goetz (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Felicity and Infelicity of Marriage in Jude the Obscure," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 38, No. 2, 1983, pp. 189-213.

[In the following essay, Goetz explores elements of Jude the Obscure that form a critique of marriage.]

Matrimony have growed to be that serious in these days that one really do feel afeard to move in it at all. In my time we took it more careless; and I don't know that we was any the worse for it!

—the Widow Edlin in Jude the Obscure

When Jude the Obscure was published in 1895, it was interpreted in many quarters...

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Ramón Saldívar (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jude the Obscure: Reading and the Spirt of the Law", in ELH, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1983, pp. 607-623.

[In the following essay, Saldívar probes the nature of meaning and referentiality in relation to Hardy's novel, contending that "the narrative of Jude the Obscure, while telling the story of Jude's and Sue's unhappy marriages, also dispels the illusion of a readable truth."]

The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

—II Corinthians

Concern for the nature and response of an author's audience is, in some respects, one of the original tasks of literary criticism. Over...

(The entire section is 6620 words.)

Sherilyn Abdoo (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hardy's Jude: The Pursuit of the Ideal as Tragedy," in The Existential Coordinates of the Human Condition: Poetic-Epic-Tragic, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1984, pp. 307-18.

[In the following essay, Abdoo maintains that Jude the Obscure is a tragic novel in the classical tradition.]

All tragedy is grotesque. (Thomas Hardy, Life, August 13, 1898)


Virginia Woolf's tribute to Thomas Hardy was written shortly after his death on January 11, 1928. In it she said: "if we are to place Hardy among his fellows, we must call him the greatest tragic writer among...

(The entire section is 4644 words.)

Phillip Mallett (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual Ideology and the Narrative Form in Jude the Obscure" in English, Vol. X X X V I I I , Autumn, 1989, pp. 211-24.

[In the following essay, Mallett discusses the relation between the confines of language and those of gender ideology in Jude the Obscure; he observes that "through its interruptions, silences, and juxtapositions, the narrative form of the novel dramatises and echoes the predicament of its heroine."]

Critical discussion of Jude the Obscure has quite properly concentrated on Sue Bridehead. There have been two main points of departure: the first is Hardy's own account of her in 1912 (teasingly offered as the opinion...

(The entire section is 5858 words.)

Jeffrey Berman (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Infanticide and Object Loss in Jude the Obscure," in Narcissism and the Novel, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 176-98.

[In the following essay, Berman examines the bleak psychology of parents and children that appears in Jude the Obscure.]

Little Father Time's suicide in Jude the Obscure (1895) is the turning point of a novel demonstrating the cruelty that pervades nature and society. As if the boy's suicide is not terrible enough, Hardy has him hang his younger half-brother and half-sister, the three children suspended from closet hooks. Located near Father Time's body is a note with the victim's last words: "Done because we are...

(The entire section is 9142 words.)

Mary Ann Kelly (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Individuation and Consummation in Hardy's Jude the Obscure: The Lure of the Void," in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 82, Fall, 1992, pp. 62-64.

[In the following essay, Kelly studies Jude's existential separation from society and his desire for "a sense of belonging and integration."]

"He could not realize himself."
(Jude the Obscure 60)

The peripatetic motif in Jude the Obscure, Hardy's final novel, is obvious to any reader confronted with Jude's wanderings in Hardy's six Parts: from Mary green to Christminster; from Melchester to Shaston; from...

(The entire section is 2246 words.)

Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Becoming a Ma n in Jude the Obscure," in The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy, edited by Margaret R. Higonnet, University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 32-48.

[In the following essay, Langland evaluates Jude's dilemma of identity in terms of his struggles with the social ideologies of class and gender.]

Because Thomas Hardy's representations of women, by and large, exceed the simple stereotypes scholars initially identified as characteristic images of women, feminist critics early turned to his novels. While those first studies opened up possibilities of a rewarding feminist approach to Hardy, recent work looks more broadly at gender,...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Adelman, Gary. Jude the Obscure: A Paradise of Despair. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 137 p.

Summarizes the historical context and critical reception of Jude the Obscure, followed by an interpretive reading of the novel that highlights its prevailing mood of despair.

Alden, Patricia. "A Short Story Prelude to Jude the Obscure: More Light on the Genesis of Hardy's Last Novel." Colby Library Quarterly XIX , No. 1 (March 1983): 45-52.

Observes the "germ" of Jude the Obscure in Hardy's short story "A Tragedy of Two Ambitions."

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy's 'Jude the...

(The entire section is 699 words.)