Jude the Obscure

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Jude the Obscure
Jude the Obscure title page.jpg
Original title page of Jude the Obscure
Author Thomas Hardy
Original title The Simpletons
Hearts Insurgent
Illustrator H. Macbeth-Raeburn
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Tragedy
Publisher Osgood, McIlvaine, & Co.
Publication date
Preceded by Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Followed by The Well-Beloved

Jude the Obscure, the last completed of Thomas Hardy's novels, began as a magazine serial and was first published in book form in 1895. Its hero, Jude Fawley, is a working-class young man, a stonemason, who dreams of becoming a scholar. The other main character is his cousin, Sue Bridehead, who is also his central love interest. The themes in the novel revolve around issues of class, education, religion and marriage.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel tells the story of Jude Fawley, who lives in a village in the southern English region of Wessex who yearns to be a scholar at "Christminster", a city modelled on Oxford. As a youth, Jude teaches himself Greek and Latin in his spare time while working first in his great-aunt's bakery. Before he can try to enter the university, the naïve Jude is manipulated, through a process he later calls erotolepsy, into marrying a rather coarse and superficial local girl, Arabella Donn, who deserts him within two years and relocates to Australia. By this time, he has abandoned the classics altogether.

After Arabella leaves him, Jude moves to Christminster and supports himself as a mason while studying alone, hoping to be able to enter the university later. There, he meets and falls in love with his free-spirited cousin, Sue Bridehead. Jude shortly introduces Sue to his former schoolteacher, Mr. Phillotson, whom she later marries. Sue is satisfied by the normality of her married life, but quickly finds the relationship an unhappy one; in addition to being in love with Jude, not her husband, she is physically disgusted by her spouse, and, apparently, by sex in general.

Sue soon leaves Phillotson for Jude. Sue and Jude spend some time living together without any sexual relationship; they are both afraid to get married because their family has a history of tragic unions, and they suspect that being legally bound to one another might destroy their love. Jude eventually convinces Sue to sleep with him and, over the years, they have two children together. They are also bestowed with a child "of an intelligent age" from Jude's first marriage to Arabella, whom Jude did not know about for a number of years. He is named Jude and nicknamed "Little Father Time" because of his intense seriousness and moroseness.

Jude and Sue are socially ostracised for living together unmarried, especially after the children are born. Jude's employers dismiss him because of the illicit relationship, and the family is forced into a nomadic lifestyle, moving from town to town across Wessex seeking employment and housing before eventually returning to Christminster. Their socially-troubled boy, "Little Father Time", comes to believe that he and his half-siblings are the source of the family's woes. The morning after their arrival in Christminster, he murders Sue's two children and commits suicide by hanging. He leaves behind a note that simply reads, "Done because we are too menny."[1][2] Shortly thereafter, Sue has a miscarriage.

Photochrom of the High Street, 1890–1900

Beside herself with grief and blaming herself for "Little Father Time"'s actions, Sue turns to the church that has ostracised her and comes to believe that the children's deaths were divine retribution for her relationship with Jude. Although horrified at the thought of resuming her marriage with Phillotson, she becomes convinced that, for religious reasons, she should never have left him. Arabella discovers Sue's feelings and informs Phillotson, who soon proposes they remarry. This results in Sue leaving Jude once again for Phillotson. Jude is devastated and remarries Arabella after she plies him with alcohol to once again trick him into marriage.

After one final, desperate visit to Sue in freezing weather, Jude becomes seriously ill and dies within the year. It is revealed that Sue has grown "staid and worn" with Phillotson. Arabella fails to mourn Jude's passing, instead setting the stage to ensnare her next suitor.

The events of Jude the Obscure occur over an 11-year period, but no dates are specifically given in the novel. By the time of his death, Jude seems much older than his thirty years, for he has experienced so much disappointment and grief in his total life experience. It would seem that his burdens exceeded his sheer ability to survive, much less to triumph.


The novel explores several themes of social unrest, especially concerning the institutions of marriage, Christianity, and the university. These themes are developed through Hardy's use of contrasting foils. For example, at the beginning of their relationship, Jude's Christian faith contrasts with Sue's religious scepticism, a contrast which is heightened even further by their later role-reversal. Although the central characters represent both perspectives, the novel as a whole is firmly critical of Christianity and social institutions in general.

The novel mentions two incidents of cruelty to animals. In slaughtering the pig which Jude and Arabella had diligently fattened, it was necessary to obtain a better quality of meat that the animal be "well bled, and to do that pig must die slowly." Jude, however, a man of compassion and strong feelings, could not endure hearing the agony of the slow death of the pig; so he plunged the knife into the animal to hasten its death. "The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream Arabella had desired. The dying animal's cry assumed its third and final tome, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends."[3]

Later in the novel, Jude and Sue are appalled at the use of steel traps to catch such small animals as rabbits, which usually died in slow agony when caught in the deadly contraptions. Jude was compelled to kill a trapped rabbit by "breaking its neck to end its suffering." Sue commented, "They ought not to be allowed to set these steel traps, ought they?"[4]A reviewer compares the inevitable fate of the rabbit to marriage as "a permanent trap between two people" from which there is no easy escape.[5]

Although Hardy claimed that "no book he had ever written contained less of his own life", contemporary reviewers found several parallels between the themes of the novel and Hardy's life as a working-class man of letters.[6] The unhappy marriages, the religious and philosophical questioning, and the social unrest of Jude the Obscure appear in many other Hardy novels and in Hardy's life. The struggle against fixed class boundaries is an especially important link between the novel and Hardy's life, especially concerning higher education and the working class. Although Jude wishes to attend the university at Christminster, he cannot afford to pay for a degree, and he lacks the rigorous lifelong training necessary to qualify for a fellowship. He is therefore prevented from gaining economic mobility out of the working class. This theme of unattainable education was personal for Hardy since he, like Jude, was not able to afford a degree at Oxford or Cambridge, in spite of his early interest in scholarship and the classics. Several specific details about Jude's self-directed studies actually appear in Hardy's autobiography, including their late-night Latin readings while working full-time as a stonemason or architect, respectively.[7]

Another parallel between the book's characters/themes and Hardy's actual life experience occurs when Sue becomes obsessed with religion after previously having been indifferent and even hostile towards it. Through this extreme change in the character of Sue, Hardy shows Christianity as an extraordinarily powerful social force that is capable of causing a seemingly independent-minded woman like Sue to be self-immolating and sexually repressed.

Like Sue Bridehead, Hardy's first wife, Emma, went from being free-spirited and fairly indifferent to religion in her youth to becoming obsessively religious as she got older. Since Hardy was always highly critical of organised religion, as Emma became more and more religious, their differing views led to a great deal of tension in their marriage, and this tension was a major factor leading to their increased alienation from one another.

Emma was also very disapproving of Jude the Obscure, in part because of the book's criticisms of religion, but also because she worried that the reading public would believe that the relationship between Jude and Sue directly paralleled her strained relationship with Hardy (which, in a figurative sense, it did).[8]


Around 1887, Hardy began making notes for a story about a working-man's frustrated attempts to attend the university, perhaps inspired in part by the scholastic failure and suicide of his friend Horace Moule.[9] From December 1894 to November 1895, a bowdlerised version of the novel ran in instalments in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, originally under the title The Simpletons, then Hearts Insurgent. In 1895, the book was published in London under its present title, Jude the Obscure (dated 1896). In the Preface to the first edition, Hardy provides details of the conception and writing history of the novel, claiming that certain details were inspired by the death of a woman (most likely his cousin, Tryphena Sparks) in 1890.


Called "Jude the Obscene" by at least one reviewer,[10] Jude the Obscure received a harsh reception from scandalised critics; it is thought largely for this reason that Hardy made the decision to produce only poetry and drama for his remaining 32 years. Among the critics was Walsham How, Bishop of Wakefield; Hardy later claimed that the bishop had burned a copy.[11]

D. H. Lawrence, an admirer of Hardy, was puzzled by the character of Sue Bridehead, and attempted to analyse her conflicted sexuality in his essay "A Study of Thomas Hardy" (1914).

At least one recent scholar has postulated that Jude borrowed heavily from an earlier novel The Wages of Sin by Lucas Malet.[12]

Marxist critic Terry Eagleton, in his introduction to a 1974 edition of the text, refutes the conventional reading of the novel as 'the tragedy of an oversexed peasant boy',[13] instead examining the social background of the text and proposing it as a conflict between ideal and reality.[14]

Film, TV, theatrical adaptations, cultural references[edit]

  • A two-part musical stage adaptation of "Jude the Obscure"[17] by Ian Finley (book), Bruce Benedict (music), Jonathan Fitts (music), and Jerome Davis (lyrics), premiered at Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh, NC in April 2012.
  • In 2013, hit ITV drama Broadchurch ran several similar themes with Jude the Obscure, with one character even referencing the novel in a scene.


  1. ^ "Chapter 2". Jude the Obscure. Online-literature.com. 26 January 2007. Retrieved 2012-08-12. 
  2. ^ Jude the Obscure. Books.google.co.uk. p. 738. Retrieved 2012-08-12. 
  3. ^ Jude the Obscure, Part I, Section 10
  4. ^ Jude the Obscure, Part IV, Section 2
  5. ^ "Copy of Jude the Obscure symbolism: Rabbit trap". prezi.com. March 27, 2014. Retrieved July 11, 2014. 
  6. ^ Hardy, Florence Emily (2007). The Life of Thomas Hardy. London: Wordsworth Editions. p. 282. 
  7. ^ Hardy, Florence Emily (2007). The Life of Thomas Hardy. London: Wordsworth Editions. p. 29. 
  8. ^ Tomalin, Claire (2007). Thomas Hardy. New York: Penguin.
  9. ^ Pinion, F. B. (1968). A Hardy Companion. London: Macmillan. p. 52. 
  10. ^ "Book description of ''Jude the Obscure'', edited by Cedric Watts (1999)". Broadviewpress.com. Retrieved 2012-08-12. 
  11. ^ Slack, Robert C. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 11(4) (March 1957) pp. 261–275.
  12. ^ Schaffer, Talia. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England. University of Virginia Press, 2000.
  13. ^ Eagleton, Terry. "Introduction" Macmillan London Ltd, 1974. p. 10
  14. ^ Eagleton, Terry. "Introduction" Macmillan London Ltd, 1974. p. 10
  15. ^ Jude The Obscure (1971) at imdb.com
  16. ^ Jude (1996) at imdb.com
  17. ^ "Jude the Obscure, Parts 1 and 2". Triangleartsandentertainment.org. 13 April 2012. Retrieved 12 August 2012. 

External links[edit]