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Literature / Jude the Obscure

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"I may do some good before I am dead—be a sort of success as a frightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story."
Jude Fawley

Jude the Obscure was the last published novel by English author Thomas Hardy, first appearing as a magazine serial in 1894 and being published as a book the following year.note  Like most of Hardy's novels, it is set in the fictional region of Wessex in south-west England, though on the very edge of it rather than at the heart of it.

Jude the Obscure tells the story of working-class man Jude Fawley, a dreamer with aspirations to become a scholar in the town of Christminster (modeled after Oxford). He learns the craft of stone masonry and has a poorly-chosen marriage to local girl Arabella Donn as a teenager, which finally ends in separation. He moves to Christminister to pursue his dream, but is is ultimately rejected and is disillusioned from becoming a scholar. Jude meets and has an ongoing affair with his cousin Sue Bridehead, even after her marriage to his former teacher, Phillotson. He and his family face a never-ending series of hardships, tragedies and disappointments.

Some of the themes in the novel are the limits of class structure in Britain, ill-fated love and marriage, and adultery.

The novel has been adapted twice; once for The BBC as a six-episode miniseries in 1971 starring Robert Powell and Fiona Walker as Jude and Sue, and in 1996 by Michael Winterbottom as the feature film Jude starring Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet as Jude and Sue.

In June 2018, former The State cast member Michael Ian Black began releasing a podcast called Obscure in which he reads Jude the Obscure aloud (having never read it before) and provides a running commentary, sometimes in conversation with guests.

This Work Contains Examples Of:

  • The Alcoholic: Jude has a weakness for drink, and he drowns his sorrows in alcohol when his marriage to Arabella disintegrates and again when his university dreams are crushed. Though his relationship with Sue makes him strive to be a better person and abstain from alcohol, this situation falls apart when Sue returns to Phillotson. When Arabella discovers that Jude has gone back to drinking, she gets him drunk and persuades him to re-marry her before he sobers up.
  • As the Good Book Says...: After receiving a letter rejecting his application for Christminster College, Jude frustratedly chalks on the wall:
    I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these? — Job xii 3
  • Awful Wedded Life: One of the novel's themes is the misery Victorian marriage laws could inflict on couples who realised too late that their marriage was a bad idea; every married couple in the book is deeply unhappy.
    • Arabella gets bored with Jude very quickly, while he goes off her after overhearing one of her friends say that she tricked him into falling in love with and marrying her. She eventually moves to Australia with her family, where she marries again, and later asks Jude for a divorce to get out of the problems a bigamous marriage might cause. After her second husband dies, Arabella manipulates Jude into re-marrying her, but spends the rest of his life haranguing him and flirts with Vilbert the quack doctor before Jude's dead body is even cold.
    • After her marriage to Phillotson, Sue admits to Jude that she was in love with the idea of being loved, and hadn't thought through what being married actually entailed (which Jude suspected from some of the conversations they had before the wedding); she is so disgusted by the idea of sex that she and her husband are forced to sleep apart, and the situation gets so frustrating for both of them that Phillotson finally agrees to let her leave him and live with Jude. After her children die in a murder-suicide with Jude's son by Arabella, she goes back to Phillotson, but out of obligation rather than love, and she accepts the misery her marriage gives her as punishment from God.
    • Jude's Aunt Drusilla tells him that his parents, who died when he was barely old enough to remember them, were miserable together and eventually separated after one argument too many, with Jude initially going with his mother until she died, then living with his father until he died. Sue's parents likewise fought constantly after their marriage and ultimately separated. Drusilla tells Jude that their family simply has bad luck with marriage, which is why she remained unmarried.
    • When Jude and Sue try going to the registry office to make their marriage official, every couple they see is a disastrous marriage waiting to begin; a pregnant woman with a black eye is being married to a soldier described as "reluctant", while a pock-marked bride enters with an "ill-favoured" man released from gaol that very day. Sue is so distressed by the experience that she and Jude leave without going through with their own marriage.
  • The Baby Trap: Arabella's ploy to trick Jude into marrying her involves seducing him, then claiming that she became pregnant from the encounter. It isn't until several months after they are married that she admits that she isn't pregnant, claiming she made a mistake.
  • Born Unlucky: It always gets worse for Jude. No matter how hard he strives, poor guy.
  • Bowdlerise: The sex content has changed between editions, with one early critic calling the book 'Jude the Obscene'. Considering the amount of pregnancy real or at least plausible in the novel, taking it out entirely merely leaves the audience a little confused.
  • Bungled Suicide:
    • As Jude's marriage to Arabella collapses, he tries walking into the middle of a frozen pond and jumping up and down on the ice. It doesn't break, and he laments that he can't even commit suicide properly.
    • Sue becomes so disgusted by the idea of sex with Phillotson that when he enters her room after they start sleeping apart, she runs over to the window and jumps out. As her window is near the ground, she barely even injures herself.
    • Their survival becomes bitterly ironic when their young children avert this trope.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Jude sees Phillotson as a role model, and takes inspiration from his plans to get a university degree and become a clergyman to do likewise. Once he arrives in Christminster, he is disappointed to learn from Sue that Phillotson is still a village schoolmaster, but decides to pay a call on him anyway, having fond memories of the kindness his former teacher showed him. But when Jude and Sue pay Phillotson a visit, the schoolmaster admits that he's had so many students that he only remembers the recent ones, and tells Jude, "I don't remember you in the least."
  • Call to Agriculture: Subverted, as it turns out. Jude and Arabella raise a pig. In one of the novel's disturbing scenes, the butcher fails to show up and Jude has to kill the pig, which causes him great distress (and Arabella none at all, except that she would like it killed slower so the meat is less bloody).
  • Convenient Miscarriage: After Little Father Time kills his half-siblings and then himself, a despondent Sue miscarries her third child by Jude. This removes the last reason for her to continue "living in sin" with him, and squashes any last chance either of them have at being happy as they return to loveless marriages with their ex-spouses.
  • Creepy Child: "Little Father Time" is a weird boy with very un-childlike and unsettling behaviour. He is treated nicely enough and with understanding, but it doesn't help and he stays really strange and creepy.
  • Despair Event Horizon:
    • Sue crosses this after the death of her children in a murder-suicide with Jude's son by Arabella. Seeing the event as punishment from God for living in sin with Jude, she breaks off their relationship and renews her marriage with Phillotson, even though she does not love him, and begins submitting to sexual relations with him despite her disgust at the act as a way of punishing herself.
    • Jude goes past the point of no return after Sue leaves him. Having irretrievably lost the only person he truly loved, he begins drinking again, allows himself to be manipulated into re-marrying Arabella even though neither loves the other, and neglects his health, heading into the rain and sleet despite being gravely ill for a final meeting with Sue and dying not long after.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: As much as Jude and Sue love each other, circumstances keep conspiring to ruin their attempts at any sort of relationship. Even after Jude grants Arabella a divorce and Sue leaves Phillotson, the fact that they are not married (despite several attempts to go through the formalities) makes them outcasts, and the last straw comes when Jude's son by Arabella kills his half-siblings and himself, prompting Jude and Sue to return to Arabella and Phillotson, respectively.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: Couples made up and separated are joined together at the end again. Arabella and Jude are even more miserable the second time around than the first, and so are Sue and Phillotson.
  • Downer Ending: Even by Hardy's standards, this one's pretty bleak. Jude's children die in a murder/suicide. Sue miscarries their baby. She also returns to her husband, utterly screwed up and beating herself up morally, convinced that she had been justly punished. Jude dies alone, having lost the love of his life, while his wife flirts with a doctor.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Jude drinks frequently, resulting in his famous scene, reciting the creed in Latin while intoxicated, and then screaming at the other pubgoers that none of them understood a word of it, and for all they knew he was reciting "The Ratcatcher's Daughter" in "double Dutch".
  • From Bad to Worse: Essentially the whole book. Even as an eleven-year-old, Jude thinks it would be better if he had never been born, his parents both having died and his great-aunt and guardian finding him a burden. Then he gets tricked into a marriage with Arabella that is over before it begins, his dreams of attending the university at Christminster meet the cold hard reality of 19th century class immobility, and he falls in love with Sue only to see her marry Phillotson. Sue eventually leaves Phillotson for Jude, but is still getting over her reluctance to marry him when Jude's son by Arabella is thrust into their lives, leading them to become outcasts among people who think the boy is Sue's and is illegitimate. Their union collapses after Jude's children by both Arabella and Sue die in a murder-suicide, and they return to their previous unhappy marriages. At the end of the book, Jude dies alone and miserable, while Sue is alive but even more miserable.
  • Grief-Induced Split: The murder-suicide of Jude's son from his marriage and Jude and Sue's two children, caused by the misguided belief that the children were responsible for their parents' ostracism, results in the dissolution of their relationship. Sue believes their deaths were deserved punishment from God for living in sin with Jude, and both go back to their loveless marriages.
  • Hourglass Plot: At the beginning of the novel, Jude is inspired by Phillotson's plans to get a university degree and enter the clergy to pursue the same dream, and becomes a devout Christian as a result. Sue, meanwhile, is indifferent at best to Christianity, thinking nothing of cutting up and re-ordering copies of the New Testament so that the books are in the order in which they were written. By the end of the novel, the smothering of his academic dreams and his inability to reconcile religious devotion with physical desires lead Jude to turn his back on religion, while Sue becomes devoutly religious while searching for answers after her children die in a murder-suicide with Jude's son by Arabella, and regards her misfortune as punishment from God for her sinful relationship with Jude.
  • Hysterical Woman: Sue flies into hysterical despair at the least provocation, which frustrates Jude no end as she seems just as upset when he tries to show her affection as she does when he treats her coldly. She gets worse as time goes on, especially after her children are killed by Little Father Time in a murder-suicide; one minute she refuses to go to the funeral because she can't bear to look at them, the next minute she runs to the gravesite and begs Jude and the gravedigger to unearth their coffin so she can see them one last time.
  • Inherent in the System: Part of the reason for Jude's lifelong misery is the constraints of Victorian society. His working-class background means his Christminster dreams are doomed from the start, as a letter from one of the college principals spells out for him. Victorian marriage laws mean that as miserable as he and Arabella are together, they're stuck in their union unless they want to go through the socially ruinous process of a divorce. Jude and Sue live together but are not married, and once Little Father Time is sent to live with them, everyone assumes he is Jude's illegitimate son by Sue (instead of his legitimate son by Arabella), leading them to be shunned everywhere they go.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: At first, Phillotson helps Sue leave him for Jude, even though it means losing his job and social standing for abetting adultery. She does come back to him, but not to be happy.
  • Kissing Cousins: Jude and Sue are cousins, and furthermore their family has notoriously bad luck in marriages; both Jude's parents and Sue's parents became estranged after only a few years of marriage. Both of these things should deter them from pursuing each other, but they end up in a relationship despite them.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Sue keeps having children with Jude as a means of punishing herself, even though she is asexual.
  • Lonely Funeral: The only people to mourn Jude after his death are his widow, Arabella, and his Aunt Drusilla's lifelong friend, Mrs. Edlin. Jude insists that Sue not be contacted regarding his terminal illness, deciding they should adhere to their vow never to meet again, and so she remains unaware of his death.
  • May–December Romance:
    • Phillotson courts and marries Sue, even though he says in so many words that he is old enough to be her father.
    • With Jude on his deathbed, Arabella is flirting with Vilbert the quack doctor, reasoning that she isn't getting any younger and so should probably target an older man to be her next husband.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Fawley sounds like "folly" and Jude is the patron saint of the impossible.
  • Murder-Suicide: In one of the novel's most famous scenes, Little Father Time, Jude's death-obsessed son by Arabella, is told by Sue that they are having trouble finding lodgings in Christminster because most landlords and landladies are reluctant to rent to families with children (specifically meaning illegitimate children, but she doesn't clarify this). The following night, Time hangs his younger half-siblings and then himself, leaving a note reading "Done because we are too menny."
  • No Communities Were Harmed: As with all of Hardy's Wessex novels, it's easy to recognise the real life inspirations for the villages, towns, and cities in the book from the narration's description of them.
    • The most obvious example is the university city of Christminster, a fictional version of Oxford. Most of the colleges, roads, and even pubs mentioned in the book have real life counterparts.
    • Jude's home village of Marygreen is a thinly veiled version of the village of Fawley in Berkshire, hometown of Hardy's maternal grandmother in later life. The nearby town of Alfredston is based on the town of Wantage, at the time in Berkshire but now part of Oxfordshire.
    • After the collapse of his Christminster dreams, Jude goes to work as a stonemason in the cathedral city of Melchester, the description of which (particularly the tall spire of the cathedral) marks it as a parallel of the cathedral city of Salisbury in Wiltshire. At one point he visits a hymn writer in the market town of Kennetbridge between Christminster and Melchester; Kennetbridge is the novel's equivalent of the town of Newbury in Berkshire.
    • Shaston, the town with a ruined former abbey where Phillotson tries to set up as a schoolmaster after marrying Sue, is based on Shaftesbury in Dorset.
    • After "eloping" together, Jude and Sue move to the large town of Aldbrickham to try and live in anonymity; the town is Hardy's version of Reading in Berkshire.
  • No Woman's Land: Hardy's Wessex is a bad place to be a woman, especially one like Sue who dares to think that a woman shouldn't need either sex or marriage to be happy. Unfortunately, societal convention ushers her toward an unhappy marriage with Phillotson, and her asexuality makes the consummation of the union such a repugnant idea to her that she finally leaves her husband for Jude. But even after obtaining a divorce, she can't bear the thought of going through marriage with Jude, and after her children by Jude are killed in a murder-suicide, she re-marries Phillotson out of a sense of obligation rather than love, and starts submitting to him sexually despite getting no enjoyment from it. In the book's final line, Arabella comments that Sue will probably never be happy again until she's as dead as Jude.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Jude's oldest son is known only as "Little Father Time", even after Jude and Sue have him christened with his father's name (his mother having chosen not to baptise him so as to save money on a Christian funeral had he died young).
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Jude, Arabella, and Sue all outlive their children; Little Father Time, Jude and Arabella's son, kills his younger half-siblings and then himself in the misguided belief that they are responsible for Jude and Sue's ostracism.
  • Pater Familicide: It's Jude's oldest son, not Jude himself, who kills himself and his siblings out of desperation, the family is already poor and there's another child on the way.
  • Poke the Poodle: After getting a snide rejection letter from Christminster, Jude is so depressed that he vandalizes the college by writing a Bible verse on the gates. In chalk.
  • Sexless Marriage: Sue's asexuality results in a sexless first marriage to Phillotson. She finds the idea of sex so repulsive that she starts making excuses not to share a bed with him, and he finally agrees to let her sleep in a separate bedroom. Even this doesn't allay her fears; when he enters her room to check in on her, she thinks he's there to force himself upon her, and she runs to the window and jumps out while still half-asleep. Their second marriage is not sexless, but only because Sue sees engaging in an activity that gives her no pleasure as a way to punish herself for her sinful life with Jude.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Poor Jude. As a child, he thinks it would be better had he never been born, and by the end of the book, he may as well not have been. He never realises his dreams of going to the university at Christminster or entering the clergy, his children all pre-decease him, the girl he loves returns to her unhappy marriage with his former role model, and his wife is already eyeing her next conquest before his dead body has gone cold. Jude the obscure, indeed.
  • Suicide for Others' Happiness: Little Father Time feels personally responsible for Jude and Sue's poverty and status as outcasts, and thinks they might have a better chance if he were out of the picture, so he kills himself and his half-siblings and leaves a note reading "Done because we are too menny."
  • Trauma Conga Line: Jude's whole life is a trauma conga line. His parents die when he is very young, his dreams of going to university at Christminster are squashed by class prejudice, he gets into a disastrous marriage with Arabella, he falls in love with Sue only to see her marry Phillotson (a decision she makes after he tells her of his own marriage), when he does get together with Sue they become outcasts for being unmarried, his children by both Arabella and Sue are killed in a murder-suicide, his relationship with Sue collapses and he goes back to a wife who doesn't love him, and he dies alone.
  • Walking the Earth: Jude and Sue and their family cannot stay in one place for long, because when people realize they're not married, they're no longer welcome anywhere.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Jude refuses to step on earthworms, thinks birds deserve a share of the farmer's grain, and believes that a manual laborer who lacks a formal education, not to mention money, can get into Christminster if he asks nicely enough.

Alternative Title(s): Jude