Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” focuses on the life of a country stonemason named Jude Fawly, and his love for his cousin Sue Bridehead, a schoolteacher. From the beginning Jude knows that marriage is an ill-fated venture in his family and his great aunt Drusilla tells him so, and he believes that his love for Sue curses him doubly, because they are both members of a cursed clan. While love could be identified as a central theme in the novel, marriage is the novel’s main focus. Jude and Sue are unhappily married to other people, and then drawn by a bond that pulls them together.
Their relationship is plagued with tragedy. Before all that occurs however, in the first two parts of the book, the focus is on Jude as a working-class boy determinedly attempting to educate himself. He struggles patiently to realize his dream of a university education, but is thwarted by a cruel fate and rigid, conservative social order. Jude's view is an illusory one. As a child, he was always fascinated with Christminster. He sees it is a "city of light," where "the tree of knowledge grows"; it is like "a castle manned by scholarship and religion.
Even years later, when he realizes his ambitions are futile, Christminster remains a shining ideal of intellectual life, "the intellectual and spiritual granary of this country. " Beaten by life, Jude is still very much attached to the place and returns, hoping to die there. Sue does not share his romantic ideals and viciously attacks Christminster as an "ignorant place, full of fetishists and ghost seers" (Part III, Chapter 4) and a "nest of common schoolmasters" with a "timid obsequiousness to tradition" (Part V, Chapter 8). Its intellectual life is dismissed as "new wine in old bottles" (Part III, Chapter 4).
Jude is not wanted at Christminster, and often the university is described in unfavorable terms: "the rottenness of the stones--it seemed impossible that modern thought could house itself in such decrepit and superseded chambers" (Part II, Chapter 1). In Part VI, Chapter 2 the "gloom, bigotry and decay" of the place are stressed. The terse note from the master of the Biblical College, crushing Jude's hopes, accentuates the loneliness of Jude's struggle. Social and educational structures are criticized for being so rigid that someone like Jude: bright, hard- working, but lacking in means, is permanently excluded from the academic scene.
Hardy seems to want to emphasize that Jude will always remain an outsider access to improvement denied to him—not because he lacks in ability, but due to his social status. The end of the book highlights this isolation with Jude on his death bed while the revelry of Remembrance Day takes place outside. Much of this though, is not fairly presented. “Jude the Obscure” was published in 1896, a time when great expansion and liberalization were taking place in the universities. Ruskin College at Oxford had begun to accept working class people. Both Oxford and Cambridge had begun to stop being so exclusive and started to look outward.
Cambridge led the way with University Extension lectures, and Biblical College (Oxford) started a similar program in 1878. In the same year Oxford followed Cambridge in founding a women's college. The fact that part of these reforms had started is recognized by Jude himself (Part VI, Chapter 10), when he hopes that its doors will be more open to poor men like himself. In the second part of the book, Jude abandons his plan of entering Christminster and the focus shift to Sue. The Themes of love, marriage, freedom and sexual relations replace the earlier themes of education and idealism.
Marriage is viewed with cynicism, and there are many disparaging comments about the contractual nature of marriage. There are no happy marriages depicted in the book. Jude, when married to Arabella, feels trapped in a hopeless situation. Marriage is compared to being "caught in a gin, which would cripple him if not her also for the rest of a lifetime. " Jude, however, is partly aware even before the marriage that Arabella is the wrong woman for him. Intellectually, he recognizes that there is something in her "quite antipathetic to that side of him which had been occupied with literary study and the magnificent Christminster dream.
It had been no vestal virgin who chose that missile for opening her attack on him" (Part I, Chapter 6). A few chapters later, the reader is told, "he knew too well in the secret center of his brain that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind" (Part I, Chapter 9). Naive and trusting, he does what he perceives to be the honorable thing and marries her, but he has married the wrong woman and thus the marriage is bound to be a disaster. Sue's marriage to Phillotson is another example of a disastrous marriage of impulsiveness and thoughtlessness.
Jude suspects that Sue has married Phillotson as a reaction to his own marriage as a kind of revenge or a way of "asserting her own independence from him. " She does not realize the gravity of the step she has taken. After the ceremony there is a "frightened look in her eyes," as if she has just become aware of the rashness of her decision. Barely a month later she admits, "perhaps I ought not to have married" (Part III, Chapter 9). Sue is the loudest critic of matrimony in the novel—making sarcastic comments on the custom of giving away the bride, "like a she-ass or she-goat or any other domestic animal" (Part III, Chapter 7).
When her marriage is in trouble, she criticizes the institution, explaining the difficulty she experiences fitting into the conventional mold which society demands. Some women, she says, find they cannot give their love "continuously to the chamber-officer appointed by the bishop's license to receive it. " The nineteenth century tradition of the subjection of women to fathers and husbands is mirrored in Gillingham's advice to Phillotson to be firm with Sue until she has fully submitted to him.
Hardy makes it clear, however, that it is the man here who is victimized in this marriage as Phillotson is far from being a cruel or tyrannical husband. He is an extremely patient and kind husband. Sue's attitude toward sex is complicated by the fact that she has an aversion to any physical relationship. In Part V both Jude's and Sue's divorces come through, but Sue avoids their possible marriage. She calls marriage a "sordid contract" and a "hopelessly vulgar" institution, and she fears that an "iron contract should extinguish" all tender feeling between them.
Her views on marriage are given mostly in Parts V and VI. She feels that the contractual nature of the agreement will kill all romance and spontaneity: "it is foreign to a man's nature to go on loving a person when he is told that he must and shall be a person's lover. " The visit to the squalid registry office (Part V, Chapter 4) is horrifying for her, and she likewise shows an distaste to the ordinary church wedding. She sees it in terms of a sacrifice of the bride: "the flowers in the bride's hand are sadly like the garland which decked the heifers of sacrifice in olden times. Sue's views on marriage are extreme and it should be pointed out that for all Sue's arguments against matrimony, it is not marriage, but the absence of it that leads to the final tragedy: the lack of a home, the deaths of the children and Sue's return to Phillotson. Sue's conversion and remarriage to Phillotson are brought about by her guilt the determination to mortify the flesh. She remarries Phillotson, whom she does not love in order to punish herself and to exorcise her guilt over the children's deaths.
The murder-suicide of Jude's children is no doubt the climax of the book's action, and the other events of the novel rise in a grim crescendo to meet that one horrifying act. From there, Jude and Sue feel they have no recourse but to return to their previous, unhappy marriages and die within the confinement created by the errors of their pasts. They are drawn into an endless succession of self-erected oppression and cannot break free. In a society unwilling to accept their rejection of convention, they are ostracized. Jude's son senses wrongdoing in his own conception and acts in a way that he thinks will help his parents and siblings.
The children are the victims of society's unwillingness to accept Jude and Sue’s life style and Sue's feelings of shame from her divorce. Some valid criticisms are also made of the overly rigid attitude of society towards the unconventional and the unmarried. Phillotson's humanity and charity in letting Sue go scandalizes the school authorities, and his career is ruined. Jude and became the subject of cruel gossip at Aldbrickham; the neighbors cold-shoulder them, Little Father Time is taunted at school, Jude loses his job, and the family is forced into homelessness. Society is cruel to those who choose to deviate from its codes.