The novel opens in the hamlet of Marygreen, in North Wessex. A schoolteacher, Phillotson, is packing to move to Christminster (the fictional town based on Oxford) to pursue a university degree. His departure saddens the novel’s main character, eleven-year-old Jude Fawley. Jude suggests that Phillotson store his piano at Jude’s great-aunt’s home; Phillotson gives Jude a book and tells him to be good, read, and find him if he ever comes to Christminster. Jude decides that his teacher is “too clever to hide here any longer—a small sleepy place like this.” He goes to fetch water for his great-aunt Drusilla Fawley, the village’s baker.
Jude, the novel’s main character, is introduced as a sensitive, thoughtful child with dreams that far exceed what the village of Marygreen can offer. His admiration for his schoolteacher is deep and inspires him to consider himself a future scholar, at a time when university study was the privilege of the wealthy and well-connected.
Drusilla and other villagers discuss Phillotson’s departure. Drusilla explains that she has taken Jude, an orphan, in. Jude feels “the impact of their glances like slaps upon his face.” Drusilla worries that Jude is “crazy for books”; perhaps he should have gone with his teacher. She mentions that his cousin, Sue, is also bookish, and warns Jude never to marry because the Fawleys are failures in marriage.
Jude goes to his job as a living scarecrow in Farmer Troutham’s fields, shaking a rattle to frighten birds away from the crops. But Jude feels sympathy for the birds—“Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.” Troutham catches Jude letting the birds eat and beats the boy. Jude objects that Phillotson told him to be kind to birds, which makes Troutham angrier. The farmer pays Jude for the day and tells him not to return.
Worried about his aunt’s reaction, Jude dawdles going home. He steps gingerly around worms on the path. At home, his aunt scolds him as worthless and underfoot. Disheartened, he lies in the pig sty, wondering how “mercy to one set of creatures” can be “cruelty towards another.” After a while, Jude recovers his good spirits and helps his aunt in the bakery. The chapter ends with Jude staring down the road that leads to Christminster.
This chapter continues to reveal Jude’s character: a super-sensitive and thoughtful child, gentle in nature and desiring to please, “the sort of man who was born to ache a good deal” before death cures him. His aunt, practical and gruff, cares for him and tries to advise him well.
The road to Christminster seems to Jude to lead to the sky. He asks two men at work on a roof where Christminster is. One worker replies that one can sometimes see its lights at sunset. After the workers leave, Jude climbs the ladder to the roof and looks to the mist-covered horizon, hoping to see the town that he imagines is like “the heavenly Jerusalem.”
After this, Jude often tries to glimpse Christminster in the distance. The town acquires “a hold on his life” because of his fondness for Phillotson and for books. One day he asks a passing carter about the town, but the carter says that Christminster is no place for Jude: “’Tis all learning there—nothing but learning, except religion. And that’s learning, too.” The carter reports that the scholars make good money and that there’s music everywhere, reinforcing Jude’s desire to see “the city of light” where “the tree of knowledge grows” and where, with time and effort, he might “set himself to some mighty undertaking.”
Jude’s growing fascination with Christminster is clear in this chapter. He imagines that, when the wind is right, he breathes the air that has passed through the town’s streets; he feels the town calling, “We are happy here!” Readers may sense that Jude’s fantasies of Christminster are so bright and lovely that the real town would disappoint him.
Jude runs into Vilbert, “an itinerant quack-doctor,” traveling to Marygreen. Since Vilbert has often been in Christminster, Jude asks him about the town. Always ready to make money, Vilbert offers to sell Jude his old Latin and Greek grammars if Jude will hawk his medicines. For two weeks, Jude does so happily. But when Vilbert returns to Marygreen, he has forgotten about the grammars. Jude cries, realizing “what shoddy humanity the quack was made of.”
Meanwhile, Phillotson has sent for his piano. Jude decides to write his former teacher and ask for some old grammar books. He tucks his letter in the piano. Weeks later, the books arrive, and Jude is thrilled, until he discovers what hard work it will be—“a labour like that of Israel in Egypt”—to teach himself Latin and Greek, the languages of scholars.
By this point in the novel, readers notice how often allusions to biblical people, places, and events occur in Jude’s thoughts. Jude is still a young child, yet his thoughts, though naÔve about reality, are expressed in sophisticated literary language. Jude certainly seems intelligent enough to succeed in scholarship. Yet no one in Marygreen encourages his interest “because nobody does.”
As the years pass, Jude assists his aunt in her prosperous bakery. Jude teaches the horse the delivery route so that he can read as he makes rounds. He’s starting to understand Latin and Greek, but he has time to study only while he’s driving, despite the risks this poses on the road.
By the time he is sixteen, Jude knows enough Latin to recite poetry, but he worries that he is reading only “heathen works,” not fit for Christminster, “that ecclesiastical romance in stone.” So he decides to work on the Greek New Testament rather than on Homer’s epics and begins to plan how to get a living in Christminster. Christminster is full of stone buildings; so Jude apprentices himself as a stone worker. At nineteen, Jude moves to his own lodgings in the town of Alfredston and begins to make his own way in the world as a stone-cutter.
This chapter presents Jude as an optimistic young man who believes he can achieve his dreams if he works diligently toward them. Yet beneath his optimism, readers sense his naivety; his idea of university study is so lofty that reality cannot help but suffer by comparison.
One day as Jude walks from Alfredston to Marygreen to stay at his aunt’s house for the weekend, his grand daydreams are interrupted when he is struck on the ear by “a soft cold substance.” Three young women are washing pigs’ intestines in the river by the road, to prepare them for cooking, and one has thrown a pig’s genitals at him to get his attention. This person is Arabella Donn, daughter of a pig breeder. She flirts with Jude, sucking in her cheeks to form dimples, and he “felt himself drifting strangely.” Arabella asks Jude to call on her the next day, and he agrees to do so. After he leaves, one of the girls, Anny, remarks that Jude is an easy catch.
This chapter introduces a threat to Jude’s dreams of Christminster. Happy in Alfredston because he is making progress toward becoming a scholar, Jude still has trouble getting the books he needs to teach himself; yet he has learned Latin, Greek, and some mathematics on his own. Arabella’s choice of missile—a pig’s genitals—symbolically suggests that sexual desire may detour Jude’s careful plans.
The next day is Sunday, Jude’s day off. He plans to study a Greek New Testament he has just bought rather than visit Arabella, but then feels guilty that she’ll be waiting on him. Some force that “seemed to care little for his reason and his will” compels him to go—for just an hour.
When he approaches her home, Jude is shocked to hear her mother call, “Here’s your young man come courting!” As they walk, they talk “the commonest twaddle.” They stop in an inn for tea. Others there are surprised to see Jude with Arabella, but she laughs “the low and triumphant laugh of a careless woman who sees she is winning the game.” They start back, arm in arm. Jude kisses her, and she takes him inside to meet her parents. When Jude goes home, the Greek letters on title page of his New Testament seem to look at him “with fixed reproach . . . like the unclosed eyes of a dead man.”
In the next days, Jude misses Arabella, against his will, while she treats their relationship like a business deal. Anny and Sarah, Arabella’s friends, advise her to seduce him and then, when pregnant, force him to marry her—“Lots of girls do it.” Arabella decides to try.
Jude works hard, in this chapter, to deny his attraction to Arabella, keeping “his impassioned doings a secret almost from himself.” Yet she artfully draws him in so that he yearns for her physical presence while refusing to consider himself her lover. Readers may wonder whether the practical Arabella and the sensitive Jude will endure as a couple.
One day as Jude is walking to his aunt’s house, he runs into Arabella, who is chasing escaped pigs. Jude assists her, and the two end up flushed and panting. Jude tries to kiss Arabella, who coquettishly slips away. He follows her “like a pet lamb,” but she eludes him. Worried that he has offended her, he goes on to Marygreen.
The next Sunday, Arabella arranges for her parents to be out of the house for the evening. She meets Jude to walk, as they usually do—he hasn’t studied in the weeks since they met. Then she invites him in. She shows him an egg she’s carrying nestled in her bosom, saying that it’s “an old custom . . . it is natural for a woman to want to bring live things into the world.” She slips the egg out and back in, teasing him; he chases her upstairs.
Already, Jude, in his sexual yearning for Arabella, has put his plans to be a scholar on hold; yet he seems not to realize or admit it. That she has the power in this relationship is clear in the descriptions of the clueless Jude, who follows her flirtatious lead seemingly without caution.
Two months have passed, and Arabella is “waiting and wondering” when Jude will propose. When Jude tries to end their relationship, Arabella weeps and says that it is too late, implying that she is pregnant. Jude, shocked, agrees to marry her although it means a “complete smashing” of his plans. That night, Jude walks and thinks. He knows that Arabella is “not worth a great deal as a specimen of womanhood,” but he must do the right thing.
Drusilla provides the bride-cake, “the last thing she could do for him, poor silly fellow”; Arabella sends some to Sarah and Anny, as thanks for their “good advice.” The couple takes a cottage where they can raise a garden and keep a pig. Arabella is convinced that Jude has “earning power in him for buying her frocks and hats,” as soon as she can persuade him to “throw aside those stupid books for practical undertakings.”
On their first night together, Jude discovers that Arabella’s long, dark hair is actually a hairpiece. This sickens him, but Arabella assures him that “the better class” uses such shams.
A few weeks later, Arabella runs into Anny in town and admits that she was “mistaken” about her pregnancy. When she admits this to Jude, he passes from shock to silence. He thinks of the unjustness of their marriage, a “social ritual which made necessary a canceling of well-formed schemes involving years of thought and labour . . . .”
In a single chapter, Jude tries to leave Arabella, agrees to marry her, learns unsavory facts about her, and comes to resent her. Readers may consider whether Jude is a victim, swept along by powerful personalities and rigid customs, or whether he chooses to let Arabella upstage his plans. The people of parish certainly think Jude a fool who, after all his studies, now “would have to sell his books to buy saucepans.” When the couple weds, the narrator injects a critique of the permanency of marriage: If love is not permanent, why should the legal bond be so?
The time comes to slaughter the pig. Bad weather prevents Challow, the pig-butcher, from reaching the cottage, so Jude and Arabella undertake the task themselves. Jude is appalled. He fed this animal, and now he must kill it. He wants to kill the pig quickly so that it won’t suffer, but Arabella insists that the pig must bleed to death slowly so that its meat will be good. Soft-hearted Jude kills the pig quickly anyway, earning Arabella’s contempt; “There’s a waste, all through you!” she complains. Challow shows up late to handle the cutting, and Jude feels “dissatisfied with himself as a man,” even as he regrets the killing.
Later, as Jude walks to work, he passes a shed in which Anny and Sarah are talking about their advice to Arabella. Upset, he eats supper that evening with his aunt rather than going home. He arrives at the cottage to find Arabella working late to prepare lard; he doesn’t know that she was out earlier and thinks she’s been working all day. She complains that she needs money, and he retorts that apprentice’s wages are not meant to support a household. “Then you shouldn’t have had one” is her frustrated reply. Jude gently hints that he knows how she schemed to entrap him, but she defends herself by saying that the risk was hers. Jude corrects her: The risk is the woman’s if the man refuses to marry, but it is the man’s if he is honest and thereby entrapped.
Jude’s distaste for his marriage is conveyed by a habit he has developed. When he walks to Alfredston, he reads as he goes so that he will not have to see the places that remind him of his courtship. He now feels the fool for having let Arabella lead him so easily to the altar.
The next morning, Arabella, working in the kitchen again, recalls the conversation of the night before and becomes angry. She takes out her anger on Jude’s “dear ancient classics”—his books—getting lard on them as she flings them to the floor. Jude responds by grabbing her arms so that she can’t touch more books; her hairpiece comes down, and she leaves the house in fury. She sees lovers going for a walk and tells them that Jude mistreats her. Jude wonders if he should “drag her in by main force,” but to what end? “Their lives were ruined . . . by the fundamental error of having based a permanent contract on temporary feelings” rather than on compatibilities that “render life-long comradeship tolerable.”
Arabella blames Jude’s blood—the Fawleys, as everyone knows, are bad at marriage. Curious, Jude asks his aunt about this, and she tells him the truth about his parents. They couldn’t live together; his mother drowned herself, and his father left and never spoke of her again till the day he died. His uncle and aunt, Sue’s parents, fared little better. “The Fawleys were not made for wedlock,” Drusilla, herself single, claims. They hate “the notion of being bound to do what we do readily enough if not bound.”
On the way home, Jude tests the ice on a pond—but when it cracks, he leaps back. He doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t know what he should do. Then it occurs to him: “He could get drunk . . . . He began to see now why some men boozed at inns.” At home, he finds not his wife but a note that reads “Have gone to my friends. Shall not return.” A few days later, a letter from Arabella informs him that he’s “a slow old coach” and that she’s going to Australia with her family to get a fresh start.
Later, Jude finds in a pawn shop a framed portrait of himself—his wedding gift to his wife, inscribed with his love. This kills whatever feeling for Arabella he had left in him. He buys the portrait and burns it. After news comes that the Donns have left for Australia, Jude is struck by all that has happened to him, and he still so young. He stands on the road to Christminster, near a mile stone on the back of which he earlier had inscribed “Thither J.F.→.” It occurs to him that although he had been “diverted from his purposes by an unsuitable woman,” he was now free to take up his studies again. Part First ends with Jude praying, in a better frame of mind.
The inn where Jude gets drunk is the same place where he and Arabella took refreshment during their first walk. On the wall is a painting of Samson, the strong man, and Delilah, the woman who broke his strength. Jude’s knowledge of biblical stories means that the symbolism of the painting can’t escape him. He was strong in scholarly ambition till Arabella’s physical, legal, and financial demands stripped him of his dreams.