Mr. Richard Phillotson, the schoolmaster of Marygreen, is leaving the village in hopes of getting a university degree and being ordained as a minister. He believes that living in Christminster, a university town Hardy based on Oxford, will help him achieve this goal. His regular students are indifferent to his leaving, but one eleven-year-old night student, Jude Fawley, is very sorry to see him go. Jude helps Mr. Phillotson pack his things, and volunteers his great-aunt’s fuel-house for the temporary storage of Mr. Phillotson’s piano. When he leaves, Mr. Phillotson urges Jude to “be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can” (15).
After Mr. Phillotson departs, Jude looks into a well and thinks to himself that Mr. Phillotson was too clever for the small village. His loud-mouthed great-aunt Drusilla urges him to stop daydreaming and bring in the water. The narrator notes that the well is one of the village’s oldest relics. Many of the buildings in Marygreen - including its quaint old church - have been torn down recently and rebuilt in newer styles by architects from the city.
Jude brings in the water, and finds Aunt Drusilla, a baker, discussing him with some of her customers. She explains that Jude was raised in the town of Mellstock, but moved in with her when his parents died a year earlier. She regrets that he didn’t die too, since he is so useless. However, she encourages him to earn money by doing odd jobs around Marygreen, like scaring birds away for Farmer Troutham. She comments that Jude loves to read like his cousin Sue, who was born in Marygreen but left with her family under mysterious and possibly disgraceful circumstances.
Jude goes to scare the birds in Farmer Troutham’s yard, but begins to sympathize with them because, like Jude, they are unwanted. He stops puts down his noisemaker and allows them to eat some of the corn. Farmer Troutham sees this and spanks Jude with his noisemaker before firing him. On the way home, Jude worries that this disgrace will make him a burden on his aunt. As he passes some earthworms, he is careful not to step on any of them. When he gets home, Aunt Drusilla is annoyed at the inconvenience of having Jude underfoot for the next few months, but is less upset than he expected about the actual firing. She asks why he couldn’t have gone to Christminster with Mr. Phillotson. Jude feels depressed that the world is such a cruel place, but he is eventually overcome with curiosity about Christminster. He asks a man in the village where Christminster is, and learns that it is located to the northeast of Marygreen - on the other side of Troutham’s field.
Jude steals across Troutham’s field and climbs the hill on the other side in hopes of seeing Christminster. He sees some men repairing a barn and asks them where Christminster is. They reply that it is possible to see the town on clear days, but today it is too foggy. Although he knows that prayer doesn’t always work, Jude prays that the mist will clear so he can see Christminster. It does, and he gazes at the distant city until it gets dark.
In the following weeks, Jude becomes increasingly “romantically attached” (28) to Christminster and often visits the barn to get a glimpse of it. On one occasion, he decides to go in the evening to see the city lights. He runs into an elderly carter and his employees, and asks if they have come from Christminster. Although they haven’t, the carter tells Jude what he knows about the city. He describes it as a serious place of religion and learning, where laborers like Jude and himself do not fit in. However, he praises the city’s beautiful music. Jude is undeterred by this assessment, and decides that life as an academic in Christminster “would just suit me” (30).
On the way back from the barn, Jude runs into Physician Vilbert, a traveling ‘doctor’ who makes money by selling fake medicines to cottagers. After chatting with Jude about Christminster, Vilbert agrees to give him his Latin and Greek grammar books from his own school days if Jude will talk up Vilbert’s wares around Marygreen and sell some orders. Jude puts great effort into doing this and gets many orders for Vilbert, but when they meet up two weeks later, Vilbert claims to have forgotten the grammars. He promises to bring them next time if Jude procures even more orders. Jude realizes that he is being exploited and cries.
When Mr. Phillotson sends for the piano he stored with Aunt Drusilla, Jude sneaks a letter into the large parcel asking Mr. Phillotson to send him some secondhand Latin and Greek grammars. When the grammars arrive a few weeks later, Jude’s initial excitement turns to depression when he realizes that learning a language is not like learning a code, but rather involves many years of memorization.
For the next three or four years, Jude applies himself diligently to learning Greek or Latin from old grammars. He also does his best to help Aunt Drusilla at the bakery. He gets a bad reputation around the village for his tendency to read while working at the bakery or driving Aunt Drusilla’s cart. One ornery villager even reports him to the police for reading while driving, but nothing comes of it. At age sixteen, it occurs to Jude that if he moves to Christminster to study, he will need to support himself, so he gets an informal apprenticeship with a stonemason in nearby Alfredston. He pursues this and studies Latin in his spare time for three years without incident.
At age nineteen, Jude decides he should leave for Christminster soon, as there is nothing more he can teach himself in Marygreen. One day he walks home from work, talking to himself about the books he has read and will read. Someone in the bushes calls out “hoity-toity” (41) and throws a piece of meat at him. Jude discovers three pretty young women who flirtatiously deny having thrown the meat. He is intrigued by the girl he believes responsible for the prank - Arabella Donn, a pig-breeder’s daughter. They introduce themselves, and Jude agrees to call on her next Sunday. Although he knows that Arabella is a poor match for him, he cannot help but be entranced by her beauty. Meanwhile, Arabella’s friend Anny comments that Jude is so innocent about the opposite sex that any woman who wanted to could get him to marry her.
In Jude the Obscure’s opening chapters, Hardy introduces most of the main characters, although their importance is not always obvious (as in the case of Sue Bridehead, Jude’s alluring cousin who is only mentioned briefly). Hardy’s method of characterization is somewhat unusual for Victorian novelists. Rather than telling us explicitly what a character is like, Hardy implies this information through seemingly insignificant observations. For example, the fact that Mr. Phillotson bought a piano and never learned how to play it foreshadows his role as a well-meaning dilettante who never equals Jude’s fiery passion for learning.
Hardy is quick to introduce the tension between old and new, which will be one of the novel’s preoccupations. In the first chapter, he digresses from the plot to remark angrily that many of Marygreen’s buildings have been torn down and replaced by an architect who “had run down from London and back in a day” (16). Hardy frequently associates Jude, the novel’s protagonist, with old things. For example, the house he lives in with Aunt Drusilla is one of the few remaining old houses in Marygreen, and he takes an ancient Roman road to the barn to look at Christminster. As a teenager, Jude is attracted to stonemasonry in part because of its status as a “medieval art” (39).
This fascination with the old is closely tied to Hardy’s positive portrayal of education. Today, education is often viewed as a progressive force, but in nineteenth-century England, this was not the case. The universities are among England’s oldest institutions, and in the Victorian period, students spent most of their time at university studying the distant past; history, literature, and mathematics were all taught using classical texts. By associating Jude with the world of centuries past, Hardy underlines his appropriateness for an academic environment.
Women are portrayed somewhat negatively in these opening chapters, although Hardy will complicate this depiction when Jude meets Sue Bridehead. Aunt Drusilla is portrayed as uncaring and curt. Even though her indifference allows Jude to spend so much time studying Latin and gazing at Christminster from the Brown House, her depiction is solidly negative. We get very little of her backstory; Hardy does not divulge why she never married, and explains her motives only as necessary to advance Jude’s plot. The cartoonish, one-sided characterization of Aunt Drusilla might be read as an example of misogyny, but it could also be a reflection of Jude’s own childish self-absorption.
Hardy also portrays Arabella with great negativity, albeit with slightly more depth than Aunt Drusilla. When she appears in Chapter VI, she comes off as a scheming, thoughtless rube bent on seducing men without much regard for who they are or what their future plans might be. Jude is entirely passive in his seduction; when they first meet, Arabella’s gaze rivets him “against his will” (44). Despite his relatively impressive aptitude for the classics, Jude lacks the interpersonal skills necessary to reject Arabella when he realizes she is a bad match for him - a fact that Anny notices and mentions to Arabella. Hardy uses this incident to demonstrate that although Jude is much more learned than his peers, he is not necessarily better than them, and his academic knowledge has come at the cost of other kinds of learning.