Shaston is a beautiful old city that few people appreciate, especially because it suffers somewhat from economic malaise. Jude goes to visit Sue at the schoolhouse since she and Mr. Phillotson will not have returned home yet. He plays “The Foot of the Cross” on the piano, and turns around to find Sue watching him play. She knows and loves the hymn, as Jude does. They bond over this coincidence and hold hands. Sue suggests they have tea in the schoolhouse, since she finds the house she shares with Phillotson depressing. Sue talks about coming to visit Jude in Melchester, and Jude accuses her of being a flirt, which leads to a fight. Jude leaves in a huff, but as he does, Sue apologizes and invites him to visit again next week. He agrees. As he waits for the train back to Melchester, Jude peers in Sue’s window and sees her looking tearfully at a photograph. He wonders if it is the one he gave her of himself.
The next day, Jude receives a note from Sue telling him not to come because they were “too free” (205) with each other in the schoolhouse. He also gets a telegraph from the Widow Edlin informing him that Aunt Drusilla is dying. Although Jude leaves for Marygreen immediately, Aunt Drusilla is dead by the time he gets there. Jude writes Sue a terse note informing her of the bad news. Sue comes to Marygreen for the funeral, and afterward, she speaks to Jude about her marriage. She asks hypothetically if it’s ethical for a wife to confide in another man that she is not happy with her husband. Jude reasons that it is (and confides that he is unhappy in his marriage to Arabella), but Sue insists that she is happy with Mr. Phillotson and the question was just conjectural. Jude announces that Arabella has returned to England, and he intends to live with her - after all, they are still married. Sue is overcome with emotion, and admits that she hates being married to Phillotson, even though he tries his best to be a good husband.
The next morning, Jude is awakened by a rabbit shrieking because it has been caught in a nearby trap. Jude goes outside to kill it out of mercy, and when he does, he encounters Sue. She has been staying with the Widow Edlin and was also disturbed by the shrieking. Sue admits that she is deeply bitter about her marriage. When she leaves, she kisses Jude on the top of the head.
When Sue leaves Marygreen, she and Jude kiss goodbye passionately. Jude realizes he cannot pursue a religious career in good faith while having an affair with a married woman. Because he doesn’t want to be a ‘hypocrite’ (216), Jude burns his religious texts. Meanwhile on the train, Sue scolds herself for being weak and resolves not to write to Jude for a very long time. When she gets back to Shaston, she confesses to Phillotson that she let Jude hold her hand, but she doesn’t mention the kiss. Phillotson seems indifferent and remarks that holding hands would be “hardly a novelty” (217) between the two cousins.
That night, Mr. Phillotson is surprised and hurt when Sue would rather sleep in the closet than in bed with him. The next morning, she asks Mr. Phillotson if she can move out. When he asks why, Sue admits that she stopped loving him during their long engagement, but she felt obliged to go through with the marriage. If Phillotson will release her, she intends to go live with Jude. In a darkly comic scene, Sue and Mr. Phillotson bicker about their marriage by passing notes as they teach their respective classes. Eventually, Mr. Phillotson agrees to let Sue ‘live separately’ from him in the same house, although he does not allow her to move out.
Out of habit, Mr. Phillotson goes up to their old bedroom, which now belongs to Sue, after a long day’s work. Sue is so startled by the sudden intrusion that she jumps out the window. Although Sue is unhurt by the fall, Phillotson realizes that she hates him so much she would rather jump out a window than be near him. Deeply upset, he goes to visit his friend George Gillingham. Phillotson explains to Gillingham that although he loves Sue, he is separating from her because she is deeply unhappy in the marriage and loves Jude. Phillotson believes that Sue and Jude belong together because he eavesdropped on their conversation in the schoolhouse in Chapter I. He also thinks it cruel to force a woman to stay married against her will.
When Phillotson gives Sue the news, she is very pleased and wants to remain friends with him. However, Phillotson thinks this is a bad idea and wishes to cut off contact entirely, although he offers her money (which she declines). Sue takes a few possessions and boards a train to Melchester. After she has left, Phillotson cries and locks the mementos she left behind in a box.
When Sue arrives at Melchester, Jude meets her and explains that they are going to live together in Aldbrickham. This is because too many people know Jude and Sue in Melchester, and their living together would cause a scandal. Jude is ready to move the relationship along quickly - he is divorcing Arabella (this was Arabella’s idea - she wants to officially marry her Australian husband), and he has booked them a single hotel room in Aldbrickham. This makes Sue uncomfortable; she is still struck by Mr. Phillotson’s generosity in letting her go, and she’s not ready to become Jude’s lover just yet. She hands Jude a sealed letter from Mr. Phillotson. The letter urges Jude to treat Sue kindly and wishes them the best in their future relationship.
On the train, Jude and Sue argue about Sue’s fickleness when it comes to relationships. Jude says that although she behaves like a free thinker, she is just as subject to social mores as anyone else - that’s why she married Phillotson in the first place. This hurts Sue’s feelings. When they get to Aldbrickham, Jude books Sue a hotel room at another inn because she does not want to share a bed with him yet. This turns out to be the inn Jude stayed at with Arabella just a month before - a fact that the hotel maid divulges to Sue. Sue and Jude have a long fight about this, but they make up when Jude explains that Arabella is married (if not legally) to someone else, and that nothing happened when they spent the night together. Sue recites some lines from Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” and begs Jude to say that the lines describe her. Jude does, and they kiss goodnight.
Rumors get around Shaston that Sue Phillotson has eloped with another man. The chairman of the school board asks Mr. Phillotson what happened to his wife, and Phillotson tells him the truth - that Sue eloped with his permission. The chairman is morally outraged and the school board asks Mr. Phillotson to resign. Gillingham urges his friend to comply, since if Phillotson resigns voluntarily, he can still get a job in another town. However, Phillotson refuses because he believes that letting Sue go was the moral thing to do. Most of the town is against him, but a few bohemian types support Phillotson. The controversy over whether he should be fired causes a small riot at the school board meeting.
The stress of these events makes Phillotson gravely ill. Gillingham sends an anonymous letter to Sue informing her of this, so Sue comes to visit Phillotson. She helps him out of bed so he can watch the sunset, and in a fit of emotion, Phillotson asks Sue to return to him. She apologetically refuses and leaves, without ever finding out why Phillotson lost his job. Now that he knows Jude is divorcing Arabella, Phillotson decides to do the same kindness for Sue.
"At Shaston" primarily addresses the dissolution of the Phillotsons’ marriage. Because of this, little of the section is related from Jude’s point of view, and indeed, much of it is told from the perspective of Mr. Phillotson, a secondary character. Earlier chapters have highlighted Phillotson’s negative qualities - for example, his dilettantism and his obliviousness to Sue’s waning feelings for him. However, as Hardy develops Phillotson’s character in this chapter, some similarities to Jude become clear. Like Jude, Phillotson uses reason to decide the right thing to do, and he is willing to stand up for his beliefs under pressure - as demonstrated by his response to the school board inquiry.
Phillotson is not the only character to demonstrate Jude-like qualities in Part Fourth. As Sue struggles to control her feelings for her cousin, we see that she deals with her emotions in much the same way Jude does. After kissing him, she scolds herself for being weak and resolves not to write, a series of thoughts that evokes Jude’s obsessive vacillations about when and how to write to Sue in "At Melchester".
But while these traits show that the cousins are, indeed, ‘just alike’, they also foreshadow problems in their relationship. When Jude and Sue fight at the inn in Aldbrickham, their mutual fickleness means that both characters frequently change opinions, which draws out their fights and makes it hard for them to communicate their true feelings to one another. Although Sue is presented as very liberal in "At Christminster", here we see her conservative side when she objects to Jude spending the night with Arabella. The fight suggests that despite their mutual commitment to reason and rational thought, Jude and Sue can be excessively influenced by their emotions.
As the Phillotson marriage falls apart, Hardy highlights the parallels between their relationship and Jude’s relationship with Arabella. The parallelism is most noticeable when Jude kills the rabbit, a moment that evokes the pig-slaughter scene in "At Marygreen". Jude and Sue are more alike in their feelings than Jude and Arabella (both are sensitive and merciful with regards to animals), but in the rabbit scene, Jude is the active partner while Sue is entirely passive. This reflects Jude’s growing confidence in his relationships with women, an issue that crops up again when Jude books the single room in Aldbrickham without Sue’s permission.
Although relatively little of the story takes place at Shaston, Hardy uses a fair amount of space to describe the city’s physical layout. This further develops the richly detailed geography of Wessex that Hardy creates in this and his other novels. It also hints at the predestined quality of the Phillotsons’ separation - their marriage is literally founded on rocky, difficult, terrain. The numerous images of characters struggling to walk uphill evokes the futility of forcing an unwanted romantic relationship.