Jude the Obscure

Jude the Obscure Summary and Analysis of At Melchester: Chapters 1-5


Chapter I

Jude is chastened by the suggestion of becoming a licentiate. This would be a pious and altruistic choice, whereas Jude’s youthful dream of becoming a bishop had very little to do with genuine enthusiasm for religion. He decides to take Mr. Highridge’s suggestion, but does not pursue it until he hears from Sue a few months later. She has won a scholarship to attend a teachers’ training college in Melchester. Melchester is a quiet, religiously oriented city where Jude could enter training to be a licentiate, so he goes there in hopes of furthering his career and seeing Sue. Although Sue’s letters are initially dispassionate, she eventually confides in him that she is very depressed and hates Melchester. She asks him to come as soon as possible, and Jude readily complies.

Jude checks into a temperance hotel and is struck by Melchester’s beautiful medieval architecture. When he goes to visit Sue, she is dressed more conservatively than she was in Christminster, and she seems to be suffering under the school’s strict discipline. Jude takes Sue out for a meal, and she reveals that she is engaged to marry Mr. Phillotson when she graduates from the teaching college in two years. Jude is furious but reins in his anger when Sue threatens to stop speaking to him. He suggests they sit in the cathedral, but Sue claims to prefer the train station because “that’s the centre of town life now” (135). Jude remarks on how modern she is, but Sue replies that she is more ancient than medieval or modern. The conversation is still tense because of Jude’s earlier outburst, so Sue returns to her college. In the following days, Jude finds work repairing the city’s cathedral and rents an apartment.

Chapter II

Over the next few weeks, Jude and Sue go on frequent outings to the historical sites in Melchester and the outlying areas. One day, they go to Wardour Castle. Jude stares reverently at the devotional images there, but Sue is less interested in them. They go hiking on the bluffs outside town, but Sue tires before they can reach the train station to go back to Melchester. They stay overnight in a shepherd’s cottage, where Sue talks about how she admires the rural life. Jude disagrees and calls her an “urban miss” (141) who only pretends to be enamored of country life. When they get back to Melchester the next morning, Sue gives Jude a photograph of herself.

Chapter III

Sue is reprimanded for staying out overnight, which is against the rules of the training college. She is also given ‘solitary confinement’ and is not allowed to leave a small room for a week. Neither the teachers nor the students believe that Jude is really Sue’s cousin, because another student lied about her lover being her cousin less than a year before. Nevertheless, Sue’s classmates still believe her punishment was too harsh, and they circulate a petition asking for her pardon. The geography teacher reveals that the school has investigated Jude. Most of their information is false (they believe Jude is not really Sue’s cousin) or greatly exaggerated (they heard that he was arrested for drunkenness and blasphemy in Christminster). The only thing they get right is that Jude moved to Melchester to be near Sue.

Not long after this, Sue escapes from her room by climbing out the window and wading through the river surrounding the school. The officials are initially concerned that she has drowned herself and that this will hurt the school’s reputation, but when they see her footprints on the other side of the river, they remark that they are glad to be rid of her. Sue seeks shelter at Jude’s apartment, and they have a sexually charged moment when Sue takes off her dress to dry it by the fire and puts on Jude’s clothes. He gives her brandy and she falls asleep in his sitting room.

Chapter IV

Jude’s landlady mistakes Sue for a “young gentleman” (145) and Jude doesn’t correct her. When Sue wakes the next morning, she tells Jude about her early life. Sue is very well-read for a working-class woman because as a young girl, she befriended an undergraduate at Christminster who lent her books. She lived with him platonically in London for more than a year, and hurt him greatly by refusing to become his mistress. Jude is vexed by this and by the fact that she prefers not to pray with him. He becomes even more upset when Sue offers to make him a “new New Testament” (152) by cutting up the Bible and reordering the material so it reflects the chronological order in which it was written. The argument gets emotional and it becomes clear that the cousins care for each other deeply, despite their theological differences. They promise never to fight again over hypothetical matters like religion.

Chapter V

The next morning, Sue decides to go stay with a friend’s sister in the town of Shaston until her problems at the training college blow over. Jude is about to confess his love as they say goodbye, but Sue warns him that she only wants platonic friendship from him. A few days later, he receives an ambiguous letter from Sue in which she writes, “if you want to love me Jude, you may” (155) but does not divulge her own feelings. Jude is thrilled and writes Sue offering to visit, but she does not respond for three days. Finally, he goes to Shaston uninvited to make sure she is all right, since she usually replies to letters promptly. Sue admits that she has not written because when she was formally expelled from the teaching college, the headmistress warned her that she should marry Jude to save her reputation. It hadn’t occurred to Sue to think of Jude sexually, and now she realizes that Jude (and everyone else) has misconstrued the relationship. Jude despondently returns to Melchester, but receives a letter from Sue the next day apologizing for hurting him and inviting him for a walk when she comes to Melchester to pick up her things from the training college.


In Part Third, Hardy explores the theological disagreements between Jude and Sue that he alluded to in previous chapters. Jude appears to be a member of the Tractarian movement (also known as the Oxford Movement), which advocated for reinstating old Christian traditions, which would result in bringing Anglicanism closer to Catholicism theologically (Schlossberg). This is apparent because Sue teases Jude by suggesting that he is going through a Tractarian phase, and Hardy mentions that Jude reads the work of Edward Bouverie Pusey, a prominent Oxford Movement thinker.

Jude’s theological leanings are consistent with his personality - the conservatism fits into his broader romantic attachment to old things (note how impressed he is with Melchester’s medieval cathedral). Moreover, the Oxford Movement got its name because many of its proponents attended or worked at Oxford, the university upon which the university at Christminster is based.

Sue, on the other hand, likes to think of herself as a classical thinker. She is skeptical of religion and uses logic to decide what to believe. Notably, she is surprised and perhaps uncomfortable when she sees how Jude is moved by the old devotional images at Wardour Castle. Hardy foreshadowed this element of Sue’s intellectual personality early in the novel by showing the difficulty she endures to buy the statues of the Roman gods. (Although curiously, she chooses Venus and Apollo, gods who are associated with emotion and sensuality rather than reason.)

Hardy also introduces the concept that religion and morality are mutually exclusive - that is, that a person can be good without being religious, and vice versa. As a young woman, Sue was influenced by an undergraduate at Christminster, whom she characterizes as “the most irreligious man I ever knew, and the most moral” (150). By presenting Sue’s views with respect, Hardy suggests that Jude and Sue are moral equals, despite the fact that Jude is more outwardly pious than his cousin. The novel’s suggestion that people can be good without religion was extremely controversial when it was first published.

Part Third also includes several notable stylistic features. Most importantly, Hardy experiments with perspective. The first half of Chapter III is not related from Sue or Jude’s point of view, but rather from the perspective of Sue’s classmates at the training school. No girl is singled out for long; instead, we get their perspective as an anonymous, collective entity. Telling a story from the perspective of a crowd rather than a single character is a very unusual move, and it presages Joyce’s and Woolf’s experiments with perspective in the early twentieth century.