In the beginning, Jude's tale has the makings of a real rags-to-riches story. Jude is a classic small-town kid with big dreams and he has the drive to achieve what he wants. It is no accident that at one point Sue compares him to two of the biggest dreamers ever, Joseph of Biblical and musical theatre fame and Don Quixote of literary and, oddly, also of musical theatre fame:
'You are Joseph the dreamer of dreams, dear Jude. And a tragic Don Quixote.' (4.1.68)
When we first meet Jude, he's only eleven years old, but we can tell there's something special about him: after all, how many eleven-year-olds do you know who watch their teachers go off to pursue higher education and resolve, right then and there, to follow in their footsteps? Once Jude's schoolmaster Richard Phillotson heads off to the university town of Christminster to pursue his scholarly dreams, Jude resolves that he will study and learn and someday go to Christminster, too.
As we all know all too well, Jude's plans for future scholastic greatness get thrown off by a couple of completely disastrous love affairs—disastrous in one case because Arabella Donn is a liar and disastrous in the other case because Sue Bridehead is too awesome for 1896. So, what does this say about Jude? Is he weak? Is he a fool? Or, is love really what he cares about most? Yes, yes, and most definitely yes.
Hardy isn't content to leave poor Jude as a simple, naive dreamer. He has to give him tragedy. Sure, Jude might not be a tragic hero on the scale of, say, the famous Greek antihero Oedipus. (That's the guy who unknowingly kills his father and marries his own mother, which comes as such a shock to him when he finds out that he tears out his own eyes. Yeah. Now that's tragedy.)
But while Jude may not reach Oedipus-level angst, he's not too far off. Jude's tragic flaw is his endless devotion to the ideal of Christminster, which represents everything scholarly, worthy, and beautiful to him. Even after the city has chewed him up and spit him out on multiple occasions, Jude still says, 'It is the centre of the universe to me, because of my early dream: and nothing can alter it' (9.8.69). He just doesn't know how to quit.
Jude's attachment to Christminster isn't just the result of his desire to go to school or because he particularly loves the city's architecture. Christminster also represents the fact that, deep down, Jude wants to be accepted by the social class "above" him. Jude has taught himself Latin, Greek, and philosophy, and he is probably smarter, more committed, and more talented than any number of the rich kids who take for granted their right to walk the halls of Christminster's colleges.
However, Victorian England was definitely not a place where you could expect to change your station in life through ambition and hard work alone. (Honestly, that may still be true in a lot of places—but it's especially true in Jude's world.)
Jude's endless desire to stay physically close to his ideal city—even once he realizes that he will never achieve his scholarly goals—is what leads Jude to bring his family (Sue, Little Father Time, and the babies) back to Christminster even after they have lost everything thanks to their supposedly immoral living arrangements. He even makes it a point to return to the city on Remembrance Day—the day when the doctoral students of the colleges graduate and parade through the city:
'My failure is reflected on me by every one of those young fellows' (6.1.9).
Jude cannot let the dream die, and he cannot ever be truly satisfied knowing that he failed to accomplish what he set out to do. He cannot find rest in the fact that he has Sue Bridehead, the woman he adores more than anything in the world, and a family that loves and depends on him, because he cannot afford to support them all as he would like to.
Jude is a man with two equally strong, mutually exclusive dreams: he wants to improve his social status, and he wants to stay with Sue Bridehead, the freethinking love of his life. Since he refuses to give up either Christminster or Sue, all Jude has left by the end of the book is his resentment that he was never allowed into the elite "club" of English university life. As he proclaims when he and his family return to Christminster in the last part of the novel: 'Well—I'm an outsider to the end of my days!' (6.1.51).
Of course, to lay all the blame of Jude's tragedy on Jude himself isn't really fair. Obviously, the snobbery of the Christminster elite and the judgmental treatment of his neighbors and potential employers work together to ruin Jude's life.
You know that old line that 'no man is an island?' Well, this novel proves that saying true: Jude and Sue may find perfect love in each other, but they can't form a society of two—they can't just stand on their own against the world. They need the support of other people, which their attitudes towards marriage make difficult to get in this highly rigid and moralistic world. Having kids without being married is still unusual today; back in 1896, it was basically a social death sentence.
We all know those "grass is always greener" types of people, and maybe Jude is one of them: he's always hoping that the next move will bring him to a place where he can achieve his desires. But while he keeps up his hope for the future (for a while, at least), he also feels permanently out of step with the present and the world around him. As Jude says in the last part of the novel, 'I was, perhaps, after all, a paltry victim to the spirit of mental and social restlessness, that makes me so unhappy in these days!' (6.1.35).
Jude's sense that he is constantly out of place and unhappy has a really dark side to it—if this novel can handle getting any darker—since Jude also believes secretly that he should never have been born. He tries to kill himself pretty early on in the novel, and by the end, he clearly seeks out death by going out to visit Sue in the cold and rain when he is very sick. Jude is so out of place in the society of 1896 that he appears to believe the only peace he'll find—and the only place he truly belongs—is in death.
When we meet Jude, he is eleven. When Jude dies, he is thirty. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a very long time—after all, the sun is about 4.5 billion years old. Jude's lifespan is barely even a blink of an eye when you consider the (really) big picture. However, in those nineteen years, Jude leads quite a life (by human standards, if not by sun standards). His love affair with Sue is one for the ages, with its many twists, unspoken words, rebellious choices, and marriages to other people,.
Hardy makes us root for these two, all the while clearly showing us why their romance can't work out in the social climate of 1896. The cruelty of this book is that it makes us want what we know is impossible: Jude is no Hollywood romantic hero, ready to succeed against all odds. He is a sensitive man whose (quite reasonable) desires in life get squashed by the social prejudices of the people around him—and that's the real tragedy.Jude Fawley's Timeline