When we first meet Jude Fawley, he's a boy of eleven, and he's just looking for something to believe in. His beloved schoolmaster Richard Phillotson is leaving the small town of Marygreen to go to Christminster to become a scholar. Phillotson's departure bums Jude out, but it is the event that sets everything in motion. This moment is big for two reasons.
First, it introduces the idea (or the ideal) of Christminster to Jude. The desire to succeed in this university town will drive Jude through the rest of the book.
The second reason it's a big time moment is because it introduces us to Phillotson. Honestly, this is a bit of genius on Hardy's part. We're set up to believe that Phillotson will serve as some kind of guide for Jude, or at the very least that the schoolmaster will act as an ideal for Jude as the young man grows up. We have absolutely no idea the boy and the schoolmaster will one day be rivals in love, and that both of them will lose out on their big dreams of Christminster.
Once Phillotson is gone, Jude dedicates himself to learning as much as he possibly can. He believes that if he can teach himself enough, he too can go to Christminster someday and transform himself into a scholar or a leader in the Church: "And then he continued to dream, and thought he might become even a bishop by leading a pure, energetic, wise, Christian life" (1.6.9).
The true conflict in Jude's life comes when he meets Arabella Donn. At first it's all love talk and long walks between the two. In fact, Jude is so smitten that he puts his dreams and studies on hold. The more time they spend together, the more Jude is willing to give over his life to her: "The tenderness which had grown up in Jude's bosom left him no will to thwart her inclination now" (1.7.20).
Eventually, though, after the two have become intimate, as they say in the old days or in particularly prudish romance novels, things turn a little sour between the two. Jude is ready to resume his dreams and move on to Christminster.
But Arabella's not the kind of woman to let a man she wants just get away: she tells Jude that she is going to have a baby. Being an honorable young man, Jude says that they must get married. After the wedding, not only does Arabella tell Jude that she's not pregnant after all, but Jude suspects that she lied deliberately to trick him into this marriage.
After the marriage falls apart (as anyone with eyes can see will happen, what with the whole fake pregnancy and all), Arabella moves to Australia with her family (after selling all of her and Jude's stuff and taking the cash, of course). At last, Jude moves on to Christminster to pursue his Big Dreams.
Now, the second truly important woman in Jude's life makes an appearance, Sue Bridehead. Jude and Sue's relationship makes up the bulk of the novel. Due to his circumstances with Arabella, Jude believes he can be nothing more than Sue's cousin and friend:
"So would she be to him a kindly star, an elevating power, a companion in Anglican worship, a tender friend." (2.2.36).
Well, from that quote alone, it's clear that he's totally in love with her: "kindly star?" "Elevating power?" "Tender friend?" This is First-Love-Bad-Poetry material, right here. The rising action of Jude the Obscure follows Jude and Sue as they come to terms with their feelings for each other.
It's not an easy road (to put it mildly). Sue marries, leaves, and divorces Jude's former schoolmaster Phillotson in the process, and Jude finally legally divorces Arabella. Sue and Jude live together, but never marry. They are gossiped about, called out, and generally frowned on by society, but they finally reach a point where they seem truly happy and at ease in their lives. And then…
Arabella shows up again. Arabella is like that creepy demon thing from the Paranormal Activity spinoffs: whenever things start to seem fine in the lives of our heroes, there she is to ruin everything once more. Okay, she can't drag Jude down the stairs and away from Sue using unseen dark forces. But we're sure that, if she could, she would.
This time, Arabella lets Jude know via letter that Jude has a son that she never told him about. She also drops it on Jude that he is going to have to take care of the boy, because her new husband just can't know about it. Sue, being the genuinely goodhearted lady that she is, tells Jude that they must take care of the kid. In fact, she seems excited and dedicated to making this boy part of their family:
"We must have him. I see that. I'll do the best I can to be a mother to him, and we can afford to keep him somehow. I'll work harder." (5.3.32)
When the boy arrives, they simply call him Little Father Time. Oh sure, later, they will rename him Jude, but he's always going to be Little Father Time to us. From the moment LFT enters the novel, it's clear that he is not the average child. In fact, he is called Little Father Time because he is "Age masquerading as Juvenility" (5.3.42)—he seems prematurely ancient. LFT walks through life in a completely miserable state, all the time. In fact, to be the frontman of an emo band, he would have to be a little less depressed.
However, with comments like 'Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the sun' (5.3.40) (in other words, there is nothing on this earth that is actually funny) it's pretty clear that Little Father Time has some serious issues. Despite his deep sadness at life, he takes to Jude and particularly to Sue surprisingly quickly. He wants Sue to be his mother, and he calls her Mother from the get-go. Eventually, the three form a tight-knit family. It's still a bit troubling that, even though LFT loves them and they love him, the boy seems incapable of happiness.
We check in on Jude and Sue after several years have passed. They now have two children of their own and she is pregnant with her third. Cause for celebration, right? Wrong! Their non-married but children-having status causes them to be the center of scandal and gossip wherever they go. Eventually, Jude brings them back to Christminster, because old dreams (and old movie franchises) Die Hard.
In Christminster, Jude, Sue, and the kids cannot all find lodging together. Depressed, Sue and Little Father Time have a serious chat about how hard it is to make it in the world with kids. Little Father Time drops this on Sue:
'I think that whenever children be born that are not wanted they should be killed directly' (6.2.20).
Hoo boy, that kid ain't right in the head. Not long after that comment, Sue makes things even worse by telling LFT that she will be having another child. Little Father Time flips out: "I won't forgive you, ever, ever, ever!' (6.2.30).
Sue tries to calm him down, and eventually they all go to sleep. In the morning, Sue goes to visit Jude at his new home. When the two return to Sue's place with the kids, they find all three children (LFT and the two little ones) hanged by box chord. Little Father Time has killed the babies and himself. The note he has left is brutally short and to the point: "Done because we are too menny" (6.2.40).
After the death of the children, things will clearly never be the same. Jude continues to work, and even talks about finally marrying Sue properly. However, Sue turns to religion and starts to believe that the death of her children at the hands of Arabella's son was punishment for her sexual wrongdoings. She believes that, even though they've been legally divorced, in the eyes of God she still belongs to Phillotson and Jude still belongs to Arabella:
'We must conform!..All the ancient wrath of the Power above us has been vented upon us…It is no use fighting against God!' (6.3.3).
Eventually, Sue returns to Phillotson and remarries him. Arabella returns at the right time to get Jude blind drunk and guilt him into marrying her a second time. In short, things for Jude and Sue have not turned out the way we might have hoped.
Severely ill, Jude travels through rain and sleet to see Sue. They kiss passionately and Sue expresses her love for Jude, but says she cannot run away with him. Jude returns home in the terrible weather, knowing it will kill him:
'I made up my mind…a fellow who had only two wishes left in the world, to see a particular woman, and then to die, could neatly accomplish those two wishes at one stroke by taking this journey in the rain" (6.9.11). Clearly, the Beatles song lyric, "Hey Jude, don't make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better" came a little too late for poor Jude Fawley.
Jude dies. Arabella finds him dead, but doesn't do anything about it, because she wants to attend a boat race with some men, including her obvious future husband Dr. Vilbert. (Dr. Vilbert seems like a piece of work in his own right, but we kind of wish we could reach out and tell him, No! Run away!) Only Arabella and the widow Mrs. Edlin attend Jude's funeral. Arabella gets the last word, as she says of Sue, 'She's never found peace since she left his arms' (6.11.74).