Richard Phillotson kicks off the novel. He leaves his job as schoolmaster in the small town where Jude lives in order to pursue his dreams of becoming a scholar in Christminster. As we discover, this doesn't really pan out for him: like Jude, he finds it impossible to break into the elite ranks of the university there, and Phillotson winds up struggling to make ends meet as a teacher just outside the city.
His reappearance in the book in Part Second adds a lot of complications to the plot, but it also foreshadows Jude's own failure (though Phillotson winds up a lot better off than Jude, we have to say!).
Clearly, we readers have no way of anticipating that Phillotson is going to wind up as a love rival with Jude when we first see him leaving Marygreen when Jude is eleven years old. Yet, that is in fact what happens: Phillotson becomes Jude's major competitor for Sue's hand in marriage. However, it's very clear that Sue doesn't really love him in a romantic sense, Still, even if Sue clearly prefers Jude, her choices regarding the two men are totally unpredictable. Phillotson and Jude are often left to deal with the whims of Sue:
She had not the least conception how the hearts of the twain went out to her at this momentary revelation of feeling, and what a complication she was building up thereby in the futures of both. (2.5.16)
If they weren't both pursuing the same woman, we feel like Jude and Phillotson could become friends over the mutual heartbreak of having to deal with someone as changeable as Sue.
We want to make a case for good ol' Phillotson. Since he competes with our hero Jude for Sue's affections (and since we know that Sue finds him kind of gross), we generally side with Jude in the fight for Sue's hand. However, we have to remember that Phillotson almost always acts out of kindness and does what he thinks is right. He is a noble guy and he means well, even if he and Sue have essentially no chemistry.
Phillotson basically throws his life and ambition away to ensure that Sue will be happy. When he lets her leave, he loses his job, most of his money, and his standing in society, and yet he never says a bad word about her. When he is told to resign, he refuses, because he continues to believe that he made the right choice in letting Sue divorce him. Sue's choices leave Phillotson penniless and broken, and yet he has no regrets about his relationship with her. He says:
'I don't go unless I am turned out. And for this reason; that by resigning I acknowledge that I have acted wrongly by her; when I am more and more convinced every day that in the sight of Heaven and by all natural, straightforward humanity, I have acted rightly' (4.6.18).
This is a man who sticks by his convictions, even if he has to go through shame, embarrassment, and ruin as a result. How can we not admire a guy like that?Richard Phillotson's Timeline