Our hero Jude Fawley starts out his adventures in exactly the same way that Harry Potter does: he's an eleven-year-old orphan being raised by his aunt. But unfortunately for poor Jude, he's not a magically talented child of destiny. He's just a small boy in the small town of Marygreen, in Wessex.
(By the way, Wessex is an English county that Thomas Hardy invented, based heavily on his home county of Dorset, in southeastern England. Hardy describes Wessex as a "partly real, partly dream country"—a place that we'd like to visit, maybe, except that Hardy makes so many awful things happen there.)
Young Jude Fawley stands watching as his schoolmaster, Richard Phillotson, leaves Marygreen and heads to the glorious city of Christminster. There, Phillotson plans to go to university to become a great scholar. Jude decides, hey, I want that, too!, and commits himself to one day becoming a scholar just like the man he looks up to. (BTW, like Wessex, Christminster does not technically exist. But it's based on Oxford, the famous English university town.)
Okay, so maybe we don't all spend years and years dreaming about going to a specific college, but we all have dreams for the future, right? Maybe you've spent every day shooting jumpers in the hopes of being the next Lebron James or you've converted your garage into the perfect spot for your band to rock weekly, so one day you can take over the world and play Madison Square Garden. Whatever your greatest hopes and dreams are, that's Christminster for Jude.
As Jude ages, he gets his hands on the classics and Latin and Greek grammar books, and starts to teach himself. Yes, he's that hardcore. He just sits down and starts to teach himself Ancient Greek and Latin. He also gazes off into the distance in the direction of Christminster, knowing that someday he will go there to learn properly.
Unfortunately, when Jude is in his late teens, he runs into Arabella Donn. If only Jude was as intuitive as that guy on The Mentalist—then maybe he would have run from Arabella while he had the chance. Sadly, Jude's not a psychic. He's just an ordinary guy about to make a terrible mistake.
Jude starts courting Arabella in a casual way, but through a bit of seduction, Arabella convinces Jude to sleep with her. Of course, there's no actual sex within the action of the novel, since that really would not fly in 1896. Arabella then convinces Jude that she is pregnant (though, again, the word "pregnant" is never used, because—you guessed it—it's still 1896). Being an honorable young man, Jude gives up on his dreams of university life at Christminster and agrees to marry Arabella. Arabella reveals that she was mistaken about her condition, and Jude feels both tricked and trapped.
The marriage is pretty rough from the get-go (for obvious reasons), and soon Arabella decides to leave for Australia with her family. This frees Jude to move on to Christminster as he always dreamed. Of course, it's not easy for a poor boy from nowhere to break into the university scene at such a high-and-mighty place as Christminster, so Jude takes on work as a tradesman (he's quite a good stonemason) while continuing to study on his own.
Thoughts of somehow becoming a scholar soon take a backseat to his desire for the lovely Sue Bridehead, a cousin of Jude's who he has never actually met in person but whose portrait stood in his aunt's house when he was growing up. At last, we've reached a great set-up for a romantic comedy, right? Boy meets the wrong girl, the wrong girl moves to Australia, boy spots the right girl from a distance, and he's even seen her before (if only in picture form). Okay, it's not the most typical of love stories, but we're keeping our fingers crossed that something is finally going to work out for Jude.
Jude decides now is the time to start experimenting with a bit of stalking. Jude follows Sue around for a while without letting her know he's there. It's a little creepy, but we guess his motives are pure. After Sue finally spots him, the two meet face to face at last, and the attraction is pretty instant. Problem is, Sue is leaving Christminster soon. Jude has a great idea. He tracks down his old teacher Phillotson and gets Sue a job as Phillotson's teaching assistant. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course, Jude is still legally married to Arabella, even if she is living literally on the other side of the world from him. Jude continues loving Sue from afar while she's working for Phillotson, but he wants to keep his vows to his estranged wife. Still, Jude can't help how he feels: he winds up living close to Sue as she starts attending a teaching school. Even though both Sue and Jude know that they should be together, Sue goes off and gets engaged to Phillotson. (Sure. This is clearly going to turn out well.)
Sue marries Phillotson, but it's no good. Phillotson may be an okay guy, but she really can't stand being around him. Let this be a lesson to us all: don't marry someone you can't stand being around. (Clearly, this is an important Life Rule that Thomas and his first wife Emma Hardy probably both wished they had learned earlier in life.) Eventually, Sue flees her husband and goes to Jude. So now, both Sue and Jude are married to other people but living with one another. Probably, this is not the best idea in 1896—but the heart wants what it wants.
Arabella returns to spoil things between Jude and Sue. She's like some horrible dream-killer: even though it looks like she's helping, you can trust that she is going to make things turn ugly at some point. This time, she lets Jude know that she has married another man in Australia. This appears to let Jude off the hook a little, morally and legally speaking, and he and Sue start to live openly as a couple. Sue still does not want to marry Jude, since she despises the whole idea of marriage by this point.
Jude and Sue have their ups and downs, like all couples do, but they love each other. Still, just as it seems that this crazy idea of theirs just might work, Arabella returns again (nooooooooo!) to tell Jude that she had a son years ago, and that the son is Jude's. Arabella leaves her son with Jude.
Enter Little Father Time. Little Father Time is a strange, detached boy who got his name because he seems so much older than he actually is. Little Father Time (we'll call him "LFT" for short) bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he quickly takes to Sue. In fact, he calls her "Mother" from the get-go. Jude, Sue, and LFT spend time together and all seems mostly well, except that they can't ever seem to get LFT interested in or happy about anything.
As the years go by, Sue and Jude have two children of their own, but they still never get married. Even after they divorce their respective first spouses (Phillotson and Arabella), they don't get married. Again, guys, this is 1896: divorce is bad enough, but living together unmarried? Totally scandalous. Society is not cool with this, and Jude starts to lose work.
These days, the tabloids mainly destroy celebrities over their personal lives. But in the 1890s, when communities were smaller, no one's private life was off limits. Your neighbors could ruin you if you didn't play by their rules. It reminds us of the HBO TV show Big Love, but without the religion or the multiple spouses. Okay, honestly, it's missing almost all of the elements of Big Love, but like the Henricksons, Jude and Sue have to struggle constantly with the sense that the people around them will never accept their moral choices.
As Sue and Jude become more and more ostracized, the family is forced to move around to places where no one knows them or their unconventional living situation. After an illness and a tough financial run, Jude decides it's time to return to Christminster. He just can't let that dream of becoming a scholar die.
They struggle to find lodging, because people don't want kids in their homes, and it's clear that Sue has another child on the way. Jude is forced to find separate lodging from his family, and this hits LFT hard. Sue talks to LFT about how it's hard to find lodging with children and it's hard to make enough money to support the entire family. Then, she tells LFT that she is going to have another baby. He doesn't take this well. Seriously, he takes this really badly. Like, about as badly as it's possible to take such news.
In the morning, when Sue goes out to meet Jude, Little Father Time kills the two babies and himself, leaving a simple note that says "Done because we are too menny" (6.2.40). The horror of all of this causes Sue to have a miscarriage. This family tragedy changes Sue entirely, and she believes they are being cursed by God for what they have done.
Okay, it's safe to say that no one who starts this novel thinks anything like this horrible murder-suicide is going to go down. This moment is crazy. So, take a breath. And now, let's move on.
To make things right, Sue returns to Phillotson and remarries him. Arabella, always a crafty lady, returns (she's like Jaws in Jaws 4: she just won't go away). Arabella gets Jude drunk for days on end and basically tricks him into remarrying her. In the end, Jude is ill, and still in love with Sue. He travels in the sleet and rain to see Sue one last time. They kiss passionately and express their love for each other, but Sue will not run away with Jude.
Jude returns home and dies soon after. So that happens. In conclusion: this is not an uplifting novel—to put it mildly.