Jude the Obscure: Novel Summary: Part Third: At Melchester
Having laid aside his dreams of scholarship, Jude now takes up the idea of noble self-sacrifice in service. Because he will not enter church work as a scholar, Jude will be limited to the career of “the humble curate wearing his life out in an obscure village of city slum—that might have a touch of goodness and greatness in it . . . .” For “a long stagnant time,” however, Jude does nothing toward his new goal. Then a letter comes from Sue, telling of her plans to attend a Training College in Melchester. There is also a Theological College in Melchester, Jude thinks—perhaps he should move to this city, “a quiet and soothing place . . . where worldly learning and intellectual smartness had no establishment.” Jude calculates the time he will need to read up divinity texts and thinks that he might enter the ministry at age thirty, “an age that much attracted him as being that of his exemplar [Jesus] when he first began to teach in Galilee.”
Jude plans to move to Melchester in spring, when seasonal stone work begins, but he receives a letter from Sue saying that she is “quite lonely and miserable” at Melchester, “utterly friendless” and chafing at the strict rules of the women’s training college. Jude goes. He is pleased to see that the cathedral is under renovation; there will be much work for him. Perhaps, he thinks, “a ruling Power” is favoring him. Jude finds a changed Sue at her lodgings: “she had altogether the air of a woman clipped and pruned by severe discipline,” but under the severity he perceives “brightness shining through from the depths.” He wishes he could kiss her.
Jude buys Sue dinner—in the training college, food is not plentiful. They hold hands, in chaste cousinly fashion, and Jude asks Sue if Phillotson had wanted to marry her. “If he had, what would it matter?” she replies. “An old man like him!” Then she admits that she has indeed promised to marry him after finishing her training; they will then teach at a larger school. She thinks that perhaps she and Jude should not see each other, but he claims his “perfect right” as her cousin to see her when he wants to. He suggests that they go sit in the cathedral, but Sue prefers the railway station: “That’s the centre of the town life now. The Cathedral has had its day!” He walks her to the college gate for curfew.
Jude quickly gets work and takes lodgings, spending too much so that he is near Sue. He studies theological texts in the evenings and practices the harmonium (a small organ) so that he will be able to lead hymns in a church.
Readers know Jude well enough now to see that he rationalizes his decision to move to Melchester. His real intent in living there is to be near Sue, whom he hopes “to learn to love . . . only as a friend and kinswoman.” His decision is in fact irrational: He moves during the winter, when little stone work is available, because of Sue’s letter begging him to come.
Jude and Sue have planned a day out, and his sense of anticipation is high: “Every detail of the outing was a facet reflecting a sparkle” as long as Jude doesn’t stop to think that his time with Sue is contrary to his married state and his career plans. On the train, the guard thinks they are lovers and gives them their own compartment—“a good intention wasted,” Sue comments. They visit a castle to view an art display. They lunch and then walk in the country. Sue tires, and as there is no station nearby, they seek refuge in a cottage. Sue praises the rustic life, but Jude says she wouldn’t like it for long. They sleep separately, and the next day they walk the four miles to the train station. Sue fears that she will be in trouble for breaking curfew. She gives Jude a little photograph of herself, and he’s happy—but the porter who opens the college gate gives them “an ominous glance.”
Jude and Sue seem to go together well; on their outing, they give the appearance of lovers. However, they are opposed on some serious issues, including that of religious beliefs. While they view the art, Sue is puzzled by Jude’s fascination with religiously-themed paintings: “It was evident that her cousin deeply interested her, as one might be interested in a man puzzling out his way along a labyrinth from which one had one’s self escaped.”
Melchester’s Training College is “a species of nunnery” for the seventy girls who live and study there. When Sue misses curfew, they know she’s in trouble. Most of them doubt that Jude is in fact her cousin (and therefore a suitable guardian) because another girl has recently used that lie. As they go to bed at night, a mistress comes in to check Sue’s bed and notes two photographs on her dressing-table, one of Phillotson, another of a young man in cap and gown.
The next day, Sue is still missing, and the girls are instructed not to speak to her if they see her. So, when she comes in at last, she is ignored. For punishment, Sue is confined to solitary life for a week, a sentence the girls find harsh. They appeal the sentence and refuse to work in class, in Sue’s support, even after the mistress says that she knows for a fact that Jude is not Sue’s cousin. Toward dusk, the students hear that Sue has run away. The matron is worried—not about Sue, but about scandal attaching to her school. Secretly, she’s glad Sue is gone.
Jude is reading at his lodgings when he hears gravel on his window. Sue stands outside, in soaked clothes, needing shelter. Jude “palpitated at the thought that she had fled to him in her trouble as he had fled to hear in his. What counterparts they were!” He leaves the room while she changes into his Sunday clothes. He buys brandy to warm her and watches her as she sleeps in a chair, seeing in her “almost a divinity.”
Hardy is often thought of as a pessimistic writer, though he considered himself not a pessimist but a realist. In fact, one of Jude’s failings is his lack of realism. The “divinity” he sees in his chair is really a girl who hates restriction and flouts authority. Hardy’s description of the girls in the college gives an example of his unwillingness to look away from hard truths: “They formed a pretty, suggestive, pathetic sight, of whose pathos and beauty they were themselves unconscious, and would not discover till, amid the storms and strains of after-years, with their injustice, loneliness, child-bearing, and bereavement, their minds would revert to this experience as to something which had been allowed to slip past them insufficiently regarded.”
When the landlady comes up to Jude’s room, he hides Sue’s clothes and sits down to read. She assumes that a gentleman is visiting and brings dinner on a tray. Sue wakes up, having missed curfew again. Jude implores her to stay, rest, and eat so that she doesn’t get sick. As they talk, Sue complains that Jude called her a “creature of civilization” while they were at the cottage. This is “provokingly wrong”—she is “the negation” of that. She lists what she’s read and asserts that she has “no fear of men . . . nor of their books.” She reveals that she was close friends with an undergraduate at Christminster; he loaned her books, and they went “on walking tours, on reading tours” as if they were both men. Indeed, that is the relationship Sue assumed they would have when they went to London to share lodgings, but she learned that he expected her to become his mistress. When Sue threatened to leave, he agreed to live chastely with her. He later became ill and went abroad for his health, but he came home to die. She admits that she broke his heart. He left her a little money, which she invested but lost; then she came to Christminster to find work because her father would not take her in. Jude remarks in admiration that Sue is “as innocent as you are unconventional.”
Jude notes that it’s time for prayers and asks Sue to join him. She declines and criticizes Christminster’s reputation as a place full of “fetishists and ghost-seers,” where intellect and religion push so hard against each other that neither makes progress. Jude prays and reads the Bible while she waits. She offers to make him a New Testament like hers, “cutting up all the Epistles and Gospels into separate brochures,” then arranging them in order of composition. Jude declares this sacrilege, but Sue continues to criticize accepted interpretations of scripture.
As they argue, Sue admits that she had hoped to “ennoble some man to high aims” and thought that Jude might be that man; but his willingness to “take tradition on trust” makes her think otherwise. Then, aware that she has offended, Sue says that they must “never, never vex each other”; her voice seems to “nestle in his breast.” They think alike in many ways, she says, but they can never be “comrades” because of his sexual desire.
Sue’s backstory is in sharp focus in this chapter, and it doesn’t suggest that Jude will live “happily ever after” with her. She seeks intellectual companionship and has found it only in men, yet she is sexually unavailable and knows that men are not often content to stay in a relationship that has no sexual component. It’s possible that she intends her arguments to discourage Jude from loving her, but they have the opposite effect.
In the morning, Sue must leave Jude’s lodgings unseen. She now regrets running away because of what Phillotson will say. She decides to stay with a friend till the event blows over. Jude walks her to the station, wanting to tell her that he loves her, but she objects: “You mustn’t love me. You are to like me—that’s all!”
Melchester is dismal for Jude without Sue nearby. She writes to let him know she’s safe and apologizes for her curtness at the station: “If you want to love me, Jude, you may.” He writes back but, receiving no reply, worries that Sue must be ill and makes the eighteen-mile journey to check on her. He finds her in bed with a cold, but that is not why she didn’t write. She’s been expelled; the matron has advised her to marry Jude to save her reputation. She blames herself for getting close to him; she blames him for not demonstrating his love more openly. Jude wants to kiss and comfort her, but he holds back, knowing that he should tell her about Arabella. Instead, he asks what Phillotson thinks about her being expelled.
The next day, back at his lodgings, Jude receives a letter from Sue. She apologizes for her bad temper and says that she will see him when she comes to get her belongings.
This chapter includes two examples of a behavior that Sue often engages in and that causes Jude grief. In person, she speaks bluntly, or cruelly, or angrily; the next day, she sends a letter retracting or apologizing for her words. Jude, because he idealizes her, tends to take her spoken words too lightly and then to read too much into her letters. Any warning against hope that Sue intends to convey is drowned out by her follow-up letters. Readers may wonder who is more conflicted about this friendship—Sue or Jude.
While Sue is at Melchester, Phillotson is teaching at a larger school in Shaston, saving his money for their marriage. He thinks often of Sue’s beauty. In his spare time, he researches Roman-British antiquities, but he spends most of his writing hours studying Sue’s letters and her photograph—the same that she gave to Jude “and would have given to any man.” Though gray, old-fashioned, and approaching fifty, he kisses the photograph like “a young man of eighteen.”
One Saturday—the same day Sue comes to get her belongings—Phillotson travels to Melchester to visit her, only to learn that she was expelled two weeks ago. Angry at the school, Phillotson rests in the cathedral and sees Jude at work. Jude explains what has happened, aware that he could use this chance “to annihilate his rival” by saying that the scandal is true. But he doesn’t. He admits that he would marry Sue but explains why he can’t. They part, Phillotson satisfied that Jude and Sue are not lovers.
Jude sees Sue in the street and goes to meet her. He asks if she has seen Phillotson, but she won’t be “cross-examined” by him. Put off, Jude remarks that Sue’s letters are often nicer than she is. Jude finally tells Sue about his marriage as they walk in the closed market, discarded produce underfoot. Feeling angry and foolish, she cries, “O it is perfectly damnable how things are!” Something of her true feelings for Jude shows when she asks how pretty Arabella is.
Jude expresses his fear that Arabella will return to England one day, but Sue is too angry to sympathize. She calls him a hypocrite who prays to the saints while loving where he should not. Both are miserable; then Sue confesses that she’s hurt not because she loves Jude but because Jude didn’t trust her with the facts right away. Not that it matters—they couldn’t marry because they are cousins and she is engaged, but they can still be friends. At the end of the conversation, Jude feels very unsure of Sue’s opinion of him.
By now, readers sense that while Jude is so devoted to Sue that he will endure any abuse or neglect, she herself is divided about her affections. As the cousins list reasons they can’t marry, they consider the Fawley reputation but dismiss it as superstition. Yet Sue at least is so inconsistent—promising to marry Phillotson, claiming not to love Jude yet feeling betrayed by his marriage—that it’s hard to imagine a successful marriage to her. She may indeed be an example of the Fawley curse.
A few days later, Sue sends a letter that “passed across Jude like a withering blast” because it announces her imminent marriage to Phillotson. “Wish me joy,” she says, signing herself Susanna Florence Mary Bridehead. Jude can’t eat and goes to work feeling that “everything seemed turning to satire.” He wants to warn Sue: “You don’t know what marriage means.” In the end he determines to “play the Spartan” and support her, since he can’t marry her. Another letter comes—Sue wants Jude to give her away, since her father won’t and, by tradition, a male relative should. He offers his help and his lodgings but asks her not to sign her letters so formally if she still cares for him.
Jude moves to larger lodgings, renting a room for Sue to stay in during preparations. They rarely see each other during the weeks she’s there, but on the morning of the wedding, they have breakfast together. He wants to lash out about the wedding but restrains himself; she gabbles in an uncharacteristic fashion. They run an errand together, and she takes his arm, which she’s never done before. In her “curious trick of tempting Providence at critical times,” they pass the church where she will wed. Sue wants to go in and see “where I am so soon to kneel and do it.” They walk up and down the aisle, arm in arm; Jude is close to breaking down with the thought that he is helping his beloved make the mistake he made with Arabella. “Was it like this when you married?” she asks. “Don’t be so awfully merciless!” he responds.
As they go out, they meet Phillotson, who watches in surprise as Sue pulls her arm away from Jude’s and explains that they were rehearsing. Jude leaves to buy a wedding gifts and leaves. Later, as they prepare for the ceremony, Phillotson’s love for Sue is clearly in his face; he looks like a man who “would make a kind and considerate husband.” Sue, by contrast, looks as if she feels unworthy of him. As they take a carriage the short distance to the church, Jude presents his gift: a length of lacy veil, which he throws over Sue’s bonnet, wondering why Sue is willing to put him through this ordeal. Indeed, Sue nearly breaks down when Jude gives her away.
After the ceremony, the couple has dinner at Jude’s lodgings and then departs. Sue looks back, frightened, as she goes to the carriage. She runs back into the house for her handkerchief, eyes full of tears, and seems to want to speak to Jude but doesn’t. As the carriage pulls away, Jude wonders: Did Sue marry Phillotson to punish him for keeping his secret so long?
This chapter is full of pathos. Readers know that, even if Jude and Sue cannot marry, neither wants her to marry Phillotson. The “rehearsal” in the church is the only part of the day that Sue enjoys, yet as if to punish herself, she brings up Jude’s wedding. Yet Phillotson apparently doesn’t notice Sue’s nervous state, or he attributes it to the feelings any bride has. As the chapter ends, readers may wonder how any of the three can hope for a happy outcome.
After the couple leaves, Jude wonders whether Sue left her handkerchief behind at all. Perhaps she really wanted to speak to him. He changes and goes to work but keeps thinking that he hears her voice, that she has come back. “Her actions were always unpredictable: why should she not come?” In the evening, he imagines her on her way to London, then thinks of her future as a wife and mother. The next days are awful for Jude, and to his grief is added his aunt’s serious illness. His employer in Christminster has asked him to come back to work, so, eager to leave the misery of Melchester behind and to be nearer to his aunt, Jude moves back to Christminster. Jude writes Sue that Drusilla is indeed close to death and offers to meet her at the Alfredston station if she wants to visit her.
Jude finds that he no longer feels anything for Christminster—neither awe nor hope nor disappointment. He moves back into his old lodgings, but everything reminds him of Sue. One day he runs into another stone worker, Tinker Taylor, who invites him to go drinking. Taylor leaves the inn after a drink, but Jude stays. He watches a party of undergraduates in the next booth and realizes that the woman flirtatiously waiting on them is Arabella. Yes, she’s married, Arabella tells the young men—but not to worry, because her husband is in Australia.
Jude approaches Arabella, who thought he had died. Had she known he was in Christminster, she says, she might have stayed away. She won’t say why she’s back in England, but she does say that she made up the husband in Australia, because it’s easier than explaining her situation with Jude. Arabella is content with the way things are: “I make a very good living, and I don’t know that I want your company.” Yet she asks him to talk with her after work. To do so, he must give up meeting Sue, but he must find out what Arabella’s return means.
After work, Arabella and Jude walk. He tells her about his aunt and about Sue, but she is less revealing. They go by train to a nearby town, where they’re not known, and spend the night in a hotel.
Arabella is shown in this chapter not to have changed much since her teen years. She is conniving and calculating, always angling for a deal that’s a little better than the one she has. Readers must question her motivations. For example, she says she’ll go with Jude to visit his ailing aunt, but she “had no more sympathy than a tigress with his relations or him.” Her game is to find out how Jude is doing financially and decide if he’s worth taking to husband again.
The next morning, Jude and Arabella return to Christminster, and she reveals that she does indeed have a husband in Australia, a hotel manager. Now this man is talking of coming to England. Jude looks “pale and fixed”; he wants to know why she didn’t tell him this last night. He says that the second marriage is a crime, but Arabella claims that such marriages are common in Australia. As they part, she says she’ll let Jude know what she decides about him.
It’s too soon for Jude to catch the train to Alfredston, so he stands at the Fourways, with a look on his face of “one accurst.” In this state, he hears Sue’s voice calling him. She stands before him, looking “bodeful and anxious as in a dream . . . her strained eyes speaking reproachful inquiry.” Both look away as she fights tears. Then they hold hands and walk. Sue has spent the night by their aunt’s side and now has come to Christminster to find Jude. He comments that now they are both married, but she cuts the subject off by asking “Where did you stay last night?” Jude dodges her innocent question; although he wants to tell her about Arabella’s return, he worries that the information might harm his wife.
As they travel to Marygreen, Jude inquires after Phillotson, but Sue’s answers are vague. Jude murmurs that “Wifedom has not yet squashed up and digested you in its vast maw as an atom which has no further individuality” as being a husband has done to him. He tries to lead Sue to admit unhappiness, but she will not. Her husband is “good and kind.”
Drusilla, tired of being in bed, is up and about. She tells Sue that she will “rue” her marriage because Phillotson is not the right man for any woman. Sue flees the house, and Jude finds her in the shed, crying. Their aunt is right, she says—she should not have married. As Sue leaves that afternoon, Jude asks if he may visit her. She puts him off and leaves. Over the next days, Jude tries “mortifying by every possible means” his desire to see Sue, fasting, praying, and studying scripture. A letter comes from Arabella: Her husband has come to England to open a new pub, and she is going to assist him. She wishes asks Jude not to reveal their marriage.
This chapter allows Jude, and readers, to compare Arabella and Sue. As he feels disgust at his “revived experiences” with his wife, Sue appears before him, “so ethereal a creature that her spirit could be seen trembling through her limbs,” and he feels “heartily ashamed of his earthliness” with the fleshy, florid, pragmatic Arabella. Yet Jude knows where he stands with Arabella and what she wants of him, while Sue’s nature and desires are a mystery.
Jude returns to Melchester, which is perilously close to Shaston, where Sue now lives, because he finds Christminster unbearable and thinks that living closer to Sue might give him a chance of “worsting the Enemy.” He studies “with feverish desperation” and worries that he is “a man of too many passions to make a good clergyman.” To pass the time, he practices church music and sings in a choir. One day they practice an anthem that moves him deeply. He believes that the composer must have insight into spiritual questions, so, “like the child that he was,” he spends time and money he can ill afford to travel to the man’s house. He follows the man to his house—“A hungry soul in pursuit of a full soul!”—and tells him how much the music has meant to him. The composer launches into a complaint: The anthem has been well received, yes, but publishers won’t pay fairly for it. “Music is a poor staff to lean on,” he says; he is giving it up to sell wines. When he sees that Jude is poor and no customer, he’s done speaking to him.
Depressed and feeling foolish, Jude goes home, where a “contrite little note” from Sue, inviting him to dinner that day, awaits him. Jude wonders if his journey to the composer’s home was a “special intervention of Providence” to keep him from temptation, but he balks at thinking of God in this way. He writes to Sue to explain his absence and offers to come any day. They plan to visit on Thursday after school.
As the novel proceeds, Jude finds that many sources of support are, as the composer says, “a poor staff to lean on.” The law traps him in an unwanted marriage. Christminster rejects him as a scholar. His religious studies don’t help him negotiate his love for Sue, and the mentors he looks to disappoint him. As Part Third ends, Jude seems at a loss for how to navigate through his problems.