Jude the Obscure: Novel Summary: Part Fourth: At Shaston
This section of the novel begins with a description of Shaston, a town once prominent but now merely picturesque. It is an overwintering spot for caravans of itinerant workers and entertainers. Phillotson is out of town at a teacher’s meeting, and Jude arrives before school is out; he is at the piano, idly playing the anthem, when Sue enters and urges him to keep playing. She plays, too, and their hands touch. He tells her about meeting the composer as she makes tea in the schoolroom, because she finds her house “antique and dismal,” heavy with the “weight of so many previous lives.” She points out the kettle, a wedding gift from Jude that “sang with some satire in its note.” They talk about editions of theological texts, and Sue asks whether Jude will be working on the restoration of a church where she could visit him. He says that they can’t be friends as they were before, and she trembles. “Sue,” he accuses, “I sometimes think you are a flirt.” Offended and flushed she leaps up and claims to be “very much the reverse of what you say so cruelly!” She admits that she is impulsive, but she denies being calculating. She says that he should go wait for the train, and he leaves. Then she calls him back, and they talk as she leans out the window to him on the street, calling him “kind and tender.” She muses about how society forces roles onto people and then, stroking Jude’s forehead once, sends him away.
Jude strolls through a graveyard while waiting for the next train. He sees Sue inside her house; she looks at a photograph, presses it to her heart, and cries as she closes the shutters.
Sue characterizes Jude in this chapter as being like “Joseph the dreamer of dreams,” as “a tragic Don Quixote,” and as St. Stephen seeing heaven—“you’ll suffer yet,” she warns. Given Jude’s thoughts as the chapter ends—he knows that he should stay away from Sue, and he knows that he will not—her prediction seems accurate. However, her allusions are uneven: Joseph becomes successful and happy, and St. Stephen receives a heavenly reward. Don Quixote alone earns nothing but suffering by chasing his passion.
The next morning, Jude receives a note from Sue telling him not to visit, not even to think about her. He writes back, agreeing and saying that he must learn “a lesson in renunciation.” A few days later, he receives word that his aunt is on her death-bed. “He threw down his tools and went,” but she dies before he arrives. Now he must communicate with Sue, who comes to the funeral so that he won’t grieve alone. After the ceremony, they return to the house for tea, and Sue recalls Drusilla’s opposition to their marriages. She asks Jude whether it’s right for one person to tell a third party about unhappiness in a marriage. If marriage is “a religious thing,” it must be wrong; but if marriage is “a sordid contract, based on material convenience,” then perhaps it’s not wrong. Sue then wonders whether it’s possible to dislike a person for no reason. What if, she asks, a woman dislikes living with her husband “merely because she had a personal feeling against it . . . a fastidiousness,” when she should be grateful?
Jude speaks of how “horrible” things are, how he should have kept her from marrying. He tries to hold her hand, but she withdraws; when he objects, saying that they are cousins, she allows it. Jude breaks the news that Arabella is back, and Sue is hurt that he could think of going back to her so soon. Jude points out that she is no better, having agreed to marry Phillotson. She breaks down, sobbing and admitting that she hates having to be physically responsive to her husband and feels guilty because he is nothing but kind. Marriage, she says, is “a dreadful contract” that compels feelings that ought to be voluntary only. She pushes Jude, who tries to console her, away and flees the house.
It is too late for Sue to reach the train, so she stays overnight with the Widow Edlin. That night, Jude can’t sleep. He hears a rabbit cry out in a trap and then fall silent, “bearing its torture” rather than calling attention to itself. He imagines the rabbit’s suffering till he must go and dispatch it. As he turns back to the house, Sue leans out the window and says she is glad that he ended the rabbit’s pain. They hold hands through the casement, and she apologizes for offending his “religious sentiments” by confiding in him. He admits that “my doctrines and I begin to part company”—he’d rather love Sue that keep to his faith. Sue says that she “never thought out fully what marriage meant” and wishes she could undo what she has “so ignorantly” done. She believes that future generations will look back “at the barbarous customs and superstitions” of their time with amazement. She weeps, kisses Jude on the head, and shuts the casement.
The critique of marriage that forms a major theme in the novel continues in this chapter. Sue hates her marriage; she’s heard that “what a woman shrinks from—in the early days of her marriage—she shakes down to with comfortable indifference in half-a-dozen years.” To Sue, this is like saying “that the amputation of a limb is no affliction, since a person gets comfortably accustomed to the use of a wooden leg or arm in the course of time!” Her grief is so deep that readers may wonder if, like the rabbit in the trap, she would rather die than remain caught in her marriage.
When Jude returns to Marygreen the next morning, after walking Sue to the train, he wears “a look of exaltation not unmixed with recklessness.” He and Sue kissed passionately before she left. This kiss is a “turning-point” in Jude’s career. He can no longer consider working for the church, “in which sexual love was regarded at its best a frailty, and at its worst damnation.” It occurs to Jude that women have “checked” both his career aspirations; he wonders whether they or the system is to blame. Jude digs a hole in the garden by his aunt’s house, places all his theological books it in, and burns them to ash.
Meanwhile, Sue is angry that Jude made her “give way” to her impulse to kiss him, her logic being that “things which were right in theory were wrong in practice.” She decides to punish him by not writing. Phillotson meets her at the Shaston station, thinking that her sorrow arises from the funeral. She confesses that she and Jude held hands, as cousins, but doesn’t mention the kiss. She goes to bed early, and he comes up after finishing work. He leans on the window and talks to her, but when she doesn’t reply, he sees that she’s not in bed. He finds her reading by the fire. When he wakes later, she still has not come to bed. He finds her sleeping in the stairwell closet on a pallet; she wants to be left alone. Angrily, he tells her that he has “been kind to you, and given you every liberty; and it is monstrous you should feel this way!” She admits this and blames herself, “the universe,” and “things in general, because they are so horrid and cruel!” Because Phillotson worries that the neighbors might hear a fight, he leaves her.
The next morning, he checks the closet, but Sue has gone. Realizing that Sue prefers spending the night with spiders than with him, he is silent at breakfast till she asks if he would mind if she “lived away from him.” He wonders why she married him at all, to which she replies, “Because I thought I could do nothing else . . . . I was a coward—as so many women are.” She now argues that “domestic laws should be made according to temperament,” and since it is not in her temperament to live as a wife to Phillotson, she asks him to “be my friend and have pity!” When he presses her, she admits that she wants to live with Jude.
At school, Phillotson cannot concentrate on teaching. He and Sue send a series of notes back and forth. He calls her idea a “preposterous notion,” but she quotes authorities who advise placing authenticity before respectability. He offers to let her live apart in their house; she counters that she could live abroad. Poor Phillotson is dazed. He agrees to separate bedrooms, but the atmosphere is tense: “the fibres of her nature seemed strained like harp-strings.”
The language used to describe Sue throughout the novel suggests an angelic or ghostly nature. She is so slight that Jude sometimes believes he can see through her; she is so dainty that he can hardly feel the touch of her hand. Here, though her behavior is outrageous, by the standards of the time, the imagery associated with her still suggests her other-worldly nature by comparing it to the taut strings of a harp, an instrument associated with heavenly music.
One evening, Phillotson stays up late, so absorbed in writing about Roman-British antiquities that “he forgot time and place.” Early in the morning, he goes without thinking to his old bedroom, which is now Sue’s only. When he enters, Sue leaps from the bed and jumps out the window. Phillotson runs downstairs and outside to find her collapsed on the ground. He carries her in. She insists that she’s fine, but that she had a terrible dream—then realizes what she is saying and goes silent. Her husband wraps a cloak around her “mechanically” and advises her to lock her bedroom door. She’s tried to, she says, but it won’t lock. She goes to bed, and after a time, he sighs and goes to his own.
The next evening, Phillotson walks to Leddenton to visit an old friend, Gillingham. Clearly troubled, Phillotson wants to explain what he is about to do so that one person will know his motivations. He blames himself for marrying without considering Sue’s youth and admits that he understands her attraction to Jude: “They seem to be one person split in two!” He knows Sue has wrestled with her feelings and tried to do what is right. Now he has decided that it is “wrong to so torture a fellow-creature” and that he must let her go: “I am simply going to act by instinct, and let principles take care of themselves.” He wouldn’t refuse to help a person who has “blindly walked into a quagmire,” and he can’t refuse to help Sue.
Gillingham is dumbfounded: “Good God, what will Shaston say?” He reminds Phillotson that to let Sue go is to destroy his reputation and possibly his career. Phillotson says that the world’s reaction is not his business—he must end the “daily, continuous torture” that he and Sue suffer. Phillotson confesses that he had felt jealous of Jude, but he now understands that Jude and Sue’s “supreme desire . . . is to share each other’s emotions, and fancies, and dreams.” Gillingham objects that if everyone thought and acted this way, the family “would not longer be the social unit.” Perhaps, Phillotson argues, it’s time to redefine that unit.
Gillingham advises his friend to reconsider, to put up with Sue’s whims but not let her leave. To himself, he thinks that Sue needs to be “smacked” till she accepts her role. But Phillotson, having heard no good reason not to proceed, tells Sue the next morning that he “absolutely and unconditionally” agrees to her release. He is at peace—he has done what is right. They eat their last dinner together, he worrying that she is not eating enough to stay well. He offers her money for traveling, which she refuses to take. She offers to let him inspect what she’s taking, which he refuses to do. She tells him of her regard for him as a teacher and friend, and he pretends to kiss her goodbye, for appearance’s sake. After Sue leaves, Phillotson, a look of pain on his face, walks for a while and comes home to find Gillingham there. Phillotson says, “I would have died for her, but I wouldn’t be cruel to her in the name of the law.” Gillingham helps him pack away the things Sue wouldn’t take, and Phillotson closes and locks the trunk and, symbolically, this part of his life.
Phillotson’s character finally gets to shine in this chapter. He realistically acknowledges facts and admits that he can’t out-argue Sue: “she has read ten times as much as I. Her intellect sparkles like diamonds, while mine smoulders like brown paper.” He is compassionate and forgiving, forward-thinking and generous. It’s possible that Hardy is lecturing readers gently through Phillotson’s words. Yet readers may wonder if Phillotson is too gracious, given what his choices will do to his career. Whether Phillotson is a hero in the book is a question each reader must answer.
When Sue arrives at the Melchester station, Jude is there to meet her, in his best clothes, “his ardent affection burning in his eyes.” He boards the train because they can’t live together in peace in Melchester, where both are known. He’s given up his steady cathedral work. “O I seem so bad—” she exclaims, “upsetting men’s courses like this!” She praises her husband’s decisions and gives Jude a letter from him. Jude says that Arabella has written to him asking for a divorce and that he will give it to her. Then he’ll be free. As they approach Aldbrickham, he says that he’s taken a hotel room for the night. Sue is taken aback—only one room? That is not what she meant when she left Phillotson. Jude is “stultified” but says that Sue’s will “is law to me.”
Sue hastens to explain that she feels “a woman’s natural timidity when the crisis comes. I may feel . . . that I have a perfect right to live with you,” but in fact she does not yet have “the courage of my opinions.” Jude reads Phillotson’s letter, which asks him to be “tender and kind” to Sue; he wonders if Sue loves him or any man. “My liking for you,” she tells him, “is not as some women’s perhaps. . . . it is a delight in being with you . . . I don’t want to . . . risk it by—an attempt to intensify it.” She begs him not to discuss the matter further. But Jude thinks about the Christminster student and wonders whether Sue is “making a cat’s-paw” of him as well.
Sue lets him hold her hand, but then she objects to staying at the hotel he reserved. Jude points out that her squeamishness about public opinion makes her seem “as enslaved to the social code as any woman I know.” Sue admits that, like other women, she sometimes loves to be loved and then regrets the outcome. What she means, Jude says, is that she “flirted outrageously” with Phillotson for the fun of it and “then repented” of the outcome. Sue retorts that Jude concealed his marriage from her. She cries, and Jude comforts her. She is “such a child” that this satisfies her, and they arrive at Aldbrickham.
Jude finds another hotel and rents two rooms. He doesn’t realize that this is the hotel Arabella brought him to earlier. At dinner, he steps away from the table, and the woman waiting on the table says that she recalls Jude having been here with his wife. Sue feels ill and claims that the woman is mistaken. The woman insists that Jude was here, a month or two ago. Back in her room, Sue is furious. How dare Jude bring her to the same hotel he’d visited with his wife? She wants to know what happened that night, but he says, “I can’t explain.” Sue feels deeply betrayed: “You’ve been false to me; you, my last hope! And I shall never forget it!” Jude points out that she herself has kept them friends, not lovers and accuses her of unreasonableness: “You concede me no thing and I have to concede everything to you.” Sue falls down on the bed and weeps, and Jude understands that she wants someone to love her and her alone. He says that women never understand that sex may mean nothing to a man, to which she replies that men never understand why women get upset “over nothing.”
Jude explains Arabella’s second marriage and assures Sue that he didn’t know about it on the night they spent together. Sue calms down at this, and Jude declares his love for her, “you spirit, you disembodied creature, you dear, sweet, tantalizing phantom.” She allows him to kiss her on the cheek; then he leaves with a sigh.
Sue’s “curious double nature” is on full display in this chapter. Freed to live with the man she loves, she now pushes him away just as she pushed her husband away. She is “sophisticated in many things” but “a child” in others. Readers may wonder whether Jude will ever have her as the wife that he has long desired, or whether there is something in her nature that objects to the physical aspects of marriage. It’s easy for modern readers to blame Sue for wrecking Phillotson’s life and troubling Jude’s, but readers must remember that she lives at a time when sex is considered, as Jude says earlier, “at its best a frailty, and at its worst damnation.” Sue’s ideas may be progressive and liberated, but she still has trouble living them out in the real world. She rejects the old model of marriage but has no new model to follow.
Back in Shaston, the people who had respected Phillotson are now suspicious. Sue has been gone for a month—too long for a visit. And Phillotson is not himself at work. When they press him, he confesses what he has done: “I was not her goaler. I can’t explain any further.” His house-maid confirms the details. Right away, the school committee dismisses Phillotson, but he refuses to resign because to do so would be to admit that he erred. They will have to expel him. A public meeting is called, where Phillotson defends his decisions, but the town is against him. Only some of the town’s itinerant caravan population stands by him—more to his harm than to his aid. Then a few others who have suffered in marriage support him, and soon the meeting comes to blows. The schoolroom is damaged during the fight, a councilor’s shirt is bloodied, a few people have black eyes. Phillotson goes home feeling ill and regretting that he did not resign.
For some time he remains in bed, seriously ill. Gillingham looks in on him during the evenings and, at one point, mentions that Sue would come if she knew her husband were ill. Better that she not know, Phillotson says; yet Gillingham writes anonymously to her. Three days later, she comes, “like the flitting of a moth,” as a friend. Phillotson almost wishes she had not come. Sue knows nothing of the troubles her departure has brought him. In a nice gesture, she moves the mirror so that Phillotson can view the sunset from his bed. She confesses that Jude does not know she has come, and then she leaves. Against his best intents, Phillotson calls her back and asks whether she would like to make up. “I’ll forgive you and condone everything!” he promises. But Sue says that she’s Jude’s wife “in effect” and explains that he is divorcing Arabella. In fact, Sue is still living with Jude as a friend, not a wife; but Phillotson, in his ignorance, “lay writhing like a man in hell” as he pictured the “prettily dressed, maddening compound of sympathy and averseness who bore his name, returning impatiently to the home of her lover.”
The next time Gillingham calls, Phillotson tells him about Sue’s visit. He responds, “Well, I’m hanged! A little hussy!” But Phillotson doesn’t hear him; he’s talking about giving Sue a divorce. Why bother “keeping her chained”? The only “manly, and dignified, and merciful course is to complete what I have begun.” Also, now that he has lost his job, he can’t afford to keep a wife. Gillingham reminds him that divorces are not easy to obtain.
The fallout of Sue’s departure may strike modern readers as exaggerated, but again, readers must keep in mind the setting. In England in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, behaviors considered sexually improper were scandalous, and communities large and small treated offenders punitively. With essentially no birth control methods available, sexual license for women always carried the risk of a shameful pregnancy. Sue says that “in a proper state of society, the father of a woman’s child will be as much a private matter of hers as the cut of her under-linen, on whom nobody will have any right to question her.” But that society is a fantasy for Sue and Jude.