Jude Fawley is a boy coming from a poor village; he has the ambition to become a student at the University of Christminster (which Hardy modeled on the Oxford one).
Jude works as a stone-mason and studies a lot in his free time.
After the failure of his marriage, he moves to Christminster where he hopes to fulfill his dream; there he met his cousin, Sue Bridehead.
They fall in love and decide to live together, refusing the institution of marriage. Jude had a child from the previous wedding, called Father Time, and the Sue gave him two other children.
Obviously, this scandalous relationship caused the disapproval of the narrow-minded people of the town. Also Jude lost his job, when his employer found out his relationship.
So Sue and Jude had to live in two separate locations; the climax is reached with the death of the children.
Hardy, following the Victorian convention, put a orphan at the centre of the story and denies him the possibility to fulfill his dreams.
Sue is an intellectual women and represents Jude’s ideal. She seems at first to promise freedom and strength; she, as Jude, is controlled by the instability of the Nature. At the end she accepts the rules of society, even if they make her unhappy.
Hardy, in the novel, shows his interest in the issue of divorce.
Another contemporary issue presented in the novel, is that of higher education for the member of the working class.
Through Sue, Hardy presents the phenomenon of the New Woman, who has not autonomy and has to struggle in order to be independent.
The setting is totally deprived by every kind of dynamism and it is characterised by a sense of anxiety and self-destruction.
The story is developed by the repetitive dialogues between Jude and Sue.