Thomas Hardy, the author of Jude the Obscure, focuses on multiple themes throughout his book including social order and higher learning which is mainly seen in the first part of the book. Jude, a working class boy aiming to educate himself, dreams of a high level education at a university, but is pushed away by the cruel and rigid social order. In the second part of the book, Jude abandons his idea of entering Christminster and the focus shifts to Sue. The themes of love, marriage, freedom replace the earlier theme of education and idealism.
Hardy pushes each of these themes to his audience and challenges everyday ideology by his audacious story about Jude Hawley. Hardy begins an argument against the institution of marriage, but he does not necessarily suggest that marriage is automatically bad; he just makes it clear that he believes people should be able to step away from a marriage if things do get dire. He also makes it clear that marriage is not necessarily linked to love in any way, so it’s obvious that a decent, understanding society would accept Jude and Sue’s relationship because they truly love each other, regardless of whether they are married or not.
Hardy tends to view marriage with cynicism, and there are many disapproving comments about the nature of marriage being based on contracts. Hardy was conscious that women were not treated equally in society, and that the laws of nature were often heavily weighed against women. He treats the subject with sympathy and understanding. He also illustrates that marriage could victimize both men and women. There are no happy marriages or content couples seen in the book. Jude, when married to Arabella, feels trapped in a hopeless situation.
Marriage is compared to being “caught in a gin, which would cripple him if not her also for the rest of a lifetime,” (43). However, Jude is partly aware even before the marriage that Arabella is the wrong type of woman for him. He recognizes that there is something in her “quite antipathetic to that side of him which had been occupied with literary study and the magnificent Christminster dream. It had been no vestal who chose that missile for opening her attack on him,” (27).
A few chapters later, the reader is told, “he knew too well in the secret center of his brain that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind,” (39). Naive and trusting, he does the honorable thing and marries her. But he has married the wrong woman, and the marriage is bound to be a disaster. Sue’s marriage to Phillotson is another example of a disastrous marriage of rashness and thoughtlessness. Jude suspects that Sue has married Phillotson as a reaction to his own marriage, a kind of retaliation, a way of “asserting her own independence from him,” (129).
She does not realize the enormity of the step she has taken, and after the ceremony, there is a “frightened look in her eyes,” as if she has only just become aware of the rashness of her decision. Barely a month later she admits, “perhaps I ought not to have married” (142). Sue is the loudest critic of matrimony in the novel. She makes sarcastic comments on the custom of giving away the bride, “like a she-ass or she-goat or any other domestic animal” (126). When her marriage is in trouble, she criticizes the institution, explaining the difficulty she experiences fitting into the conventional mold which society demands.
The nineteenth century tradition of the subjection of women to fathers and husbands is reflected in Gillingham’s advice to Phillotson to be firm with Sue until she has knuckled under. Hardy makes it clear, however, that it is the man here who is victimized in this marriage; Phillotson is far from being a cruel, tyrannical husband. Instead, he is an extremely patient and liberal husband. Sue’s views on marriage should not necessarily be connected with Hardy’s. Hardy himself points out her emotional inconsistency, and there are several signs that she is not really cut out for marriage.
In Part V, both Jude’s and Sue’s divorces come through, but Sue avoids their possible marriage. She calls marriage a “sordid contract” and a “hopelessly vulgar” institution, and she fears that an “iron contract should extinguish” all tenderness between them, reinforcing Hardy’s negative view of the nature of marriage. Most of Sue’s views on marriage are given in parts V and VI. She feels that the contractual nature of it will kill all impulse and romance; “it is foreign to a man’s nature to go on loving a person when he is told that he must and shall be a person’s lover,” (193).
The visit to the unclean registry office in part V, chapter 4 is horrifying for her, and she shows abhorrence to the ordinary church wedding. She sees it in terms of a sacrifice of the bride: “the flowers in the bride’s hand are sadly like the garland which decked the heifers of sacrifice in olden times,” (215). Sue’s views on marriage are rather extreme, and they represent a push away from the norms of marriage. Hardy also raises some valid arguments of the overly rigid attitude of society towards the unmarried and the unconventional.
Phillotson’s humanity and charity in letting Sue go scandalizes the school authorities, and his career is ruined. A kind, decent man who was only trying to be fair is scorned by society’s intolerance. Sue and Jude also became the subject of cruel gossip at Aldbrickham: the neighbors ignore them, Little Father Time is taunted at school, Jude loses his job, and the family is forced into a nomadic existence. Hardy is pushing the fact that society is vindictive and intolerant of those who deviate from its normal codes of living and marriage.
Hardy repeatedly emphasizes that marriage involves making a commitment that many people are emotionally unfit to fulfill, and this thought comes from the narrator, but it is also expressed by Sue, Jude, Phillotson, and Widow Edlin through the whole novel. Although the custom of marriage is such a central theme pressed by Hardy, he conflicts against other conventions in his society like education and social class which ultimately show a huge theme of fighting against the norm.