When Jude Fawley is a little boy, his schoolmaster advises him, "Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can." It seems like a particularly banal and childish piece of counsel, but it turns out to be the most humane moral code Jude will ever encounter in a universe where kindness seems to have no moral value whatsoever.
Jude's dream is to elevate himself, despite his poverty, to the ranks of the learned, and as a boy he studies his Latin and Greek assiduously. As is commonly the case, his ambitions are derailed by sex. He falls for a girl named Arabella Donn, who, not wishing to let Jude go, seduces him and tricks him into marriage with a made-up pregnancy. Hardy describes their marriage this way:
And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly believe, fell, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.
Jude's foil in this is his cousin, Sue Bridehead, whom he meets long after his marriage has crumbled and Arabella has run off to Australia. He falls for Sue, who falls for him, but not before she has married the same old schoolmaster, Phillotson, to assure her position as a teacher. Phillotson, true to his advice to the young Jude, releases Sue from her bonds, but this remarkable act of kindness fails to change the material reality of Jude and Sue's existence, which is defined by the marriage bonds which they have made but cannot shake.
As Sue tells Jude, "There is something external to us which says, 'You shan't!' First it said, 'You shan't learn!' Then it said, 'You shan't labour!' Now it says, 'You shan't love!'" The external thing which says You shan't is the moral code which values the bond of marriage over human kindness. For most of the book neither Jude's nor Sue's spouses assert any claim to them, but the pair are roundly denigrated for their scandalous relationship, chased out of work and home.
Jude the Obscure caused quite a controversy in its day, one which may seem quaint compared to modern attitudes of marriage, but I think Hardy's contemporaries were right to see that the book savages much more than marriage itself: It criticizes the value of the Christian moral framework, which Hardy sees as elevating doctrine over simple kindness and love. Not too subtly, he emphasizes this by having Jude and Sue chased off a job restoring a monument of the Ten Commandments.
But the highest tragedy of Jude is that Jude, though he ultimately abandons his religion, cannot escape his own moral snare. At one point he stands before a gathered crowd and offers himself as "a frightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story":
"However it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten. It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one; and my impulses--affections--vices perhaps they should be called--were too strong not to hamper a man without advantages; who should really be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig to have a really good chance of being one of his country's worthies."
See how entangled, in Jude's mind, are poverty and rectitude: a good man knows his place, in wedlock and in penury. Jude has forgotten his schoolmaster's advice, but we have not, and are forced to ask ourselves, which is the better path--to "be kind to animals and birds," or to "be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig?"
It is easy to see why Hardy found the response to Jude so personally draining, and never wrote another novel. Giving his readers the choice between human decency and old-time religion, many of them said we'll take the old-time religion, thank you. Doubtless Hardy must have felt much like Jude. And yet, I would argue that Jude might have been more nuanced. A happy marriage is simply a concept that does not exist in this novel; though we laugh at the innkeeper who is suspicious of Jude and Arabella's relationship until he recognizes her "flinging a shoe at his head" to be "the note of genuine wedlock," it isn't clear to me that Hardy's opinion is very different.
Jude presents us with a handful of really gut-wrenching set-pieces where Hardy provides enough pathos to make nuance unnecessary. In between them, I admit I found parts of it tedious and artificial. Hardy's natural long-windedness is effective when accompanying real agonies, but does little for Sue's long campaign of mind-changing and sexual frigidity. Did Far from the Madding Crowd suffer from the same flaws, which show as well in The Mayor of Casterbridge? Probably so, but I'll take it over those two anyway.