I think I’ve mentioned before that one reason I enjoy classics is because they give an historical peek into the era in which they were written. Hardy is known as a Victorian realist and wrote novels which spoke out, in their own way, against the social strictures of the day.
Jude Fawley is a poor English peasant who lives with his relatives and does chores around the neighborhood for his keep. He loves books and reading and yearns to go to Christminster (Oxford) to become learned. He does well in preparing but then he meets a young woman who thinks he’d make a fine husband – she tricks him and then after it’s not quite what she wanted, leaves for Australia.
Jude is a totally ethical, moral and upright young man. He works and saves and finally one day is able to move to Christminster but there he’s unable to get into the university. He meets his beautiful and virtuous cousin Sue Bridehead.
Well of course he falls in love with her but to no avail and returns home oly to be snatched up by Arabella, a bar maid who ensnares him by saying she’s pregnant. The two are married only a short time when she tells the truth and takes off for Australia.
It’s a soap opera of sorts – Sue marries someone else but Jude can’t stay away. Sue leave her hubby and the two get together and although finally divorced, have a hard time marrying.
Hardy wrote this and Tess of the D’Urbervilles toward the very end of the Victorian era – when protests against the now old Victorian standards of behavior and art were being challenged. The reaction to these challenges was fierce. Gissing, the realistic Dickens, was writing his depressing books and Oscar Wilde was on trial in London for his behavior. Jude the Obscure came under heavy criticism for the way it portrays marriage, class boundaries and Christianity. Some of the original text was omitted in several publications for moral reasons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jude_the_Obscure#Reviews
There were many who continued to feel that literature should be morally “uplifting,” and support the socio-religious-economic standards of the day.
“In the words of the novelist George Gissing, it was an era of “sexual anarchy”; an era in which the laws governing sexual identity and behavior were no longer valid. The ‘fallen woman’ was replaced by the ‘new woman.’ Once the door closed behind Ibsen’s Nora, social structures oppressing women became the theme of plays by Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and novels by George Moore and Thomas Hardy.” http://www.ruthnestvold.com/endcent.htm
This was an international phenomenon in literature – Emile Zola in France and Kate Chopin and Frank Norris in the US were criticized in a similar manner for their realism and/or Darwin-inspired naturalism.