Christminster is a fictional university town based on Oxford, England. Jude first learns of it when he is eleven years old and his teacher, Mr. Phillotson, leaves Marygreen to go there. Christminster then becomes the young Jude’s goal in life, and he idealizes the place as “The New Jerusalem” and a “city of light,” watching its faint, distant glow from the roof of the Brown House. When Jude finally makes it to Christminster, he imagines the shades of dead philosophers speaking to him in the streets. In the first part of the novel Christminster symbolizes Jude’s hope and idealism, and his desire to make a better life for himself despite his low social class.
The reality of Christminster soon strikes Jude (and the reader), however, as he learns that despite his hard work and natural intelligence, the colleges are only open to the upper classes. Phillotson, his predecessor, has also failed and settled back into his earlier role as a schoolmaster, and Jude likewise remains a stonemason. In this way Christminster comes to symbolize Jude’s failed hopes and dreams, and Hardy’s pessimistic worldview. After years of moving about nomadically, Jude returns to Christminster for one last attempt to achieve his goals. It takes him a long time to realize it, but he finally gives up Christminster as a hopeless dream. He recognizes that it would take “two or three generations” to do what he tried to do in one generation – raise his social class through his own hard work and intelligence. Because of the tragedy of Jude’s situation, Christminster ultimately becomes one of Hardy’s greatest critiques of the unfairness inherent in his society.