Jude and Arabella get their own lodgings, but Jude soon grows sick with a respiratory illness. Arabella feels she has gotten a bad bargain in the marriage, as Jude now gets a free nurse instead of herself getting a husband to make money for her. Jude says he wishes he could be mercifully killed, just as he killed that pig long ago. Their landlord, who had doubted that the couple was really married, hears their arguing and recognizes “the note of genuine wedlock.”
In the last few chapters Arabella has thought of marriage as a kind of hunt, a game, and now a business transaction. Hardy offers another bitingly sarcastic comment on “traditional” marriage, which he defines by a sense of discontent and discord between the man and woman.
Jude’s condition worsens, and he asks Arabella to write Sue about his illness. Arabella protests that this is a disrespecting of the “rights and duties” of marriage, but Jude declares that he has no shame anymore. He tells Arabella that he loves Sue, and he recognizes that he is about to die so he wants to see her. Arabella calls Sue a “strumpet” and Jude threatens to kill her if she insults Sue again. He immediately admits that he couldn’t go through with this, though.
After all her lowly tricks and total lack of love and scruples, Arabella still has the law and supposed “sanctity” of marriage on her side. Hardy has led us to such an extreme situation to show just how empty and cruel the legal and religious “rights and duties” of marriage can be. All that Jude has left is his hopeless love for Sue.
Arabella estimates Jude’s life “with an appraiser’s eye” and agrees to write to Sue. After a few days without Sue appearing, Jude suspects that Arabella never sent her a letter (which is true). One day when Arabella is away Jude goes himself to Marygreen, despite his illness and the fact that it is raining hard.
Arabella seems to grow even more cold and cruel as she rejects Jude’s dying wish and looks at him like a piece of livestock. Jude is basically committing suicide by traveling in the rain, but he has nothing else to live for.
Jude grows weaker on his journey, but he reaches Sue’s school and sends for her. She meets him in the church. Jude begs her to stay, as he is dying. He says “we are acting by the letter; and ‘the letter killeth’.” Sue agrees to talk to him, and she congratulates Jude on doing the right thing in marrying Arabella. Jude is enraged by this, and calls his marriage to Arabella “degrading, immoral,” and “unnatural.”
Hardy references the novel’s epigraph, which is half of a Biblical quote: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth light.” Sue and Jude’s love was “the spirit,” but it ultimately failed and “the letter” – the strict rules of society, religion, and fate – were victorious. In a way Hardy is arguing that Victorian Christianity has strayed from true Christianity, that it has shifted from a focus on the “spirit” to a focus on the “letter.”
They argue again, but suddenly Sue asks Jude to kiss her and they kiss passionately. Sue declares that she does love Jude still, but then she immediately draws back and feels she has sinned. Jude tells her that in these new marriages he was “gin-drunk” and she was “creed-drunk,” so they should ignore them and run away together. Sue refuses and begs Jude not to tempt her. She kneels and puts her hands over her ears until Jude leaves.
Jude, like Hardy, associates Sue’s newfound “religion” with the lack of judgment brought about by drunkenness. Sue at least has this last glimmer of her old self before she succumbs to her fanatical guilt and self-punishment. This is the couple’s heartbreaking final goodbye, and the ultimate victory of the harsh world over idealism and innocent love.
Jude walks back to Alfredston, freezing in the wind and rain. He passes the Brown House, and the stone where he had carved the finger pointing to Christminster, and the gibbet where his and Sue’s ancestor was hanged. Then he takes the train back to Christminster.
The objects of Jude’s past go by, haunting him in succession. They remind him both of his failure and of how he was fated to fail because of the “curse” in his Fawley blood.