Jude the Obscure takes place in Wessex, England in the Victorian era. Jude Fawley is a poor orphan raised by his great-aunt, but he dreams of studying at the university in Christminster, a nearby town. He is inspired in this dream by his old teacher, Richard Phillotson, who left with similar ambitions when Jude was a child. Jude starts teaching himself classical languages and learning stonemasonry work, but he is distracted from his studies by Arabella Donn, a vain, sensual young woman. Arabella pretends she is pregnant and tricks the honorable Jude into marrying her, but the marriage soon falls apart. Arabella moves to Australia and Jude finally makes his way to Christminster. At first he is enthralled by the place but he soon finds he cannot enter the university without wealth and social stature.
While in Christminster Jude meets his intelligent, religiously agnostic cousin Sue Bridehead. He immediately falls in love with her, though he tries to resist his feelings. He gets Sue a job with Phillotson, who has also failed to be accepted at a university and is a schoolteacher again. Sue soon gets engaged to Phillotson, but her relationship with Jude also grows stronger and the two cousins become very close. Jude loves Sue passionately but Sue’s own feelings are less clear. Sue is stung to learn about Jude’s previous marriage, however, so she goes through with her marriage to Phillotson.
Jude gets depressed and turns to alcohol, and he is reunited with Arabella (who has returned from Australia) for one night. Jude and Sue keep meeting and Sue reveals that she is unhappy in her marriage, as she is repulsed by Phillotson’s physical presence. Soon afterward Sue admits her feelings for Jude to Phillotson, and asks him if they can live apart. Phillotson agrees to let Sue leave him for Jude, but he suffers for this decision, which seems morally right to him, by losing his job and his social respectability.
Jude and Sue are united, but they live platonically for a while and they agree not to get married. Arabella reveals to Jude that she had a son by him while in Australia. Jude and Sue agree to take the unwanted boy in, and he arrives soon after. He has no name but is called “Little Father Time,” and is a gloomy, world-weary child. Jude and Sue begin to lose work and respect because of their unmarried status, but they find they can’t go through with the wedding ceremony. They become lovers and begin to lead a nomadic life, having two children of their own and caring for Little Father Time.
Jude falls ill for a while, and when he recovers he decides he wants to move back to Christminster and pursue his old dream. The family has trouble finding a room because they are unmarried and have children, and Jude has to stay separately from Sue and the children. That night Sue and Little Father Time both grow depressed, and the boy decides that he and the other children are the cause of the family’s troubles. The next morning Jude and Sue find that Little Father Time has hanged himself and the other two children.
Sue breaks down at this tragedy and grows obsessively religious, believing that she is being punished for her disbelief and sexual liberties. She leaves Jude and returns to Phillotson, despite having no change in her feelings for either. Jude is soon tricked into marrying Arabella again, and both marriages are unhappy. Jude gets sick and visits Sue one last time in the rain. They kiss but then Sue sends Jude away for the last time. As “penance” for this kiss Sue begins a sexual relationship with Phillotson. Jude dies soon after, and Arabella immediately starts looking for a new husband.