Much of Jude the Obscure consists of a critique of the institution of marriage, which Hardy saw as flawed and unjust. The novel’s plot is designed to wring all the possible tragedy out of an unhappy marriage, as Jude is first guilted into marrying Arabella by her feigned pregnancy, and Sue marries Phillotson mostly to make Jude jealous. Both protagonists immediately regret their decisions, and realize how a single impulsive decision can affect their entire lives. When they meet each other and fall in love, Sue and Jude’s pure connection is constantly obstructed by their earlier marriages, and Hardy even presents the tragedy of Little Father Time’s murder-suicide as a natural result of broken marriages and unhappy relationships.
In the narrator’s asides Hardy also criticizes marriage, describing it as a binding contract that most young lovers are incapable of understanding. He doesn’t believe that the institution is inherently evil, but that it isn’t right for every situation and personality – “sensitive” souls like Jude and Sue should be able to live as husband and wife without a binding legal contract. Though he argues for this flexibility and seems to propose the couple’s unmarried relationship as an ideal solution, Hardy then punishes his protagonists in his plot, ultimately driving Sue back to Phillotson and Jude back to Arabella.
The novel is not a simple diatribe against marriage, but instead illustrates a complex, contradictory situation. Sue and Jude want their love to be true and spontaneous, but also totally monogamous and everlasting. The epigraph to the novel is “the letter killeth,” which comes from a quote from Jesus in the Bible: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth light.” Hardy intended this quote to refer to marriage, where the contract of the institution kills joy and true love, but Hardy purposefully leaves off the optimism of “the spirit” – Jude and Sue’s joy is fleeting even when they are only following “Nature’s law,” and in the end they find no good answer for how to properly love and live together. By the novel’s tragic end Hardy still leaves the question of marriage unanswered, emphasizing only his dissatisfaction with the institution as it stands.
Marriage Quotes in Jude the Obscure
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, feel, 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.
Their lives were ruined, he thought; ruined by the fundamental error of their matrimonial union: that of having based a permanent contract on a temporary feeling which had no necessary connection with affinities that alone render a life-long comradeship tolerable.
“Going to ill-use me on principle, as your father ill-used your mother, and your father’s sister ill-used her husband?” she asked. “All you Fawleys be a queer lot as husbands and wives.”
I have been looking at the marriage service in the Prayer-book, and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as there printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat, or any other domestic animal. Bless your exalted views of woman, O Churchman!
Jude, before I married him I had never thought out fully what marriage meant, even though I knew… I am certain one ought to be allowed to undo what one has done so ignorantly. I daresay it happens to lots of women; only they submit, and I kick… When people of a later age look back upon the barbarous customs and superstitions of the times that we have the unhappiness to live in, what will they say!
“What is the use of thinking of laws and ordinances,” she burst out, “if they make you miserable when you know you are committing no sin?”
“But you are committing a sin in not liking me.”
“I do like you! But I didn’t reflect it would be – that it would be so much more than that… For a man and woman to live on intimate terms when one feels as I do is adultery, in any circumstances, however legal. There – I’ve said it!... Will you let me, Richard?”
Jude, do you think that when you must have me with you by law, we shall be so happy as we are now? The men and women of our family are very generous when everything depends upon their good-will, but they always kick against compulsion. Don’t you dread the attitude that insensibly arises out of legal obligation? Don’t you think it is destructive to a passion whose essence is its gratuitousness?
“Nobody thought o’ being afeared o’ matrimony in my time, nor of much else but a cannon-ball or empty cupboard. Why when I and my poor man were married we thought no more o’t than of a game o’ dibs.”
“Don’t tell the child when he comes in,” whispered Sue nervously. “He’ll think it has all gone on right, and it will be better that he should not be surprised and puzzled. Of course it is only put off for reconsideration. If we are happy as we are, what does it matter to anybody?”
I feel that we have returned to Greek joyousness, and have blinded ourselves to sickness and sorrow, and have forgotten what twenty-five centuries have taught the race since their time, as one of your Christminster luminaries says…
“She’d have come round in time. We all do! Custom does it! it’s all the same in the end! However, I think she’s quite fond of her man still – whatever he med be of her. You were too quick about her. I shouldn’t have let her go! I should have kept her chained on – her spirit for kicking would have been broke soon enough! There’s nothing like bondage and a stone-deaf task-master for taming us women. Besides, you’ve got the laws on your side. Moses knew… ‘Then shall the man be guiltless; but the woman shall bear her iniquity.’ Damn rough on us women; but we must grin and put up wi’ it – Haw haw! – Well; she’s got her deserts now.”
“Yes,” said Phillotson, with biting sadness. “Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can’t get out of it if we would!”
The boy’s face expressed the whole tale of their situation. On that little shape had converged all the inauspiciousness and shadow which had darkened the first union of Jude, and all the accidents, mistakes, fears, errors of the last. He was their nodal point, their focus, their expression in a single term. For the rashness of those parents he had groaned, for their ill-assortment he had quaked, and for the misfortunes of these he had died.
We said – do you remember? – that we would make a virtue of joy. I said it was Nature’s intention. Nature’s law and raison d’etre that we should be joyful in what instincts she afforded us – instincts which civilization had taken upon itself to thwart. What dreadful things I said! And now Fate has given us this stab in the back for being such fools as to take Nature at her word!
“I see marriage differently now!... My babies have been taken from me to show me this! Arabella’s child killing mine was a judgment; the right slaying the wrong. What, what shall I do! I am such a vile creature – too worthless to mix with ordinary human beings.”
…He returned vehemently… “You make me hate Christianity, or mysticism, or Sacerdotalism, or whatever it may be called, if it’s that which has caused this deterioration in you. That a woman-poet, a woman-seer, a woman whose soul shone like a diamond – whom all the wise of the world would have been proud of, if they could have known you – should degrade herself like this! I am glad I had nothing to do with Divinity – damn glad – if it’s going to ruin you in this way!”
Perhaps as we couldn’t conscientiously marry at first in the old-fashioned way, we ought to have parted. Perhaps the world is not illuminated enough for such experiments as ours! Who were we, to think we could act as pioneers!
It was like a re-enactment by the ghosts of their former selves of the similar scene which had taken place at Melchester years before. When the books were signed the vicar congratulated the husband and wife on having performed a noble, and righteous, and mutually forgiving act. “All’s well that ends well,” he said smiling. “May you long be happy together, after thus having been ‘saved as by fire.’”
We’ve both re-married out of our senses. I was made drunk to do it. You were the same. I was gin-drunk; you were creed-drunk. Either form of intoxication takes away the nobler vision. Let us then shake off our mistakes, and run away together!
As for Sue and me when we were at our best, long ago – when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless – the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessness and ruin on me!