Everyone in Marygreen is upset because the schoolmaster, Richard Phillotson, is leaving the village for the town of Christminster, about twenty miles away. Phillotson does not know how to move his piano, or where he will store it, so an eleven-year-old boy of suggests keeping it in his aunt's fuel house. The boy, Jude Fawley, has been living with his aunt Drusilla, a baker, since his father died. Drusilla tells him that he should have asked the schoolteacher to take him to Christminster, because Jude loves books just like his cousin Sue.
Jude tires of hearing himself talked about and goes to the bakehouse to eat his breakfast. After eating he walks up to a cornfield and uses a clacker to scare crows away. However, he decides that the birds deserve to eat and stops sounding the clacker. He feels someone watching him and sees Mr. Troutham, the farmer who hired him to scare the crows away. The farmer fires him and Jude walks home to tell his aunt. She mentions Christminster again, and he asks what it is and whether he will ever be able to visit Phillotson there. She tells him that they have nothing to do with the people of Christminster. Jude goes into town and asks a man where Christminster is, and the man points to the northeast.
Jude walks two or three miles toward Christminster and climbs a ladder onto a roof where two men are working. He says he is looking for Christminster, and they tell him that sometimes it is visible, but not today. Jude is disappointed and waits, hoping he will see it before going home. Finally he sees it off in the distance and stares at its spires until the view disappears. He goes home. He decides that he wants to see the night lights of the city and goes back at dusk one day. On the road he meets men carrying coal and asks if they are coming from Christminster. They tell him that the people there read books he would never understand, and go on to describe the town. Hearing this, Jude decides that it is a "place of light" where the "tree of knowledge grows," and that it would suit him perfectly.
He runs into Physician Vilbert, a quack-doctor, on his way home and asks him about Christminster. Vilbert says that even the washerwomen there speak Latin, and Jude expresses a desire to learn Greek and Latin. Vilbert promises to give Jude his grammar books if Jude advertises his medicines in the town for two weeks. After two weeks, Jude meets Vilbert and asks for the grammar books, but the doctor does not have them. Jude is very disappointed, but when Phillotson sends for the piano, Jude has the idea of writing to the schoolmaster to ask for grammar books. Phillotson sends them, but when the books arrive, Jude is surprised to discover that there is no easy way to learn Latin, that each word has to be learned separately. He thinks that it is beyond his intellect.
Jude decides to make himself more useful to his aunt and helps her with the bakery, delivering bread in a horse-drawn cart. While he drives the cart he studies Latin. At the age of sixteen, he decides to devote himself to Biblical texts and also to apprentice himself to a stonecutter for extra money. He still dreams of going to Christminster, and saves his money for this possibility. He keeps lodgings in the town of Alfredston, but returns to Marygreen each weekend. One day, when he is nineteen, he is walking to Marygreen and planning his education and his future as a bishop or archdeacon when he is struck in the ear by a piece of pig's flesh. He sees three young women washing chitterlings. He asks one of the girls to come get the piece of meat, and she introduces herself as Arabella Donn. He asks if he can see her the next day and she says yes. He thinks of studying Greek the next afternoon, but decides it would be rude not to call on Arabella as promised and takes her for a walk. He meets her family afterward and is struck by how serious they perceive his intentions to be. The next morning he goes back to where they walked together and overhears Arabella telling her friends that she wants to marry Jude. Jude finds his thoughts turning more and more to her.
Their romance continues, and two months later Arabella goes to see the quack-doctor Vilbert. Jude begins to say that he is going away, but Arabella retorts that she is pregnant. Jude immediately proposes, and they marry quickly. Jude does not believe Arabella to be the ideal wife, but he knows he must marry her. Once they are living together, Jude asks when the baby will be born, and Arabella tells him it was a mistake, that she is not really pregnant. Jude is shocked. He feels depressed and trapped by the marriage, and even considers killing himself. He goes home one day to find Arabella gone and receives a letter saying she is planning to move to Australia with her parents.
Early on in the novel, the village of Marygreen is set in opposition to the university town of Christminster. The young Jude sees Christminster as an enlightened place of learning, equating it with his dreams of higher education and his vague notions of academic success. Yet while Jude lives quite close to Christminster and knows a man who is going to live there, the city is always only a distant vision in his mind. It is nearly within his reach but at the same time unattainable, and this physical distance serves as an ongoing metaphor for the abstract distance between the impoverished Jude and the privileged Christminster students.
At the start of the novel, Jude is portrayed as an earnest and innocent young man who aspires to things greater than his background allows. He resists succumbing to the discouragement of those around him and does not fear the gap he is creating between himself and the other people of his village. He is seen as eccentric and perhaps impertinent, and his aspirations are dismissed as unrealistic. It is this climate, in part, that leads him to marry Arabella. All through his young adult life, he avoids going to Christminster. Perhaps he is afraid of the failure he might encounter there. In Arabella, he sees something attainable and instantly gratifying, as opposed to the university life, of which he fears he may never become a part. In this way Jude avoids disappointment, but finds that he cannot live within the confines of an unhappy marriage.
Confinement--particularly in regard to marriage--is a major theme in the novel. Jude feels trapped by a youthful mistake and Arabella's manipulation. He finds that the decision is irreversible and resigns himself to living with the consequences. The freedom he receives after Arabella leaves is only partially liberating: It lets him be independent in a physical sense, but because he is still married, it forbids him from achieving legitimate romantic happiness with someone else.