Tess of D'Urbervilles" and "The Mayor of Casterbridge," as he seems to always be thinking a few steps ahead and in the end, all you can do is look at your fallen king with horror and a strange feeling of awe and wonderment at what has transpired. There are so many themes present, so many jabs at english society and cautions for the future. As such, "Jude the Obscure" was set in prototypical Hardy style.
The theme of the novel is primarily an assessment of societal constructs, and how these norms influence people in society. Most critics of this work at the time, felt that the attack on the church (and the sanctity of marriage) was disgraceful. In addition, "the book caused further strain on Hardy's already difficult marriage because Emma Hardy was concerned that Jude the Obscure would be read as autobiographical" [from Wikipedia]. Hardy never wrote another work of fiction again, after the reception this novel received. Little did he know that his thoughts would become more accepted over time amongst the majority in english society, and that divorce would become so prevalent in society that more than half of the people in North America have experienced it.
The character development was something you would expect from a Hardy work. Fringe characters were microcosms for the evil inherent in society and human beings in general, and women were portrayed in the extreme - stereotypically and one-dimensional. The main protagonist, Jude Fawley was a flawed man with a good heart... and he was a dreamer. His upbringing, like characters in Dicken's english works, was a difficult and lonely one... Jude being left to his aunt who put him to work and treated him harshly. As such, Jude never grew up with other children or with an authority figure to steer him in the right direction. His extremist nature caused him to lose track of his dreams to become a scholar, and he was entrapped into a marriage with the first girl he had feelings for.
After becoming estranged from his conniving wife, Jude falls in love with his cousin Sue who eventually weds out of obligation to Jude's old school teacher. However, Sue is in love with Jude, and eventually leaves her husband to be with him. Things go well for a time, and both become divorced from their spouses. Sue is relectant to wed, and the two live 'in sin', moving from town to town as their welcome is worn out. They have a few children together and tragedy eventually strikes the couple soon after little "Father Time" arrives, a child from Jude's first marriage. Sue believes that God is punishing her for her sins, and attempts to rectify them at the sake of her happiness. I will leave Hardy to tell the rest.
The work was typically Hardy in its inevitable tragedy, a point Hardy defends by stating that authors should write what they know, because it produces better literature. I tend to agree.
Hardy's extensive vocabulary is usually restrictive in the flow of the work. The two works mentioned above had similar flaws in this regard, but I found no such trouble with the flow in "Jude the Obscure."
It's easy to experience anger at the decisions of both Jude and Sue, the former to abandon his goal to be a scholar and the latter, her constant desire for self-punishment. Jude's decisions can be chalked up to a naivity about life and a passionate disposition, while Sue seems to enjoy creating her own drama. Both characters are never fully comfortable in society, either due to society's constructs or due to their own volition. The foreshaddowing of problems with the Fawley's in marriage seems to turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and we are left to question whether the problems exist due to the flaws in the characters themselves or due to fate.
As a whole, Hardy has done a remarkable job and risked a great deal with this book. It is one of his best. This is one of those novels everyone should have on their bookshelves, because something different can be gleaned from each read. It's a shame that this novel was Hardy's last work, because it was evident that he still had a lot left in the tank to give us. Like a lot of great authors, he was not appreciated for this work in his own time. After reading various reviews and participating in an enthralling book club discussion, I'm glad he's appreciated for this work in our time.