The novel tells the story of Jude Fawley, who lives in a village in southern England, who yearns to be a scholar at "Christminster", a city modelled on Oxford. As a youth, Jude teaches himself Classical Greek and Latin in his spare time, while working first in his great-aunt's bakery, with the hope of entering university. But before he can try to do this the naïve Jude is seduced by Arabella Donn, a rather coarse and superficial local girl who traps him into marriage by pretending to be pregnant. The marriage is a failure, and they separate by mutual agreement, and Arabella later emigrates to Australia, where she enters into a bigamous marriage. By this time, Jude has abandoned his classical studies.