Jude Fawley is a stonemason who loves learning. Inspired by his teacher he longs to go to University. After a brief but unhappy marriage to the daughter of a local pig farmer, he moves to Christminster to be closer to his beloved scholars. There, he meets and falls totally in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, a thoroughly modern young woman, whose wit and beauty captivate him.
The ill-fated lovers join in an illicit union that flouts society's conventions and tragedy ensues.