The schoolmaster, Mr. Phillotson, is preparing to leave the village of Marygreen in Wessex. He is bound for Christminster, where he intends to take a university degree and then be ordained. He is helped in his preparation by Jude Fawley, an eleven-year-old boy who has been his student and who admires him. Phillotson has given the boy a book as a farewell gift, and the schoolmaster tells Jude to look him up if he ever comes to Christminster. After Phillotson leaves, Jude stands thinking of the schoolmaster at the old well, to which he has come originally to draw water for his great-aunt and which is one of few old parts of the village still remaining, the rest having been replaced by more modern structures, most notably the church.
Returning to the house with water from the well, Jude hears his great-aunt, Drusilla Fawley, who runs a bakery in the house, in conversation with some friends. When he enters the room, his aunt explains to her friends the circumstances of Jude's life that brought him into her care a year before. She describes him as bookish, like his cousin Sue, and tells him that he should never marry, since the Fawleys are unlucky in matrimony. Jude goes off to his job in Farmer Troutham's cornfields, where he is supposed to scare off the rooks with a noisemaker. Depressed by the ugliness of the fields and sympathetic with the birds' hunger, he soon gives up his noisemaking and happily watches the birds eat. He is caught by Troutham, reprimanded, and punished for deserting his duties, and dismissed from his job. His aunt is annoyed by his now having nothing to occupy him and wonders aloud why he didn't go off with the schoolteacher to Christminster. Jude asks her about this city but is told he'll never be able to have anything to do with it. Jude leaves, reflecting on the difficulties of growing up and the incomprehensibility of life. He decides to see Christminster and starts off, his direction necessarily taking him back through Farmer Troutham's fields.
The use of a series of short scenes to develop the plot is typical of Hardy's narrative technique and is exemplified in the opening chapters. The last of these four or five scenes, in fact, is continued into Chapter 3; this too occurs several times in the novel. There are very few scenes which could be called long; the longest, perhaps, occurs when Sue comes to Jude's lodgings after fleeing from the training school in Melchester (Part 3, Chapters 3-5). In the present chapters, the plot moves smoothly from one scene to another, from Phillotson's loading his luggage to Jude's climbing up toward the ridge-track, in many cases, however, the transitions are abrupt and sometimes awkward.
These scenes serve to foreshadow a number of things that will occur later in the novel. Jude's admiration for Phillotson will shortly become a desire to emulate his teacher's ambitions and follow him to Christminster. Jude's inability to hurt any living creature, as Hardy explicitly points out, may cause him to suffer as he goes through life. Jude does not understand "nature's logic" and in reflecting on life thinks: "All around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and warped it." This too is full of suggestion as to what Jude's life will show.
The setting for this novel is, of course, Hardy's Wessex, which he invented and used in a series of novels. Several aspects of that "landscape" are of interest here. Marygreen, it is said, is changing: few of the old structures are still in existence; an outstanding example of the new is the church, which is of "modern Gothic design." The well at which Jude stands is one of few old things left in the village.
Some of the characters in the novel are used as a part of this local landscape and reflect its history and customs. Aunt Drusilla is one of these, with her talk about Jude's family and her foreboding comment that the Fawleys are luckless in marriage, both Jude and his cousin Sue having been victims of that bad luck.
Above all, what is strongly suggested in these opening scenes is the coming of the new and the dying out of the old, the effects of which go to form the theme of the novel. It is the spirit of the modern that makes itself felt in this place and on these characters. Its effects will be widespread, as suggested here, ranging all the way from Jude's desire to better himself to large questions about the nature of the universe and the power that governs it.