The Mayor of Casterbridge
The Mayor of CasterbridgeIntroduction
The Mayor of Casterbridge, originally entitled The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character, was first published serially in a London periodical in 1886. The first publication in book form was later that year. Thomas Hardy was an established author at the time and had published nine previous novels (a first, unpublished novel has been lost), but The Mayor of Casterbridge is considered his first masterpiece; some regard it as his greatest tragic novel.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is, from beginning to end, the story of Michael Henchard, a skilled farm laborer who, in a drunken rage, sells his young wife, along with their infant child, to a passing sailor. Most of the novel takes place eighteen to twenty years after this event. When the sailor is reported lost at sea, the cast-off wife and now-grown daughter set out to find Michael, who has become an affluent businessman and the mayor of Casterbridge. Michael's success is temporary, though, as circumstances and his own weaknesses of character combine to bring about his downfall in spite of his attempts to right the wrong he committed years before.
Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840, in a village near Dorchester in the southwestern region of England that would become the setting for his novels. His father, Thomas, was a builder and mason; his mother, Jemima Hand, was a cook.
After attending schools in his village, Bock-hampton, and in Dorchester, Hardy was apprenticed at age sixteen to his father's employer, an architect. While learning architecture, Hardy studied the classics with a university-educated tutor named Horace Moule. In 1862, Hardy moved to London, where he worked as an assistant architect, read widely, and began writing. Poems that he submitted to periodicals were rejected, but an article, "How I Built Myself a House," was published.
Hardy's work took him back to Dorchester and then to Weymouth, where he met Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. Hardy also began writing novels at this time, and it was Emma who encouraged him to leave architecture and write full time. His first published novel, Desperate Remedies, came out in 1871 and was quickly followed by two others. (His first, unpublished novel has been lost.) But it was Far from the Madding Crowd, published in 1874, that ensured his reputation. By the late 1870s, he was an established member of England's literary elite.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was considered pivotal in Hardy's career, as its male main character was more fully developed than those in previous novels. The Mayor of Casterbridge also represented a new achievement in the novel form by successfully blending a psychological portrait of one man with a depiction of the social realities of a particular time and place. Other major works of this period were a collection of short stories, Wessex Tales (1888), and the dark and controversial Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891). Reaction to Jude the Obscure (1896) was so harsh that Hardy gave up writing novels. He published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898 and continued to write poetry throughout his remaining years.
In 1912, just after Hardy had completed a final revision of his novels, his wife died. He married Florence Emily Dugdale, who had been his secretary, in 1914. Hardy worked on his autobiography, The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, which was ostensibly written by his second wife, and burned his private papers. The autobiography, as well as the last volume of Hardy's poetry, Winter Words, was published posthumously in 1928.
Hardy was honored during his lifetime with the British government's Order of Merit (1910) and with honorary doctorate of literature degrees from Cambridge University in 1913 and from Oxford University in 1920. He died January 11, 1928, in Dorchester after a brief illness. His ashes are interred in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey in London, though his heart is buried in the grave of his first wife.
As the novel opens, Michael Henchard and his wife, Susan, are walking toward a village in Wessex in southwestern England. Susan is carrying their infant daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. It is a late summer afternoon in the mid-1800s. Michael, a skilled farm laborer, is looking for work. Hardy describes the man and woman as being distant from each other and in low spirits. Hardy makes clear that Susan is naïve and malleable.
They enter a shop that sells furmity, a grain-based dish, and order their dinner. Michael quickly discerns that the proprietor, whom Hardy calls "the furmity woman," will spike his furmity with rum for an added payment. He gets drunk and tells those around him that he has ruined his chances for success by marrying too young and would sell his wife if he could. Michael refuses to drop this idea, and finally a sailor offers to meet the five-guinea price that Michael has set. To the shock of the crowd, the sale is made, and Susan and the baby leave with the sailor.
Michael sleeps off the rum in the furmity shop and wakes up to realize what he has done. Feeling remorse, he does two things: he goes to a church and makes a vow that he will not drink hard liquor for twenty-one years (one year for each year he has lived), and he determines to search for Susan and get her back. He searches for months but does not find Susan and the sailor.
About eighteen years have passed. Susan and the sailor, Newson, lived for about twelve years in Canada and then returned to England. Susan's daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, knows nothing about Michael Henchard or Susan's "sale" to Newson; she believes that her mother and Newson are married and that she is Newson's daughter.
Some time ago, Susan had confided in a friend about her past and that she was not legally married to Newson. The friend made Susan understand that she was not bound to Newson in any way; that is, that her "sale" was illegal and did not obligate her to Newson or make their arrangement legal. Susan was upset by this new perspective on her situation and told Newson that she didn't know if she could continue living with him. On his next trip to sea, Newson was reported lost and presumed dead.
Susan and Elizabeth-Jane then set out to find Michael Henchard. Susan hopes that Michael will be able and willing to provide some help for Elizabeth-Jane—financial help or some sort of start in life—as Newson has left her very little. They return to the village where Michael sold Susan and find the furmity woman. The furmity woman tells Susan that Michael returned about a year after the sale of his wife. He instructed the furmity woman that if a woman ever asked for him, she should give the information that Michael had gone to Casterbridge. The next morning, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane leave for Casterbridge.
As Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in Casterbridge, a crowd is gathered in front of a hotel where a fancy dinner is being held. The windows have been opened so that the commoners on the street can hear what is being said at the dinner. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane learn that Michael Henchard is the mayor of the town and is seated at the head of the table. He is also said to be a widower. Elizabeth-Jane, who has been told that they are going to see a distant relative by marriage, is delighted to find that he is so successful. Susan is surprised that the drunken, impetuous young man she knew has become so successful, and she dreads meeting him.
During the dinner, Henchard, a grain merchant, is challenged by some in the crowd who accuse him of having sold wheat that had gone bad. Henchard responds that he did not know the wheat was bad and wishes there was some way to make bad wheat into good wheat, but as there is not, so nothing can be done.
A young Scotsman sends a note in to Henchard, who reads it and leaves the dinner to find the writer of the note. It happens that the young man, Donald Farfrae, is staying in the room next to Susan and Elizabeth-Jane's at the Three Mariners inn. Thus, the two women overhear Farfrae's conversation with Henchard when the mayor arrives. Farfrae's note has told Henchard that Farfrae knows a way to make the bad wheat usable, and Farfrae shares the method with Henchard. Henchard tries to persuade Farfrae to come to work for him, but Farfrae says that he is bound for America.
Susan overhears Henchard say that he does not drink alcohol because of something shameful that he did when he was young. This gives Susan hope that Henchard might be willing to help Elizabeth-Jane.
Later in the evening, Farfrae enthralls the crowd at the inn's bar with his singing. Elizabeth-Jane, who witnesses this because she is helping to pay for her room by serving in the bar, develops an attraction to Farfrae.
The next morning, Susan sends Elizabeth-Jane to Henchard's house with a note asking him to meet her. When Elizabeth-Jane arrives, she is shocked to see Farfrae working in Henchard's office. Farfrae and Henchard had met again early that morning, and Farfrae agreed to work for Henchard after all.
While Elizabeth-Jane is waiting for Henchard, a man named Jopp appears. Henchard had promised this man the job he has now given to Farfrae, but he sends Jopp away without apology.
Michael reads Susan's note and asks Elizabeth-Jane some questions. He then writes a response to Susan, setting a meeting, and encloses five guineas—the exact amount for which he sold her. The implication is that he is agreeing to take her back, although she has not asked this.
Michael and Susan meet secretly outside the town. Michael proposes to Susan that he will court her as if he has never met her before and marry her. Susan agrees. He offers to begin supporting Susan and Elizabeth-Jane immediately and asks Susan's forgiveness.
Henchard returns home and tells Farfrae, whom he likes and trusts, the whole story of his past, which he has until now kept secret. Henchard tells Farfrae that there is one thing that stands in the way of his now making things right with Susan: There is a woman in another town whom Henchard has offered to marry, thinking that Susan was probably dead. Henchard had an affair with this other woman, by which she was disgraced, and he offered to marry her to repair her reputation. He now asks Farfrae to write to the woman and explain why Henchard cannot marry her after all, and Farfrae agrees.
Henchard provides a house and servant for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and begins courting Susan. They are married in November of the same year. The townspeople wonder why Henchard has married beneath him. Henchard moves his wife and "stepdaughter" into his house and treats them kindly.
Farfrae improves Henchard's business, and Henchard learns that the townspeople now have more respect and affection for Farfrae than for himself. Henchard humiliates a habitually tardy employee by making him go to work without his britches, but Farfrae reverses Henchard and lets the man go home and finish dressing. This causes Henchard and Farfrae to argue.
On a holiday, Henchard and Farfrae plan competing celebrations for the townspeople. Henchard's festivities are rained out, while Farfrae's dance (under a tent) is a huge success. At Farfrae's dance, Henchard angrily declares that Farfrae's term as his manager is almost over, and Farfrae agrees. In a scene that recalls the morning after Henchard sold Susan, Henchard later regrets what he said and realizes that Farfrae really plans to leave his employ.
Farfrae hints to Elizabeth-Jane that he would marry her if he had more money. He then goes into business for himself but makes a point not to compete with Henchard. Henchard, however, treats Farfrae as an enemy and forbids Elizabeth-Jane to see him.
Susan becomes ill. Before she dies, she writes a letter addressed to Henchard, which he is not to open until Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day.
- Unabridged audio versions of The Mayor of Casterbridge have been published by Books on Tape, Inc. (1983), Chivers Audio Books (1991), John Curley and Associaties (1991, with Tony Britton as reader), and the Audio Partners Publishing Corporation (1998, with John Rowe as reader).
- The Mayor of Casterbridge was made into a seven-part television miniseries in the United Kingdom in 1978. It was directed by David Giles III and written by Dennis Potter. Alan Bates starred as Henchard, Jack Galloway as Farfrae, Janet Maw as Elizabeth-Jane, and Anne Stallybrass as Susan.
- A 2001 made-for-television movie of The Mayor of Casterbridge was directed by David Thacker and written by Ted Whitehead. Ciarán Hinds starred as Henchard, James Purefoy as Farfrae, Jodhi May as Elizabeth-Jane, and Juliet Aubrey as Susan.
Soon after Susan's death, Henchard reveals to Elizabeth-Jane that he is her father. In looking for proof of his original marriage to Susan (he needs this to prove that he is her father and have her name legally changed to his), he finds the letter that Susan has left and reads it. It reveals that Elizabeth-Jane is not Henchard's daughter; that child died a few months after Henchard sold Susan, and the Elizabeth-Jane he knows is Newson's daughter. Henchard is distraught and decides not to tell Elizabeth-Jane. His behavior toward her changes, though; he criticizes her and increasingly avoids her. She feels unhappy and bereft.
Visiting her mother's grave, Elizabeth-Jane encounters a woman she has never seen before and tells the woman her life story. The woman says that she is moving to Casterbridge and invites Elizabeth-Jane to live with her as her companion. Elizabeth-Jane agrees.
Elizabeth-Jane asks Henchard's permission to take the companion position she has been offered, and Henchard is relieved to see her go. He is surprised, though, when he hears that a Miss Temple-man will employ her. This is the woman with whom Henchard once had an affair, the woman he was about to marry before Susan arrived in Casterbridge. She has changed her name to escape the past scandal of her affair with Henchard. Henchard, now free of Susan, has heard that Miss Temple-man, also called Lucetta, has just come into a large inheritance, and he wants to marry her.
Elizabeth-Jane moves into Miss Templeman's house. Farfrae goes to see Elizabeth-Jane but is attracted to Miss Templeman, and the attraction is mutual. Henchard asks Miss Templeman to marry him, but she delays her answer. Henchard later discovers that Farfrae is his rival in love as well as in business. Elizabeth-Jane feels rejected by both Farfrae and Henchard.
Henchard now hires Jopp, the man whose job was taken by Farfrae early in the novel, and instructs him to use every legal means of ruining Farfrae's business. Henchard then foolishly speculates on rising grain prices, and when the harvest is good and prices fall, he must take out huge loans to keep his business going. Blaming Jopp for this, Henchard fires him, and he vows to get revenge.
Henchard forces Lucetta to agree to marry him by threatening to reveal their past affair if she will not.
Henchard, though no longer mayor, is still a local judge. He is called to hear the case of an old woman accused of public obscenity. This turns out to be the furmity woman who witnessed Henchard's sale of his wife. The woman exposes Henchard in court, and he admits the deed. Lucetta, who had thought Henchard's wife was dead, hears of this and leaves town for a few days.
It is revealed that Lucetta married Farfrae during her absence, feeling released from her promise to marry Henchard by the news about his having sold his wife. When Henchard learns of the marriage, he again threatens to expose Lucetta's scandalous past. Farfrae moves into Lucetta's house, and Elizabeth-Jane, because she has feelings for Farfrae, moves out.
Because of the revelation about his past and coincidental business losses, Henchard is ruined. He declares bankruptcy and moves to a cottage owned by Jopp. Farfrae buys Henchard's business, house, and furniture. Henchard asks Farfrae to give him work as a laborer, and Farfrae agrees. Henchard hates Farfrae, though, who now owns all that was once his and is married to his former lover. The twenty-one years of Henchard's oath have passed, and he is drinking again. He begins to utter threats against Farfrae.
The current mayor dies, and the town council elects Farfrae to replace him.
Henchard has some letters that Lucetta wrote him years ago, during their affair. He knows that these letters, if made public, would ruin both Lucetta and Farfrae, but he has too much feeling for Lucetta to do the deed. However, he stupidly assigns the vengeful Jopp to return the letters to Lucetta. Jopp reads the letters aloud at a tavern, and the crowd plans a "skimmity-ride," in which effigies of Henchard and Lucetta will be paraded through the town to publicize their past affair.
Henchard challenges the smaller, frailer Farfrae to a wrestling match to the death, but, when he is in a position to kill Farfrae, Henchard lets him go.
The skimmity-ride takes place. Lucetta is so horrified by it that she has a seizure and dies.
Newson appears at Henchard's cottage. He says that his being lost at sea was a ruse to let Susan out of their relationship. Newson has acquired wealth and now wants to share his money and his remaining years with his daughter. Henchard tells Newson that Elizabeth-Jane is dead. Newson accepts this and leaves town.
Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane renew their affection for each other, and she decides to take care of him.
About a year later, Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane are running a small shop and making a living. Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane begin spending time together.
Henchard sees Newson outside of town and realizes that Newson somehow knows that Elizabeth-Jane is alive and has returned for her. Unable to bear the loss of his "daughter," Henchard leaves Casterbridge. When Elizabeth-Jane meets Newson and learns that he is her father, she turns against Henchard.
Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane are married. Henchard thinks that perhaps he was wrong in assuming that Newson was in Casterbridge to see Elizabeth-Jane, and, full of hope, he returns to Casterbridge on the evening of the wedding. He sees Newson dancing with Elizabeth-Jane and knows he has lost her. She sees him and is cold to him, and he apologizes and leaves for good.
A month later, Elizabeth Jane feels remorse for her treatment of Henchard, and she and Farfrae set out to find him. Several miles from Casterbridge a man at a humble cottage tells them that Henchard lived there but died less than an hour previously. He has left a will requesting that Elizabeth-Jane not be informed of his death and that no funeral be held for him. Elizabeth-Jane, touched by his acceptance of his fate, abides by his wishes.
A young Scot who arrives in Casterbridge at about the same time as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, Donald Farfrae becomes Michael Henchard's business manager. He quickly becomes Henchard's only trusted friend and, later, his adversary in both business and love.
Hardy draws Farfrae as Henchard's counterpart in every way. He is physically small, polite and charming, careful and controlled, forward thinking, and methodical. Whereas Henchard propels his fate through moments of rash behavior, Farfrae is cool and calculating in all he does. Although his personality is friendly and engaging, Farfrae maintains a certain detachment from people and events, always considering the possible consequences of his decisions and actions before he makes them. As a result, his path through life is as smooth as Henchard's is rough.
Farfrae initiates a relationship with Henchard by providing information that is a great help to Henchard in solving a business problem and by refusing Henchard's offer of payment for the information. Henchard is so grateful and impressed that he talks Farfrae into abandoning his plans to go to America and convinces him to take a job as Henchard's business manager.
Because Farfrae is more organized and methodical than Henchard, the business prospers under his management. Farfrae is ambitious enough to eventually go into business for himself, though, and this enrages Henchard even though Farfrae, in his typically principled way, tries to minimize competition between the two firms.
Farfrae courts Elizabeth-Jane and even hints that he would marry her if he were in a financial position to do so, but when he meets the newly wealthy Miss Templeman—Henchard's former lover whom he, too, is again courting—he turns his affections to her and marries her.
Farfrae's careful approach to life wins him all that was once Henchard's: at Henchard's bankruptcy sale, Farfrae buys his business, home, and furniture. He marries Henchard's former lover and, after she dies, marries Elizabeth-Jane. Farfrae even becomes the highly respected and well-liked mayor of Casterbridge.
For Farfrae, though, the competition between Henchard and himself is never personal or mean-spirited. When the destitute Henchard asks Farfrae for a job, Farfrae hires him and makes sure that he himself never gives Henchard orders. Farfrae also offers to give Henchard any furniture or personal belongings that he would like to have back from the bankruptcy sale.
The Furmity Woman
The furmity woman runs the shop in which Michael, at the beginning of the novel, gets drunk and sells Susan. She appears again eighteen years later, when Susan and Elizabeth-Jane return to the village where the sale occurred to try to find Henchard. The furmity woman is still there and remembers that Henchard returned a year after the sale. She tells Susan that Henchard told her that he was moving to Casterbridge and that if a woman ever came asking for him, the furmity woman should pass on this information.
The furmity woman makes a final appearance in Casterbridge to seal Henchard's fate. Henchard is a judge, and the furmity woman, when brought before him on a public obscenity charge, recognizes him and tells the court about this shameful past.
As the novel opens, Susan is carrying an infant daughter named Elizabeth-Jane. She takes the baby with her when she goes off with Newson, and when readers see Susan eighteen years later, again with her daughter, Hardy gives the impression that this is the same infant grown up. Only later do readers learn that Henchard's daughter died a few months after he sold Susan and that this girl is Newson's daughter.
As Susan and the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth-Jane set about finding Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane knows nothing about her mother's marriage to Henchard. She thinks that her mother and Newson were legally married and that now Susan is in search of a distant relative by marriage who may be of some help to them.
Early in the novel, both Elizabeth-Jane's natural beauty and her innate intelligence have been compromised by her poverty. She has no education and no prospects in life. This is why Susan is willing to risk the possibility of being rejected and humiliated again by Henchard; she sees him as her daughter's only hope for a better life.
Once Henchard begins providing for her, Elizabeth-Jane blossoms both physically and socially. She becomes the town beauty and is admired by young men, including Farfrae, with whom Elizabeth-Jane has been quite taken since their first meeting.
Hardy draws Elizabeth-Jane as a healthy mixture of levelheadedness and deep feeling. When Henchard's money allows her nice clothes, she enjoys them but doesn't overspend or flaunt her position. She also takes advantage of her newfound leisure by reading and studying to improve herself; she has always been embarrassed by her lack of education. When Farfrae abandons her for Miss Templeman, Elizabeth-Jane simply withdraws quietly although she loves him.
Unable to hold a grudge or remain bitter, Elizabeth-Jane finally marries Farfrae after Miss Templeman dies. And although she lashes out at Henchard when she finds out that he has lied to keep her from Newson, she soon forgives him and goes to find him. She is touched by Henchard's will and honors his wishes.
Michael Henchard is the towering but tragic hero of The Mayor of Casterbridge; the novel is his story. He is physically large and powerful. His character is a strange mixture of the light and the dark. Henchard is true to his word. Until he hires Farfrae, he runs his business with few written records, and the townspeople know that they can trust him to keep the contracts he makes orally. Yet he sometimes says things that are rash and even cruel and then follows through on them just as if they were contracts made in good faith. Such an outburst causes him to sell his wife at the beginning of the novel. Henchard has the willpower and determination to keep an oath for twenty-one years, yet he seems to rarely think ahead, and, in a single moment of ire, he can do a deed that ruins years of effort. He is so honest that when the furmity woman exposes his past, he readily admits that she is telling the truth, and when he declares bankruptcy, he willingly turns over everything but the clothes on his back to his creditors. Yet when Newson comes looking for Elizabeth-Jane, Henchard tells him she is dead.
Henchard begins the novel a young man who is poor but who at least possesses a skill, the vigor of youth, and a wife and child. Yet he is convinced that his early marriage has ruined his chances in life. After shamefully ridding himself of the wife and child, he forswears the alcohol that undoubtedly fueled the deed and almost completely forswears the company of women, channeling all his energies into his business. And so, at first, the punishments that he imposes on himself for selling Susan lead to his success.
But fate and Henchard's own abiding guilt conspire to destroy him. Fate places Donald Farfrae in his path, and Henchard chooses first to bring the man into his business and then to make him an adversary—the thoughtful, self-possessed adversary who will end up with impetuous Henchard's public office and stature, his wealth, his business, his home, his furniture, his lover, and, finally, his stepdaughter. To help cruel fate along, Henchard indulges in one self-destructive act after another. When he would like to ruin Farfrae's business, he instead speculates foolishly and ruins his own. When he wishes to return some highly inflammatory letters to a former lover, he entrusts the delivery to a man who openly hates him. When Elizabeth-Jane is all he has left in the world, he tells lies that are sure to estrange her from him.
Henchard ends up much poorer than he began, having lost, for a second and final time, his wife and her child and having lost the strength and potential of youth. At the end of the novel, he walks away from Casterbridge utterly alone and soon dies in the hut that has been his final home. He dies before he can know that Elizabeth-Jane has softened toward him, and his will makes clear that he would have wanted it so. His final wish is, in effect, to be obliterated for his sins, which a lifetime of penance was insufficient to obliterate in his own mind. His will asks that Elizabeth-Jane not be informed of his death, that no ceremony mark his passing, that no flowers mark his grave, and "that no man remember me."
Susan Henchard is Michael's wife as the novel opens. Hardy portrays her as being naïve and resigned to an existence over which she is powerless. The small efforts she makes to control her fate are useless; she steers Henchard away from what is clearly a saloon to a place that appears not to serve alcohol only to find that the proprietor in fact sells rum on the sly.
When Michael sells her to a sailor, Susan assumes that the transaction is valid and that she must stay with him. She lives peaceably with him for many years and bears him a daughter before a friend finally makes her realize that she is not bound by Henchard's act.
After the sailor is presumed dead at sea, Susan sets out to find Henchard, hoping to benefit her daughter. It never seems to occur to her that he might have an obligation to Susan herself. Once she finds out that Henchard is mayor of the town and well off, far from desiring to take advantage of him or ruin him, she wishes she could leave Casterbridge without meeting him. For the sake of her daughter, she goes through with her plan to approach him.
Even the townspeople of Casterbridge see that Susan has no sense of self; they call her a "ghost." Soon after she has seen Elizabeth-Jane on her way to being established in the way Susan had hoped for, Susan dies.
Jopp is a lowlife villain who is driven by dark emotions. The day that Henchard hires Farfrae to be his business manager, Jopp shows up in the office having been previously offered the job that Farfrae now has. Informed that the position is no longer available, Jopp goes away steaming and bent on revenge.
Further events fuel this desire. Among other things, Henchard does finally hire Jopp but then fires him unreasonably when Henchard's own business decisions prove disastrous. Henchard foolishly gives Jopp his chance for revenge when he asks Jopp to deliver to Miss Templeman a package of scandalous letters. Jopp reads the letters aloud to a tavern crowd, which then plans the "skimmityride" (a parading of effigies through the town to call attention to adultery) that ends in Miss Templeman's death and Henchard's further humiliation.
Newson is the sailor who buys Susan at the beginning of the novel. He shows that he does have some scruples when he says that he will take Susan only if she is willing to go with him. His relationship with Susan and with Elizabeth-Jane is portrayed as kind and cordial. When Susan comes to understand that their relationship is not legitimate, Newson does her a kindness by having himself reported lost at sea, allowing her to leave his house without guilt and with a small amount of money.
Newson's basic decency is seen later in his desire to share his wealth with Elizabeth-Jane, in his acceptance of Henchard's word that she has died, and in his lack of bitterness when he discovers that Henchard has lied to him. At the end of the novel, Newson lives within sight of the sea but also near his daughter.
Lucetta Templeman is a superficial, unthinking woman who, like Henchard, suffers several reversals of fortune and ends badly. Henchard has an affair with her before Susan arrives in Casterbridge, and this affair ruins Lucetta's reputation. To try to repair the damage, Henchard, thinking that Susan is probably dead, offers to marry Lucetta. Before the marriage takes place, though, Susan returns, and Henchard must call off the wedding.
After Susan dies, Lucetta inherits wealth, and Henchard renews his interest in her. Lucetta is more interested in Farfrae, though, and marries him. When Lucetta's old letters to Henchard become public, the scandal of their affair returns to haunt them both, and Lucetta is so distraught by this that she suffers a seizure and dies. Farfrae soon realizes that Lucetta was not a good match for him and that, had she lived, their marriage would not have been happy.
The idea of a blind, arbitrary fate is a central theme in Hardy's fiction. Although this fate is blind, it is not neutral but almost always cruel. It is a force that brings suffering and feels no pity or remorse.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, blind fate manifests as a series of ruinous coincidences and unforeseeable circumstances. Such coincidences and circumstances seem to conspire against Michael Henchard from the opening scenes. There are two shops offering food at the fair; one clearly advertises that it sells liquor, but the other seems not to do so. Susan, knowing Michael's weakness for alcohol, steers him to what seems to be the "safer" of the two establishments. But, as fate would have it, the proprietor there sells rum on the sly, and Michael is soon drunk and loudly insisting on his desire to sell his wife.
Next, along comes a coincidence in the person of a man who has both the money and the inclination to accept the offer that Henchard has been unwilling to let drop in spite of attempts by his wife and others to silence him. The man happens to be a sailor who takes Susan to Canada, far beyond Michael's reach as he searches for her.
And so the tide of fate that will carry Michael inexorably to his tragic end gathers strength. It is not swayed by Henchard's repentance, by his shame, by his vow not to drink, or by his lifelong efforts to right his wrong. It is as if a curse has been uttered and cannot be withdrawn.
Relationship between Character and Fate
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, more than in some of Hardy's other fiction, the theme of blind fate is interwoven with a second theme that might at first seem contradictory: the theme of personal character as the molder of fate. Every coincidence or unforeseen circumstance is paired with a choice. Henchard could have refused the furmity woman's rum, but did not. He could have refused Newson's offer to buy Susan, which would have required the courage and strength of character to admit that the offer was a drunken mistake.
Topics for Further Study
- Hardy originally subtitled The Mayor of Casterbridge "A Story of a Man of Character." What is meant by the phrase "a man of character?" Do you think it was an appropriate subtitle for the novel? Explain your answer.
- Compare and contrast Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae. What traits do they have in common, and what differences are there between the two men?
- Name a single character trait that you think is the cause of Michael's downfall and explain why you think that trait, above all others, is Michael's tragic weakness.
- In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Susan allows herself to be "sold" and willingly goes with the man who has "bought" her. What else might Susan have done? What alternatives did she have? Do some research about rural life in England at the time, and list only alternatives that were realistically available to a woman such as Susan. Then explain which alternative you think is the best choice for Susan—one of those you have listed or the action she takes in the novel—and why.
- Hardy set all of his novels in the Wessex region of England where he was born. In The Mayor of Casterbridge and other novels, he used real places—towns, roads, bodies of water, and even shops and hotels. He used the real names of some of these places and gave fictional names to others. Imagine that you are going to write a novel set in the region where you live. Draw a map of the region, showing the towns, roads, and other places that will appear in your novel. For each place, decide whether you will use its real name or make up a name and write the names on your map. Finally, write a one-page description of the region shown in your map. Make your description as detailed as possible to give readers a feel for the place; describe the landscape, people, animals, weather, sounds, smells, and so on.
Circumstance and character hold a conversation throughout this novel. Each circumstance is a question that Henchard must answer, and each answer both illustrates what kind of man Henchard is and determines what kind of man he will become. In the beginning, Henchard has much control over his fate; more than once, he is presented with the opportunity to prevent the curse from being uttered. But once he has sold Susan, his choices have much less power. A line has been crossed, a process has been set in motion, a deed has been done that all of Michael's future efforts will be inadequate to erase. Although he makes many moral choices from that moment on—to forswear alcohol and to "remarry" Susan, for example—Michael has lost control of his fate.
As these two themes of blind fate and personal character weave through the novel, Hardy leaves readers to interpret just how the two relate. Judging by Michael Henchard's end, though, Hardy's message seems to be that each choice a person makes limits future choices and that a single bad choice can put a person forever at the mercy of blind, uncaring fate. Michael Henchard can be compared to a seaman in a storm who, in a moment of carelessness, loses his grip on his ship's wheel and is never able to regain control of his course.
It was during the Victorian period (1837–1901) that the novel became the dominant literary form, and Hardy is considered one of the major novelists of the era, along with Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and many others. It was common for novels to be published serially, in magazines or in stand-alone sections. The Mayor of Casterbridge was first published serially, in twenty installments, in an English periodical called The Graphic in 1886. It was published simultaneously in the United States in Harper's Weekly. Hardy's original manuscript, with some sections missing, is at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in book form as soon as the serial publication was complete. Many novels of this period differ slightly in their serial and book forms (authors were aware of the serial format as they wrote and structured their stories to keep readers interested from one week to the next), but this book differs substantially from the serial novel. In the serial form, for example, Henchard marries Lucetta. Hardy's biography (supposedly written by his second wife but actually written almost entirely by Hardy himself) reveals that he felt this novel had been badly damaged by the demands of serial publication and that his revisions for the book publication were not adequate to repair the story. The text of the novel that is available to today's readers is the final revision that Hardy did for the 1912 Wessex Edition of his novels.
Victorian novels often deal with social issues. While social issues play a role in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the novel was a departure from the norm because it focused consistently on a single character, Michael Henchard. Because of this limited focus, the novel is shorter and has a smaller cast of characters than many novels of the time.
Like all of Hardy's fiction, The Mayor of Casterbridge is set in southwestern England in the region once known as Wessex. The area was invaded, settled, and named by the Saxons, who ruled it as a kingdom, in ancient times. It extended from the English Channel north to the Thames River and from Windsor Forest in the east to the Cornish coast in the west.
While most novelists set their stories in real places, Hardy is distinctive for two reasons. First, although the author traveled widely, in the writing of his novels and stories, he never strayed beyond the boundaries of his native region. In his 1912 general preface to his final, revised version of his novels, Hardy explained, "there was quite enough human nature in Wessex for one man's literary purposes." He further explained, somewhat unnecessarily, that his characters "were meant to be typically and essentially those of any and every place … beings in whose hearts and minds that which is apparently local should be really universal."
Second, Hardy, unlike other authors, rarely invented features to add to the real landscape of Wessex. He describes the towns and farms, the roads and hotels, and the smallest details as they really were. When Hardy describes a house, it is likely that readers in his time knew exactly which house he had borrowed for his tale.
In some cases, Hardy used real place names; in others, he gave fictional names to real places. While Stonehenge and Southhampton appear under their actual names, Casterbridge is, in reality, Hardy's hometown of Dorchester. In his 1912 preface, Hardy points out that his general rule was to use the real names of the major towns and places that mark the general boundaries of Wessex and to use fictional, disguised, or ancient names for most other places.
Even Hardy's characters are based on real people more than most fictional characters are. Most are composites of people he knew or knew of and his own embellishments. He borrowed bits of characters and story lines from the folklore and ballads of Wessex. The fact that he lived a long life in Wessex and had access to church records in his early work as an architect and church restorer gave him an intimate knowledge of local life and its too-frequent tragedies.
Gothic fiction was popular between about 1760 and 1820. Gothic authors used threatening environments (the foreboding hilltop castle on a stormy night); brooding, malevolent characters; dark secrets; and the supernatural and occult to instill a sense of horror in their readers. Gothic fiction has influenced much of the fiction written in the past two hundred and fifty years, and Gothic elements were prominent in the novels of the Victorian age. In the novels of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë, and others, these elements made the dark side of human nature palpable to readers.
Gothic elements appear throughout The Mayor of Casterbridge. One striking example is the meeting between Henchard and Susan at the old Roman amphitheater called the Ring. The Ring is outside the town, and Henchard and Susan meet there at dusk. Before Hardy narrates their meeting, he spins a long, ghostly description of the place that infuses it with a history of gloom and gore. Readers are reminded of the bloody Roman sports for which the place was built. They are told that the Ring was long the home of Casterbridge's gallows and treated to a lurid description of a murderess being "half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators." Even now, Hardy assures readers, the Ring is the setting for violent crimes, and some old people have had visions of the amphitheater filled with cheering Roman soldiers and have actually heard their bloodthirsty roaring. By the time Hardy finally brings Henchard and Susan to the scene, he has made readers feel that there truly is something dark about their purpose here, though on the surface their meeting is cordial.
Coincidence, too, was a common plot device in Hardy's time and one of which he makes frequent use in The Mayor of Casterbridge. For example, the furmity woman happens to stumble into Casterbridge, of all towns, and at just the right time and in just the right circumstance to do Henchard great harm. The weather happens to change just when Henchard is vulnerable to ruin because of his risky attempt to destroy Farfrae.
There are two ways of looking at Hardy's coincidences. Some readers and critics say that they make the story unrealistic and therefore less effective than it would otherwise be. Others point out that coincidences are not, in and of themselves, unrealistic, as life has its fair share of them. The question, this latter group would say, is whether the coincidences themselves are realistic or not. In the case of The Mayor of Casterbridge, the answer seems to be at least a qualified "yes." The furmity woman has been cast as a merchant who travels around the region, so it is not incredible that she would show up in Casterbridge. Anyone who has ever farmed can testify that there is nothing more unpredictable, more uncontrollable, and, seemingly, more contrary to the wishes of farmers than the weather.
Hardy employs coincidence to help him—and his readers—explore the nature of fate. He leaves open the question of whether coincidences are merely chance suggesting that fate is blind or whether what appear to be coincidences are actually directed by some supernatural hand that guides men and women to the fates they "deserve."
The Victorian age began in 1837, when eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne, and ended with her death in 1901. Victoria and her husband, Albert, set the tone of English life and culture for most of a century. It was a time of social and moral conservatism; the "family values" of the time were similar to those touted in late-twentieth-century America. Pragmatism was valued above romance, duty above pleasure.
Beneath the veneer of gentility and commitment to duty and family, the Victorian age, like every era, had its dark side. Prostitution flourished, and lurid crime stories—both true and fictional—were popular. Hordes of small children living by their wits on the streets of London and other cities were a testament to the limits of the commitment to family. The wife-selling incident that is at the center of The Mayor of Casterbridge is a fictional instance of a type of transaction that did, indeed, occur in rural England in the nineteenth century.
The early Victorian period was a time of social reforms. Laws were passed governing working conditions of women and children (they could not work in underground mines, for example), and attempts were made to improve conditions in prisons and insane asylums. Efforts to broaden access to education (England had no public schools at the time) stalled because of controversy over the Church of England's role in expanded education. Writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens took up the cause of reform, using their writing to point out the need for prison reforms and education and the evils of industrialization and the class system.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, England was experiencing unprecedented political, industrial, and economic power, fueled by the Industrial Revolution and by wealth from the colonies. All forms of transportation boomed; railroad ridership increased sevenfold, and the shipbuilding industry grew. Living standards of the working class and middle class were buoyed, and trade unions were formed to promote the interests of skilled workers.
By the late 1800s, Queen Victoria had ruled for fifty years. The British had consolidated their rule of India, and the empire was expanding, especially in Asia and Africa. Domestically, however, the economy was faltering. The United States and Britain took over as the world's leading producers of manufactured goods, and British farmers suffered from foreign competition. Economic hardships sparked immigration to the British colonies and to the United States. More than two hundred thousand Britons left home each year during the 1880s—as Newson did and as Farfrae intended to do in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Compare & Contrast
- Late Nineteenth Century: The price of English grain is falling due to competition from overseas farmers. Better transportation and refrigeration mean that foreign farmers can ship grain to England and undercut local farmers. Large estates in the grain-growing regions of England, such as Hardy's Wessex, face falling profits and in some cases are broken up into smaller holdings. Unemployment is high among farm workers. Dairy and fruit farmers prosper, however, as they do not face foreign competition.
Today: England imports most of its food, including grain. England's crop income is only about one-third of that from livestock and dairy products, but southern England is still an important farming region. Farms are much smaller than they were in Hardy's time, averaging less than two hundred fifty acres, and are much more mechanized. Major crops are wheat, potatoes, barley, sugar beets, and oats.
- Late Nineteenth Century: The Third Reform Bill of 1884 extends the vote to male farm workers in England; previously, only men of the upper social classes were allowed to vote. In addition, laws are changed to make it possible for upper-class women to retain their property when they marry, to vote in local elections, and to attend universities. Working-class women such as Susan in The Mayor of Casterbridge still have virtually no rights under the law.
Today: All men and women in England have the right to vote in all elections, and well over one hundred women serve in Parliament. Women also have property rights and access to higher education that equal those of men.
- Late Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria, namesake of the Victorian age, celebrates her golden jubilee—fifty years of rule—in 1887 and her diamond jubilee in 1897.
Today: Queen Elizabeth II takes the throne in 1952 and will celebrate her golden jubilee in 2002.
Life in Nineteenth-Century Wessex
According to Hardy (and scholars agree), a history book could hardly give a more accurate picture of life in nineteenth-century Wessex than does Hardy's fiction. In his general preface to the final Wessex Edition of his novels, in 1912, Hardy wrote:
At the dates represented in the various narrations, things were like that in Wessex: the inhabitants lived in certain ways, engaged in certain occupations, kept alive certain customs, just as they are shown doing in these pages…. I have instituted inquiries to correct tricks of memory and striven against temptations to exaggerate in order to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.
On January 2, 1886, the day on which the first installment of The Mayor of Casterbridge was published, Hardy wrote in his diary, "I fear it will not be so good as I meant." Although Hardy's fiction up to this point had received mixed reviews, critics generally disagreed with the author about the quality of this book and gave it high marks. Hardy's autobiography says of the novel, "others thought better of it than he did himself" and mentions that the author Robert Louis Stevenson liked the book and even asked Hardy for permission to adapt it as a play (which Stevenson never did). H. M. Alden's review in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1886 began, "In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Mr. Hardy seems to have started with the intention of merely adventurous fiction and to have found himself in possession of something so much more important." Alden continued, "Mr. Hardy has never achieved anything more skillful or valuable … we are not sure that he has not placed himself abreast of Tolstoy and the greatest of the continental realists."
Through the decades, the consensus has remained that The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the greatest novels of a great writer. Hardy's characterization—especially of Michael Henchard—has most often been singled out for praise. Martin Seymour-Smith wrote in the introduction to a 1978 edition of The Mayor of Casterbridge that Hardy "penetrates very deeply into character. He can show us how a man's 'being attracts his life.'" This unwavering focus on the character of one powerful man as he "attracts his life" is what set The Mayor of Casterbridge apart from other novels of its time. In his widely read 1949 book, Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories, Hardy scholar Albert J. Guerard wrote:
Henchard … stands at the very summit of his creator's achievement; his only tragic hero and one of the greatest tragic heroes in all fiction. He takes his place at once with certain towering and possessed figures of Melville, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky.
But critics and scholars point out, too, that Hardy wrote novels for a popular audience (because he wrote to earn a living), and he was even more consistently successful with the public than he was with critics. When The Mayor of Casterbridge was published, it was as much talked about by readers as it was by critics. Such popularity could only be gained by telling a good story and by exhibiting an understanding of and compassion for human beings. Guerard concluded of Hardy:
His final and unmistakable appeal therefore rests … on the popular storytelling of a singularly uninhibited imagination … and, above all, on an incorrigible sympathy for all who are lonely and all who long for happiness.
Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature. She holds degrees in linguistics and journalism. In this essay, Norvell discusses two techniques that Hardy uses in his novel to make his main character both realistic and symbolic.
Critics through the decades have agreed that Michael Henchard is one of the towering figures of literature. Henchard is powerful because he is both an individual and an icon. He seems to readers to be a real person—a person who evokes sympathy and compassion because he has the same kinds of weaknesses that readers themselves have and experiences the same kinds of loneliness, guilt, fear, and defeat. At the same time, Henchard seems larger than life—like a symbol, rather than a mere example, of humanity.
Hardy uses many techniques to give Henchard these dual aspects. This essay explores two of these techniques: Hardy's grounding Henchard in a reallife setting to make him human, and Hardy's associating Henchard with other larger-than-life characters to make him iconic.
Hardy's perennial Wessex setting and his exact historical details help to make Henchard seem like a real person who lived and suffered just as Hardy's story has it. After all, if the place is real and the way of life is real and all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes described are really part of history, then any character who is set down in the midst of it all will seem not like a character at all but just as much a part of history as the scene itself. Hardy's specific details and historical accuracy earn him so much credibility that it is easy for readers to believe that his narrator is relating a story from memory, not from imagination, that is, that Michael Henchard's life is history, not story.
When Michael and Susan enter a shop to have dinner, Hardy tells readers that they eat furmity and then describes the archaic dish, even listing the ingredients. The author takes pains to be specific and authentic. He could have written that Michael and Susan ate potato soup and saved himself the trouble of explaining an unfamiliar meal. But Hardy is telling about a real time and place, and he feels bound to tell what people actually ate there. By doing so he makes the reader's suspension of disbelief automatic and complete. The story that contains such minute and peculiar detail must certainly be a true story, and the people in it must, therefore, be real people.
Making Henchard real and human is important because Hardy wants readers to identify with him and care about him—to be affected by his suffering and his story. But it is also important to make Henchard symbolic so that readers understand that this story is not just the story of one man's life; it is also about how life works for all human beings. Hardy must draw Henchard in such a way that his story is understood to be a timeless tale that has played out—the same in essence and different only in the details—countless times in countless settings and with countless players. This Hardy does through references to other such players. These references serve to associate Henchard with his fellow tragic figures, from the biblical Saul to the Greek Achilles to Napoleon and by that association to make him timeless and enduring, as they are.
Hardy writes, when Farfrae leaves Henchard's employ and opens his own business, "Henchard was stung into bitterness: like Bellerophon, he wandered away from the crowd. Bellerophon is a character in the Greek epic The Iliad who is deserted by the gods and who in turn deserts human society and wanders alone.
When Henchard learns that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter, Hardy writes, "Like Prester John's, his table had been spread, and infernal harpies had snatched up the food." Prester John is a character in Orlando Furioso, a well-known Renaissance poem by Ludovico Ariosto. Prester John is a wealthy king who nevertheless starves because harpies (monsters with women's heads and birds' bodies who snatch things away from their rightful owners) snatch the food from his table.
What Do I Read Next?
- Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd was published serially in 1874 and is ranked as a Victorian classic. It is the story of a woman farmer and her three suitors. Author Virginia Woolf commented that this book "must hold its place among the great English novels." It has the distinction of being Hardy's only novel to offer readers a happy ending.
- Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles was published in 1891 and has always been one of his most popular novels. It tells the tragic story of Tess, a young farm worker on the estate of the wealthy D'Urbervilles. Working to support her drunken father and the rest of her family, she is raped and impregnated by a son of her employer. When her baby dies, she moves away and is courted by a hardworking young man. But tragedy continues to follow her.
- Selected Poetry: Thomas Hardy (1996), edited by Samuel Hynes as part of the World's Classics series from Oxford University Press, is a good introduction to Hardy's poetry. The collection spans Hardy's writing career and includes poems that influenced later poets, including Ezra Pound and W. H. Auden.
- Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, was published in 1847 and is also considered one of the classics of Victorian literature. The novel is a story of romance and revenge. Like Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the main character of this novel undergoes more than one reversal of fortune.
- Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens, was first published serially in 1857. Another Victorian classic, Dickens's book tells the story of Amy Dorrit, born in the debtors' prison where her father lives. Major themes are social class, financial reversals, and romance.
- Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, was published serially in 1847–1848 in London. Like The Mayor of Casterbridge, Vanity Fair focuses on the personal characters of its major players and on how their integrity (or, in most cases, the lack of it) affects their lives and fates. Its central figure, Becky Sharp, is one of the most infamous characters in all of literature.
- The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy (1999), edited by Dale Kramer, is a collection of essays that provides a comprehensive overview of Hardy's life and work, including how the philosophy, science, and religion of his time influenced his work.
When Henchard's decline is well underway, Hardy compares him to Napoleon, writing, "That dinner at the King's Arms with his friends had been Henchard's Austerlitz: he had had his successes since, but his courses had not been upward." Napoleon won the Battle of Austerlitz, and it was both the pinnacle of his career and the beginning of his destruction. Similarly, the dinner at the King's Arms was the high point of Henchard's suc-cess but also, unbeknownst to him at the time, the beginning of his downfall. On that day Susan Henchard arrived in Casterbridge, and it was her arrival that set in motion his ruin.
A final example: When Farfrae understandably distrusts Henchard's motives and refuses to return to Casterbridge with him, Hardy writes of Hen-chard, "He cursed himself like a less scrupulous Job." There is probably no more well-known sufferer than the biblical Job. Here, Henchard is compared—and, with the qualifier "less scrupulous," compared unfavorably—with perhaps the greatest icon of suffering ever written and read about.
Hardy has planted Henchard's feet firmly in the dust of Wessex and thus made him real, individual, and touchingly human. But he has also drawn Henchard's shadow so that it extends beyond Wessex and the nineteenth century to distant places and times. He has made Henchard both small enough to be pitiable and large enough to be unforgettable. In that feat, Hardy created what Albert J. Guerard, in Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories, called "one of the greatest tragic heroes in all fiction."
Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on The Mayor of Casterbridge, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Alden, H. M., Review of The Mayor of Casterbridge, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1886, pp. 961-62.
Guerard, Albert J., Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories, Harvard University Press, 1949.
Seymour-Smith, Martin, Introduction, in The Mayor of Cast-erbridge, Penguin Books, 1978, p. 21.
Armstrong, Tim, Haunted Hardy: Poetry, History, Memory, St. Martin's Press, 2000.
This volume focuses on Hardy's poetry and its frequent references to death and ghosts—particularly ghosts of lost children.
Bettey, J. H., Rural Life in Wessex, 1500–1900, Sutton Publishing, 1989.
This nonfiction look at rural Wessex before and during Hardy's time offers an in-depth view of the part of England in which Hardy set much of his work.
Mallett, Phillip, ed., The Achievement of Thomas Hardy, Palgrave, 2000.
These essays explore Hardy's fiction and poetry, covering elements such as the nature of storytelling and the relationship between poems and songs.
Mitchell, Sally, Daily Life in Victorian England, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996.
This comprehensive look at both city and country life in Victorian England covers social classes, morals, economics and finance, laws, and more. It includes excerpts from primary source documents and illustrations.
Turner, Paul D. L., The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography, edited by Claude Rawson, Blackwell Publications, 1998.
Each of this book's thirty-two chapters explores the biographical and literary context of one of Hardy's works. One interesting aspect of Hardy's life covered here is his self-education in Greek and Latin and the later influences of Greek tragedy, Latin poetry, and Shakespeare on his work.