The decline of Michael Henchard, which comprises the primary action in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, is enacted against the backdrop of the agricultural and manufacturing upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. Henchard is committed to preindustrial methods and attempts to hold back the town’s modernization. He insists upon using old agricultural methods, for example, and his trust of a “weather prophet” to predict harvest conditions results in a ruined grain crop that threatens the town’s survival. Living in an area of southwest England that is littered with decaying artifacts of Roman power, Henchard ironically finds himself struggling to assert himself in a town destined for change beyond its own choosing. Henchard meets defeat in every encounter with newer ideas and procedures; his failure to understand and his lack of moderation in his desires incite him to brutal aggression followed by pain and regret, as he becomes more and more isolated from humanity.
The extreme guilt Henchard endures for years after selling his wife and infant daughter seems indicative of the intense emotions with which he responds to circumstances. As his status grows in Casterbridge, so does the importance to him of his own good name and character. Remarrying Susan soon after she and Elizabeth-Jane appear in town is not only a means of making amends but also an ill-advised attempt to protect his reputation. Henchard loses the esteem and respect of the town’s citizens because of his crop blunder, initiating and shaping his tragic relationship with Farfrae: The young man’s ability to repair damaged wheat benefits the town, but it causes him to usurp rather than repair the popularity that Henchard desperately wants to preserve. The fortunes of Farfrae, the novel’s representative of new methods in agriculture, rise, while those of Henchard tumble.
Like many of Hardy’s novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge prominently features elements of coincidence and chance, as each chapter introduces unlikely events and the timely appearances of major and minor characters. In fact, many scenes in each chapter are exquisitely crafted, incorporating coincidence into the narrative action and characterization with such skill that each scene seems a miniature of the entire novel. Hardy believed that chance was a force governing things over which people have no control. However, this force operates without conscious design, and, although it represents the will of the universe, it seems to produce...
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