Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Casterbridge. Bustling market town in Hardy’s fictional Wessex countryside in southern England. Its origins date back to Roman times, and several of its features remain from that era: a Roman amphitheater, a graveyard, and the straight roads connecting Casterbridge with adjacent towns. Hardy describes Casterbridge from two opposite perspectives. On one hand, from Yalbury Hill a mile away, it appears a well-defined urban community, set square in rolling, open countryside, sharply divided from the country by a wall, tree-lined avenues, and a river. On the other hand, from a worm’s-eye view, it seems to be a sprawling, confusing set of streets in which boundaries are constantly eroded. Market stalls cover sidewalks; carts jostle for right-of-way; smart private residences abut commercial premises. Secret back alleys lead to houses and pubs.
This double perspective of the town symbolizes the ambiguity of protagonist Michael Henchard’s own rise and fall. From one perspective his downfall seems to be brought about by a cruel but clear-cut fate; from another, by the muddle of his own character and choices. The tensions created by these opposite perspectives create the power of the novel.
Recurring geographical features of the town include High Street; St. Peter’s Church; the market house; the town hall, in which magistrates preside over the police court; two inns, the Mariner’s Arms and the King’s Arms...
(The entire section is 804 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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.
Image Pop-UpFictional Map of Wessex
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...
(The entire section is 552 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)
Although he was trained as an architect, Hardy's special strength as a novelist does not lie with technical innovation. Unlike his American counterpart of a succeeding generation, John Dos Passos, who was also trained in art and architecture and turned much of his creative energies to redesigning the very form of the novel, Hardy is essentially a conservative Victorian novelist, in many ways even more the traditionalist than his predecessors Dickens and Thackeray. His novels, like theirs, were written for serialization. That is, chapters or groups of chapters were published in magazines or even newspapers. To insure that readers' interest would carry over to the next issue, many Victorian novelists followed their eighteenth-century predecessors by creating a sense of suspense or climax at the end of the episode, much as a modern television program creates a climax of attention just before a commercial. This has the result, which Hardy did not quite successfully revise out in novel publication, of anticlimactic moments in the novel.
While preparing to write The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy, according to biographer Martin Seymour-Smith (Hardy, 1994), immersed himself in the files of the Dorsetshire County Chronicle to attain verisimilitude for what he clearly intended as an historical novel about what we can call a vanishing rural culture, one that was for all intents and purposes extinct by the time Hardy began his novel. He sets the...
(The entire section is 820 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
The Mayor of Casterbridge is bound to raise stimulating discussions of fate and free will, and such conversations might lead inevitably to the degree to which Henchard's fate is what he deserves; or is he in the words of Shakespeare's King Lear (see "Literary Precedents" above), "A man more sinned against than sinning"? As a global question, then, it might be advisable to consider to what degree is Fate or destiny a malevolent presence in this novel? Those who want to do so might be advised to study some of Hardy's poems on the subject, such as "Hap," "The Subalterns," "The Dynasts," "Channel Firing," or "The Convergence of the Twain." Is his vision of fate in this novel consistent with that of the poems?
1. To what degree is the community act of the Skimington-ride, to mock Lucetta, Farfrae, and Henchard a legitimate response by an affronted moral community? To what degree is it a collective wickedness that stems from malice or depravity?
2. Is there any basis for the occasional claim that the novel deteriorates as it comes to rely more and more heavily on unexplained coincidences toward the end?
3. To what degree does Henchard's belief that he completed his penance by twenty-one years' abstinence from liquor contribute to his downfall?
4. How sincere do you think Farfrae is in his acts of charity toward Henchard?
5. Do the repeated references to ancient Britain and Roman rule finally interfere with...
(The entire section is 285 words.)
The Major of Casterbridge opens with a brilliant and ominous scene that sets forth many key social concerns of this novel of colliding cultures. At Wedon Fair, a rural, communal custom tracing back at least to feudal times in southwestern England, a stranger and his family come to mingle with other bucolic people. The fair is itself a vestige of a past culture, one the novel will show as on the verge of extinction. At the fair strangers are welcomed, and the tent, with its "furmity," a local brew that can be, and in this case is, enhanced by rum at the consumer's request, can become a scene of conversation and exchange among farmers and workers in the agricultural trades. The opening scene thus engages several key cultural issues, most importantly the deterioration of folk customs into travesties of their original function in creating community, and the debilitating effects of a patriarchal system that demands that women be subservient.
Few readers will ever forget this powerful scene. A frustrated hay-trusser (an agricultural vocation that had been all but rendered obsolete by the time Hardy wrote the novel, but in its time a task demanding strength, energy, and great skill—Hardy describes his youthful protagonist as a "skilled countryman") imposes upon the artificial community created by the fair to complain about his frustration with his station in life. This is in itself a familiar theme to readers of Hardy's earlier novels Far From the...
(The entire section is 2449 words.)
Compare and 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...
(The entire section is 297 words.)
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,...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
The Mayor of Casterbridge has many affinities with the serialized novels that were so very popular in Victorian England. An equally important debt, to the classic and Shakespearian tragedies of which Hardy was so very fond, may help to account for the continued appeal of this novel.
The essence of tragic fiction involves the relative isolation of the hero, who deals uncompromisingly with forces that threaten and ultimately intimidate ordinary people. To give Henchard this tragic posture, Hardy closely follows the advice Aristotle offered in the Poetics, to deal with a person who is both greater and lesser than we—greater in his capacity to suffer, but one whose fate is the result of his own tragic error or flaw. Henchard's flaw is his excessive and impulsive nature, and his titanic rages and broodings have about them something both magnificent and despicable. It is the means by which he injures himself and others; but it is as well the path that leads him to self-knowledge, however terrible that knowledge must be.
To reinforce his tragic dimension Hardy constantly reminds us of the presence of history, a collective past dating back to the days of Roman conquest, thus superimposing on the bucolic landscape of Wessex the simultaneous scope and grandeur appropriate to tragedy. Moreover, the text of The Mayor of Casterbridge could almost be said to be Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, King Lear (1605). Like...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
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.
(The entire section is 122 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 383 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
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 Casterbridge, 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.
(The entire section is 254 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Berger, Sheila. Thomas Hardy and Visual Structures: Framing, Disruption, Process. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Berger takes a look at the narrative style in Hardy’s novels, focusing on acts of storytelling, subjective points of view, and the construction of the “omniscient” narrator.
Enstice, Andrew. Thomas Hardy: Landscapes of the Mind. London: Macmillan, 1979. A good historical analysis of the novel, in which Enstice uses a thorough discussion of nineteenth century Dorset and its economic circumstances to interpret Hardy’s rendition of Casterbridge’s history and society in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Milligate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist. London: Bodley Head, 1971. A thorough study of Hardy’s life and his concerns, attitudes, values, and problems as they affected his writing and its reception; a critically acclaimed work that offers a fair perspective on Hardy’s personal and artistic development.
Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. New York: Routledge, 1989. An interesting analysis of traditional readings of Hardy’s novels that argues that Hardy has been produced as a “rural” novelist in the literary imagination; in reality, his writing deals with his urban vision of Wessex. This work lends a new perspective...
(The entire section is 253 words.)