Thomas Hardy explores the qualities of personal character and reputation in light of the Victorian era's changing class relations in England. The Industrial Revolution played a significant role in shaking up the traditional class structure. Rather than being born into high status and being wealthy as a member of the...
Thomas Hardy explores the qualities of personal character and reputation in light of the Victorian era's changing class relations in England. The Industrial Revolution played a significant role in shaking up the traditional class structure. Rather than being born into high status and being wealthy as a member of the landed gentry, English people now had a greater opportunity to make a fortune and advance in society. The break from land and property as the bases of wealth also increased mobility. In addition, Britain's great naval prowess facilitated its overseas expansion, and fortunes could be made in trade.
The idea of personal integrity and merit, combined with that of self-reinvention, is clearly one of the underlying concepts that Hardy presents. While some of the positive qualities needed for success can be learned, others are innate; this combination also reflects the influence of evolutionism through the concept of Social Darwinism. The relative virtue in character and the related public esteem can be seen in two contrasting characters, Michael Henchard and Donald Farfae.
As the subtitle indicates, Hardy appraises the rise and fall of Henchard as "a man of character." Henchard settles in Casterbridge in hopes of having a comfortable if modest life—an escape from his alcoholic past, which resulted in his selling his wife and child. His dedication to hard work, combined with innate intelligence, propel him to much greater success.
The appearance of ethical dealings, or a reputation for fairness, are the underpinnings of his ongoing achievement. This reputation is a basis for his election to the council which is a stepping stone to becoming Mayor. Henchard's Church participation further cements his good name. The problem, however, is that all of this is built on a lie. Henchard did an unforgivable thing and, once his treachery to his family—the bedrock of all social interactions—is found out, he loses everything.
Donald Farfae, in contrast, arrives with ambition but no dark secret. He is who he says he is. As he does not cross the line into illegal behavior, Farfae embodies the spirit of honest competition as he displaces Henchard. Even his decision to strike out with his own business relates to his attitude toward a disabled person. The ethical question of turning away from true love toward apparently marrying for money is the gray area, although after Lucetta's death he returns to Elizabeth-Jane, whom he can now support.