The Mayor of Casterbridge Questions and Answers
by Thomas Hardy

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What is Hardy's philosophy of pessimism, and how does it has affect the events of The Mayor of Casterbridge?

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Pessimism runs throughout Hardy's fiction like lead through a pencil. Cut away at any of his novels, and there it is, staring right at you in all its brittle grayness. As someone lacking in the consolation provided—for some believers, at any rate—by Christianity, Hardy had an especially bleak worldview, with which he invested each of his novels (and a not-inconsiderable number of his poems, too).

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy's cosmic pessimism is also much in evidence. That is to say that, for Hardy, pessimism isn't just related to how an individual sees the world—it's the very nature of that world, a world in which there is no God and people are vulnerable to the wiles of fate.

To understand this point, one could do a lot worse than to observe the protagonist of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard. Here we have a hard-working and fundamentally decent man who strives mightily to be an even better one. And yet, try as he might to take control of his own destiny, he finds himself thwarted and frustrated at every turn by the irresistible power of fate.

Despite trying to escape from a disreputable, drunken past, Henchard is destined to come to grief. The suggestion here is that no matter how hard one tries to act morally, it is all, in the final analysis, a complete waste of time. Fate has us in its vice-like grip and will never, ever let go.

And yet, to make matters worse, Henchard, like everyone else, must still take responsibility for his actions, even in a world where everything is subject to blind chance and the arbitrary whims of fate. It was Henchard who made the fateful decision to sell his wife in a fit of drunken self-pity; and he it was who overspeculated in order to ruin Farfrae. At every turn, Henchard had a choice, and he chose to do the wrong thing. It is too late now for him to make amends, no matter how sincere he may be about changing his life.

For what goes around, comes around, and the very great evils that Henchard has committed in the past have now come back to haunt him with a vengeance. That bad things also happen to good people doesn't provide much in the way of consolation. This is fate, and all one can do in such circumstances is join with Hardy and see the world in a throughly pessimistic light.

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