The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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Characters Discussed

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Michael Henchard

Michael Henchard, the mayor of Casterbridge and a prosperous corn merchant. In his youth, while drunk, he had sold his wife and child to a seaman. Years later, this information becomes known in Casterbridge; as a result, Henchard is ruined. Too stern and unyielding to resume his friendship with Donald Farfrae, his former manager, the headstrong ex-mayor faces declining fortune. Finally, he is forced to declare bankruptcy and is publicly humiliated during the visit of royalty. At last, broken in spirit, he takes refuge in a shack and dies practically friendless.

Susan Henchard-Newson

Susan Henchard-Newson, Henchard’s wife. A plain, simple woman, she finally tires of her husband’s repeated threats to sell her to the highest bidder. When he offers her for sale, she throws her wedding ring at him and leaves with the sailor Newson, her baby in her arms. Years later, thinking Newson drowned, she returns and remarries Henchard.

Elizabeth-Jane Newson

Elizabeth-Jane Newson, Henchard’s attractive stepdaughter. A proper young woman, she is attracted to the personable young Farfrae. After the death of Lucetta, she marries the young corn merchant.

Donald Farfrae

Donald Farfrae, a corn merchant in Casterbridge and Henchard’s thriving business competitor. At first Henchard’s good friend and manager, he gradually drifts apart from the mayor when the latter becomes jealous of the young man’s capability and popularity. The estrangement, however, helps to bring Farfrae increasing prosperity. He captures much of the grain market and, against his will, gradually takes away much of his former employer’s business. When Farfrae marries Lucetta, the break between the two men is complete.

Lucetta Templeman

Lucetta Templeman, a woman Henchard had known as Lucetta Le Sueur, later Farfrae’s wife. An attractive but aging coquette, she intended to marry Henchard until she encountered the handsome Farfrae. After meeting him, she decides that she does not care to see Henchard again, even though the latter was once her lover. Her marriage to Farfrae goes smoothly until Jopp reads some love letters, which Lucetta had sent to Henchard, aloud to the denizens of Mixen Lane. Learning she is exposed as a loose woman, she has a miscarriage and dies.

Richard Newson

Richard Newson, a bluff, hearty sailor. In his youth, he had bought Henchard’s wife and child. The ex-mayor’s destruction is complete when the sailor comes to Casterbridge to claim his daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.


Jopp, a surly former employee of Henchard. Snubbed by Lucetta, he gets his revenge when he has the chance to read her love letters aloud in the Three Mariners Inn and takes part in a parade that exposes her to the people.

Abel Whittle

Abel Whittle, Henchard’s simple-minded employee. Although abused by his former employer, Abel, remembering how good the sick man had been to Abel’s mother, takes care of him in his final illness.


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It is inevitable, in discussing the tragic themes of this novel, to explore Hardy's characterization of Henchard as a man both greater and lesser than we—the quintessential tragic formulation. In this section we shall reiterate the argument that the protagonist of this modern tragedy is a man of excess passions, of loving too intensely, hating too vehemently, and often the same person. Just as he drinks too much and loves too proudly, Henchard also is capable of powerful, indeed excessive, self-loathing. Most importantly, however, he does not yield long to the temptation to blame others, or even fate, for what he has done. It is his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions that makes Henchard a tragic hero.

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Hardy novels revolve around a single character. Many, like this one, are even named after the single personality who dominates the text. But Henchard cannot be understood or appreciated without the context Hardy supplies through the character Donald Farfrae, in every way Henchard's opposite but in some ways his spiritual son. It is Henchard's intense love for Farfrae that explains its opposite, his passionate hatred for the young man. Although a man of the future and a businessman, Farfrae is by no means an evil or malicious person. His gift of song, his charming voice, not only engage him to the Casterbridge community but endear him to readers as well. Ever ready to sing and dance, Donald is a reminder that, however problematic it may be, there is an alternative to the bitter earnestness and solemnity of the novel's other characters. Moreover, as we regret the calculated business methods that propel Farfrae past his ex-mentor, we recognize a complex blend of the charitable and the ruthless in Donald's character. His marrying Lucetta and later Elizabeth-Jane, women in differing ways dear to Henchard, can hardly be said to be malicious. There is no indication that he acts to thwart Henchard's interest, but each action inadvertently increases Henchard's suffering. The same can be said of Donald's buying the ex-mayor's house and furniture after the latter's economic collapse. He even offers that Michael may recover his prized possessions, but to a man of Henchard's intense pride, such possession is itself surely a cause of pain. If Farfrae does not see the pain this causes Henchard he must therefore be insensitive. If he does see and proceeds, he is crass and uncaring.

An ideal illustration of this point occurs after the old mayor's ruin. Donald proposes to set Henchard up in a small grain shop. Hardy's narrator labels this a "kindly scheme" that clearly indicates charity and concern, even if Farfrae asks the town council to underwrite a venture he could easily himself subscribe if he chose to do so. When the Council balks at the idea because Henchard, now in his cups, has been railing on Farfrae in public, he protests that he cannot abandon the man who "enabled me to make a footing for myself but he reluctantly gives up the idea. It appears that Farfrae's charity ends where public opinion begins. The plot of the novel is enriched by this important event. When it is reported to Henchard, the rumor has it that Farfrae blocked, rather than initiated, the plan to help the old mayor back onto his feet. This misinformation of course fans Henchard's resentment of his former pupil.

The women of The Mayor of Casterbridge are somewhat annoying in their passivity. Unlike the strong female protagonists of The Return of the Native (1878) and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891; see separate entry), Susan, Lucetta, and even Elizabeth-Jane seem profoundly subservient to the male figures. Susan accepts her husband's selling her to Newson, then seeks him out and eventually offers her forgiveness years later. It is possible to construe her letter concerning Elizabeth-Jane's paternity as a modest revenge from beyond the grave, but this is not consistent with the tone of her letter or the character Hardy has drawn. Lucetta, upon her improved fortunes, moves to be near her ex-lover, and forms a bond with his daughter based on their mutual interest in both Henchard and Farfrae. The two women do not, however, form a particularly close friendship based on their being exploited by Henchard. Lucetta's death demonstrates one unfortunate cliche in the late nineteenth century characterization of women by male authors. Shocked and hurt by the public scandal of the Skimington-ride, Lucetta takes to her bed, suffers a miscarriage, and dies of mortification. In this scene Hardy portrays many cliches about Victorian women, mainly that they were a "weaker sex" who gave in to public pressures and who might find even death less reprehensible than infamy. Mainly, however, Hardy's plot demands that Lucetta be out of the way so that Farfrae is free to court Elizabeth-Jane, to launch the final assault on Henchard's pride.

Elizabeth-Jane initially strikes the reader as much too like her mother. She passively accepts Henchard's seething rage after he learns she is not his daughter, and obediently goes to live with Lucetta to avoid further angering the ex-mayor. Although she becomes scholarly and even wise, she selflessly nurses Henchard as his fortunes fall, and is only moved to state her legitimate grievance when she learns that Henchard's lie turned her true father away. After that she announces that she cannot forgive Henchard; when he swallows his pride to bring a present for her wedding to Farfrae she rejects him in eminently Victorian fashion, "how can I [love Henchard] when I know you have deceived me—so bitterly deceived me!" Although her curse sends the former leading citizen to utter despair, Elizabeth-Jane finally relents, and is the one who finds the dead repentant Henchard and learns her place in the sad scheme of things with which Hardy ends the novel: "happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."

The women of the Mayor of Casterbridge seem much less assertive than in many of Hardy's novels. Despite the overall nostalgia for a lost rural landscape that permeates the novel, the minor characters, especially those who inhabit Mien Lane, the ghetto of Casterbridge, Hardy portrays with very little sympathy. One of the gossips at the town pump is reported to have stolen the pennies from the dead Susan Henchard's eyes, and one Simon Longwell defends the act. The four pennies were spent in a bar. Jopp, who bears a grievance to both Michael and Lucetta, retaliates by reading aloud in a pub from letters Henchard unwisely trusted Jopp to return to Lucetta on his behalf. Partly titillated, partly scandalized by the information of these letters, the group, led by the very man who stole the pennies from Mrs. Henchard's eyes, proposes the Skimington-ride that results in Lucetta's death. Although there is minor objection to the cruel spectacle, enough enthusiasm is generated to create this public humiliation, which requires enough preparation to rule out a spontaneous act by the community. Indeed, except for the late-sleeping Abel Whittle, the entire rural yeoman/peasant class as portrayed by Hardy is a nasty, brutish lot. As his omniscient narrator puts it, the viciousness of Mien Lane, where the ragged people congregate, is another result of a deteriorating culture: "farm labourers and other peasants, who combined a little poaching with a little farming, and a little brawling and bibbing with their farming and poaching, found themselves sooner or later in Mien Lane." Whether this phenomenon reflects on the decay of the feudal peasantry on the inevitable depravity of modern urban culture is not certain. But whichever cause is ascendant, Mien Lane is urban blight, and its inhabitants are anything but romantically viewed English peasants.


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Donald Farfrae
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 meanspirited. 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.

Elizabeth-Jane Henchard
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
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
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
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. Themes




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