Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030
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 consequences more malign than benign. Although Hardy received much criticism for his pessimism, he referred to himself as a “meliorist,” or one who sees the world improving with human aid. The reappearance of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane forms the coil necessary to Henchard’s decline, as Susan’s death and the knowledge that Elizabeth-Jane is Newson’s daughter and not his own prompts his estrangement from Elizabeth-Jane and a feeling of being deceived by Susan.
Henchard, who ends his relationship with Lucetta when Susan arrives in town, attempts, after Susan’s death, to resume it. Lucetta, put off by Henchard’s manner, refuses and marries Farfrae instead. Henchard’s sense of betrayal by women increases dramatically when the “furmity woman,” arrested and brought before Henchard as judge, relates the story of Henchard’s sale of his wife and daughter nearly two decades earlier. Strangely, Henchard admits the deed and ruins his reputation. The event brings to light Henchard’s continuing feelings of shame at the deed, which coincide with Henchard’s socioeconomic failure to hasten his end.
Numerous critics have found elements of Greek tragedy in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Reflecting Hardy’s own tragic view of life and partially refuting Victorian optimism and sentimentality, the novel seems to represent a reinvention of ancient tragedy for the nineteenth century. As Greek tragedy emphasized the connection between character and fate, so Hardy’s novel focuses upon character and fate; Henchard experiences conflicts with the town and with himself. Henchard’s passionate, turbulent character directly affects his rise and fall within Casterbridge, as well as his inability to find any respite from shame and guilt. Much as in Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), Henchard’s initial error occurs prior to the time depicted in the novel proper. Oedipus unwittingly slays his own father, Laius, twenty years before the main events of Sophocles’ play, in which he suffers the consequences of his action. Henchard’s betrayal of his family similarly recedes to the background of his life, only to reappear eighteen years later, driving the events depicted in the novel. Hardy’s rustics, or inhabitants of Casterbridge, function similarly to a Greek chorus, voicing traditional wisdom and reflecting the social changes occurring in the town.
Hardy’s subtitle for this book, The Life and Death of a Man of Character, suggests his admiration for Henchard, who is the center of interest in the book. Despite his misdeeds early in the story, Henchard exhibits virtues that, in comparison with the traits of the novel’s other characters, are exceptional. Henchard’s rise to prominence in Casterbridge accentuates his authority in accordance with the strength and vitality he gains by becoming the town’s leading businessman. Henchard’s reliance on preindustrial agriculture, however, endangers the town’s welfare and paves the way for its acceptance of Farfrae’s new agricultural procedures and its eventual preference of Farfrae over Henchard to be mayor.
Next to the passionate Henchard, Farfrae seems mechanical and knowledgeable—a paler specimen of humanity. In the tests of strength between Henchard and Farfrae, Henchard proves the stronger when he beats Farfrae in a physical confrontation. By contrast, Farfrae’s agricultural skills consistently prove superior to Henchard’s, as do his interpersonal skills with townspeople and with women.
Henchard’s actions—resulting from his own difficult temperament—have created the world he inhabits. In suffering from ill-advised actions and then defiantly standing up to forces arrayed against him, Henchard appears larger than life. He finally retreats, however, from his attempts to impose his will upon a world he has created but in which he no longer has a place. This retreat signals that he accepts his doom. Hardy’s novel demonstrates that life can destroy essentially good individuals as well as bad.