The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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Critical Overview

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On January 2, 1886, the day on which the first installment of The Mayor of Casterbridge was published, Hardy wrote in his diary, “I fear it will not be so good as I meant.” Although Hardy’s fiction up to this point had received mixed reviews, critics generally disagreed with the author about the quality of this book and gave it high marks. Hardy’s autobiography says of the novel, “others thought better of it than he did himself” and mentions that the author Robert Louis Stevenson liked the book and even asked Hardy for permission to adapt it as a play (which Stevenson never did). H. M. Alden’s review in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1886 began, “In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Mr. Hardy seems to have started with the intention of merely adventurous fiction and to have found himself in possession of something so much more important.” Alden continued, “Mr. Hardy has never achieved anything more skillful or valuable . . . we are not sure that he has not placed himself abreast of Tolstoy and the greatest of the continental realists.”

Through the decades, the consensus has remained that The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the greatest novels of a great writer. Hardy’s characterization— especially of Michael Henchard— has most often been singled out for praise. Martin Seymour-Smith wrote in the introduction to a 1978 edition of The Mayor of Casterbridge that Hardy “penetrates very deeply into character. He can show us how a man’s ‘being attracts his life.’” This unwavering focus on the character of one powerful man as he “attracts his life” is what set The Mayor of Casterbridge apart from other novels of its time. In his widely read 1949 book, Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories, Hardy scholar Albert J. Guerard wrote:

Henchard . . . stands at the very summit of his creator’s achievement; his only tragic hero and one of the greatest tragic heroes in all fiction. He takes his place at once with certain towering and possessed figures of Melville, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky.

But critics and scholars point out, too, that Hardy wrote novels for a popular audience (because he wrote to earn a living), and he was even more consistently successful with the public than he was with critics. When The Mayor of Casterbridge was published, it was as much talked about by readers as it was by critics. Such popularity could only be gained by telling a good story and by exhibiting an understanding of and compassion for human beings. Guerard concluded of Hardy:

His final and unmistakable appeal therefore rests . . . on the popular storytelling of a singularly uninhibited imagination . . . and, above all, on an incorrigible sympathy for all who are lonely and all who long for happiness.

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