The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

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In a drunken fit, Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, a superficially changed Henchard has risen to be Mayor of Casterbridge. His wife arrives in town, bringing along a girl, Elizabeth-Jane, whom Henchard assumes to be his daughter. They remarry, though they keep their past a secret. A farming crisis causes Henchard to hire Donald Farfrae to manage the town’s grain trade. The two men become rivals, and a series of chance mishaps and impetuous decisions cause Henchard’s fortunes to wane while Farfrae’s rise. When Henchard’s wife dies, he tells his daughter he is her father. An old lover of Henchard’s returns to town, but Farfrae wins her.

Henchard finally is forced to work for Farfrae, who becomes Mayor. The sailor who bought Henchard’s family returns looking for his wife and daughter; Henchard must tell the girl that she is not his offspring. In disgrace, he leaves town. When Farfrae’s wife dies, he marries Henchard’s step-daughter. Henchard dies a bitter exile from his community.

Henchard is a man apparently beaten by circumstance (failed corn crops, letters found too late, coincidental appearances of figures from his past). His strong passion, however, causes him to be blind to his own weaknesses.

Hardy’s main concern is to explore the nature of tragedy and the tragic hero. Elements of Classical, Renaissance, and Romantic drama are all woven into the work. The novel relies heavily on the notion of the Wheel of Fortune: as one man’s fortune rises, so another’s falls. Here, however, no omniscient deity controls the hero’s destiny. Henchard seems to be a victim either of his own passion or of blind chance, indicating Hardy’s concerns with the problem of godlessness prevalent in Victorian society. That issue had been accentuated by developments in science during the years immediately before, and during, Hardy’s lifetime.

Bibliography:

Berger, Sheila. Thomas Hardy and Visual Structures: Framing, Disruption, Process. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Berger takes a look at the narrative style in Hardy’s novels, focusing on acts of storytelling, subjective points of view, and the construction of the “omniscient” narrator.

Enstice, Andrew. Thomas Hardy: Landscapes of the Mind. London: Macmillan, 1979. A good historical analysis of the novel, in which Enstice uses a thorough discussion of nineteenth century Dorset and its economic circumstances to interpret Hardy’s rendition of Casterbridge’s history and society in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Milligate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist. London: Bodley Head, 1971. A thorough study of Hardy’s life and his concerns, attitudes, values, and problems as they affected his writing and its reception; a critically acclaimed work that offers a fair perspective on Hardy’s personal and artistic development.

Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. New York: Routledge, 1989. An interesting analysis of traditional readings of Hardy’s novels that argues that Hardy has been produced as a “rural” novelist in the literary imagination; in reality, his writing deals with his urban vision of Wessex. This work lends a new perspective to the relationship of Casterbridge to the countryside and London, a relationship central to Michael Henchard’s fate.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A seminal book on the class relations and rural-urban dislocations that underlie Hardy’s representation of Wessex and the lives and fortunes of his “rural” characters.

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