Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Casterbridge

Casterbridge. Bustling market town in Hardy’s fictional Wessex countryside in southern England. Its origins date back to Roman times, and several of its features remain from that era: a Roman amphitheater, a graveyard, and the straight roads connecting Casterbridge with adjacent towns. Hardy describes Casterbridge from two opposite perspectives. On one hand, from Yalbury Hill a mile away, it appears a well-defined urban community, set square in rolling, open countryside, sharply divided from the country by a wall, tree-lined avenues, and a river. On the other hand, from a worm’s-eye view, it seems to be a sprawling, confusing set of streets in which boundaries are constantly eroded. Market stalls cover sidewalks; carts jostle for right-of-way; smart private residences abut commercial premises. Secret back alleys lead to houses and pubs.

This double perspective of the town symbolizes the ambiguity of protagonist Michael Henchard’s own rise and fall. From one perspective his downfall seems to be brought about by a cruel but clear-cut fate; from another, by the muddle of his own character and choices. The tensions created by these opposite perspectives create the power of the novel.

Recurring geographical features of the town include High Street; St. Peter’s Church; the market house; the town hall, in which magistrates preside over the police court; two inns, the Mariner’s Arms and the King’s Arms Hotel; and the Bull Stake, an open area. The buildings are typically either timber houses with overhanging stories dating from Tudor times, or stone Georgian structures. Stores serve a variety of agricultural needs. The houses have no front yards, opening straight onto sidewalks, though they often have long rear courtyards and gardens.

Casterbridge corresponds to the real Dorchester in the county of Dorset in southwestern England. Hardy knew the town intimately, for it was there he received his...

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