The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

Start Free Trial

Places Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


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 high school education, practiced as an architect, and built his own house, Max Gate.

Henchard’s house

Henchard’s house. Home of Michael Henchard on Casterbridge’s Corn Street—a suitable address for the town’s official corn factor. The house’s change of ownership from Henchard to the grain merchant Donald Farfrae marks the decisive change of balance of power between the men.

High-Place Hall

High-Place Hall. Old stone house near Casterbridge’s market that Lucetta Le Sueur leases on her departure from Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands off the French coast. The hall is built in the fashion of a country mansion but sits in the center of town, thereby symbolizing the ambiguity of Lucetta’s position. From its windows, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane Newson watch the commercial transactions of Henchard and Farfrae. The hidden relationships of these four characters is suggested by the hidden entrance to the house.

The Ring

The Ring. Old Roman amphitheater immediately outside Casterbridge’s southern boundary, just off the Budmouth (Weymouth) road. The amphitheater is described as being as large as the Colosseum in Rome; what goes on inside it is hidden, but such secretiveness does little good: It is a “dismal privacy,” as if ghosts were watching it. Likewise, Henchard’s first meeting with Susan, his later meeting with Lucetta, his spying on Farfrae’s meeting with Elizabeth-Jane, and his observing Newson’s return never lead to anything open and healthful, and contribute only to the continuation of the secrets and lies that finally enmesh him.


Durnover. Casterbridge’s only suburb, located to the east and northeast of the town, along the river. The river itself embodies “mournful phases” of Casterbridge life, and the slum area of Mixen Lane abuts it. A form of public humiliation known as a skimmity ride is planned in Durnovers’ low-class pub, Peter’s Finger; Henchard finds lodgings...

(This entire section contains 804 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with Jopp in Durnover when both are down on their luck; the “chorus of yokels” lives in Durnover.


Bridges. Casterbridge’s two bridges symbolize the town’s social class divisions and tragedies. The brick bridge at the end of High Street is frequented by low-class characters down on their luck, while the stone bridge, situated in the meadows, is a more secluded place, one to which the better classes go when in misfortune. People occasionally jump off the bridges to commit suicide, and their bodies end up in Blackwater Pool or Ten Hatches Hole, which is where Henchard sees his straw effigy or double after the skimmity ride, a ghastly omen of his own impending death.

Weydon Priors

Weydon Priors. Village in Upper Wessex, some six days’ walk from Casterbridge, that is the only important location outside Casterbridge in the novel. Weydon Priors is in economic decline, marked by the decline of its annual fair and individualized in the downfall of the Furmity woman, who knows Henchard’s dark secret. Her arrest in Casterbridge, where their fated paths cross, precipitates Henchard’s downfall.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Victorian England
The Victorian age began in 1837, when eighteen- year-old Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne, and ended with her death in 1901. Victoria and her husband, Albert, set the tone of English life and culture for most of a century. It was a time of social and moral conservatism; the “family values” of the time were similar to those touted in late-twentieth-century America. Pragmatism was valued above romance, duty above pleasure.

Image Pop-Up

Fictional Map of Wessex

Beneath the veneer of gentility and commitment to duty and family, the Victorian age, like every era, had its dark side. Prostitution flourished, and lurid crime stories—both true and fictional— were popular. Hordes of small children living by their wits on the streets of London and other cities were a testament to the limits of the commitment to family. The wife-selling incident that is at the center of The Mayor of Casterbridge is a fictional instance of a type of transaction that did, indeed, occur in rural England in the nineteenth century.

The early Victorian period was a time of social reforms. Laws were passed governing working conditions of women and children (they could not work in underground mines, for example), and attempts were made to improve conditions in prisons and insane asylums. Efforts to broaden access to education (England had no public schools at the time) stalled because of controversy over the Church of England’s role in expanded education. Writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens took up the cause of reform, using their writing to point out the need for prison reforms and education and the evils of industrialization and the class system.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, England was experiencing unprecedented political, industrial, and economic power, fueled by the Industrial Revolution and by wealth from the colonies. All forms of transportation boomed; railroad ridership increased sevenfold, and the shipbuilding industry grew. Living standards of the working class and middle class were buoyed, and trade unions were formed to promote the interests of skilled workers.

By the late 1800s, Queen Victoria had ruled for fifty years. The British had consolidated their rule of India and the empire was expanding, especially in Asia and Africa. Domestically, however, the economy was faltering. The United States and Britain took over as the world’s leading producers of manufactured goods, and British farmers suffered from foreign competition. Economic hardships sparked immigration to the British colonies and to the United States. More than two hundred thousand Britons left home each year during the 1880s—as Newson did and as Farfrae intended to do in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Life in Nineteenth-Century Wessex
According to Hardy (and scholars agree), a history book could hardly give a more accurate picture of life in nineteenth-century Wessex than does Hardy’s fiction. In his general preface to the final Wessex Edition of his novels, in 1912, Hardy wrote:

At the dates represented in the various narrations, things were like that in Wessex: the inhabitants lived in certain ways, engaged in certain occupations, kept alive certain customs, just as they are shown doing in these pages. . . . I have instituted inquiries to correct tricks of memory and striven against temptations to exaggerate in order to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Victorian Literature
It was during the Victorian period (1837– 1901) that the novel became the dominant literary form, and Hardy is considered one of the major novelists of the era, along with Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Rudyard Kipling, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and many others. It was common for novels to be published serially, in magazines or in stand-alone sections. The Mayor of Casterbridge was first published serially, in twenty installments, in an English periodical called The Graphic in 1886. It was published simultaneously in the United States in Harper’s Weekly. Hardy’s original manuscript, with some sections missing, is at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in book form as soon as the serial publication was complete. Many novels of this period differ slightly in their serial and book forms (authors were aware of the serial format as they wrote and structured their stories to keep readers interested from one week to the next), but this book differs substantially from the serial novel. In the serial form, for example, Henchard marries Lucetta. Hardy’s biography (supposedly written by his second wife but actually written almost entirely by Hardy himself) reveals that he felt this novel had been badly damaged by the demands of serial publication and that his revisions for the book publication were not adequate to repair the story. The text of the novel that is available to today’s readers is the final revision that Hardy did for the 1912 Wessex Edition of his novels.

Victorian novels often deal with social issues. While social issues play a role in The Mayor of Casterbridge, the novel was a departure from the norm because it focused consistently on a single character, Michael Henchard. Because of this limited focus, the novel is shorter and has a smaller cast of characters than many novels of the time.

Wessex Setting
Like all of Hardy’s fiction, The Mayor of Casterbridge is set in southwestern England in the region once known as Wessex. The area was invaded, settled, and named by the Saxons, who ruled it as a kingdom, in ancient times. It extended from the English Channel north to the Thames River and from Windsor Forest in the east to the Cornish coast in the west.

While most novelists set their stories in real places, Hardy is distinctive for two reasons. First, although the author traveled widely, in the writing of his novels and stories, he never strayed beyond the boundaries of his native region. In his 1912 general preface to his final, revised version of his novels, Hardy explained, “there was quite enough human nature in Wessex for one man’s literary purposes.” He further explained, somewhat unnecessarily, that his characters “were meant to be typically and essentially those of any and every place . . . beings in whose hearts and minds that which is apparently local should be really universal.”

Second, Hardy, unlike other authors, rarely invented features to add to the real landscape of Wessex. He describes the towns and farms, the roads and hotels, and the smallest details as they really were. When Hardy describes a house, it is likely that readers in his time knew exactly which house he had borrowed for his tale.

In some cases, Hardy used real place names; in others, he gave fictional names to real places. While Stonehenge and Southhampton appear under their actual names, Casterbridge is, in reality, Hardy’s hometown of Dorchester. In his 1912 preface, Hardy points out that his general rule was to use the real names of the major towns and places that mark the general boundaries of Wessex and to use fictional, disguised, or ancient names for most other places.

Even Hardy’s characters are based on real people more than most fictional characters are. Most are composites of people he knew or knew of and his own embellishments. He borrowed bits of characters and story lines from the folklore and ballads of Wessex. The fact that he lived a long life in Wessex and had access to church records in his early work as an architect and church restorer gave him an intimate knowledge of local life and its toofrequent tragedies.

Gothic Elements
Gothic fiction was popular between about 1760 and 1820. Gothic authors used threatening environments (the foreboding hilltop castle on a stormy night); brooding, malevolent characters; dark secrets; and the supernatural and occult to instill a sense of horror in their readers. Gothic fiction has influenced much of the fiction written in the past two hundred and fifty years, and Gothic elements were prominent in the novels of the Victorian age. In the novels of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Charlotte Brontë, and others, these elements made the dark side of human nature palpable to readers.

Gothic elements appear throughout The Mayor of Casterbridge. One striking example is the meeting between Henchard and Susan at the old Roman amphitheater called the Ring. The Ring is outside the town, and Henchard and Susan meet there at dusk. Before Hardy narrates their meeting, he spins a long, ghostly description of the place that infuses it with a history of gloom and gore. Readers are reminded of the bloody Roman sports for which the place was built. They are told that the Ring was long the home of Casterbridge’s gallows and treated to a lurid description of a murderess being “halfstrangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators.” Even now, Hardy assures readers, the Ring is the setting for violent crimes, and some old people have had visions of the amphitheater filled with cheering Roman soldiers and have actually heard their bloodthirsty roaring. By the time Hardy finally brings Henchard and Susan to the scene, he has made readers feel that there truly is something dark about their purpose here, though on the surface their meeting is cordial.

Coincidence, too, was a common plot device in Hardy’s time and one of which he makes frequent use in The Mayor of Casterbridge. For example, the furmity woman happens to stumble into Casterbridge, of all towns, and at just the right time and in just the right circumstance to do Henchard great harm. The weather happens to change just when Henchard is vulnerable to ruin because of his risky attempt to destroy Farfrae.

There are two ways of looking at Hardy’s coincidences. Some readers and critics say that they make the story unrealistic and therefore less effective than it would otherwise be. Others point out that coincidences are not, in and of themselves, unrealistic, as life has its fair share of them. The question, this latter group would say, is whether the coincidences themselves are realistic or not. In the case of The Mayor of Casterbridge, the answer seems to be at least a qualified “yes.” The furmity woman has been cast as a merchant who travels around the region, so it is not incredible that she would show up in Casterbridge. Anyone who has ever farmed can testify that there is nothing more unpredictable, more uncontrollable, and, seemingly, more contrary to the wishes of farmers than the weather.

Hardy employs coincidence to help him—and his readers—explore the nature of fate. He leaves open the question of whether coincidences are merely chance suggesting that fate is blind or whether what appear to be coincidences are actually directed by some supernatural hand that guides men and women to the fates they “deserve.”

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Although he was trained as an architect, Hardy's special strength as a novelist does not lie with technical innovation. Unlike his American counterpart of a succeeding generation, John Dos Passos, who was also trained in art and architecture and turned much of his creative energies to redesigning the very form of the novel, Hardy is essentially a conservative Victorian novelist, in many ways even more the traditionalist than his predecessors Dickens and Thackeray. His novels, like theirs, were written for serialization. That is, chapters or groups of chapters were published in magazines or even newspapers. To insure that readers' interest would carry over to the next issue, many Victorian novelists followed their eighteenth-century predecessors by creating a sense of suspense or climax at the end of the episode, much as a modern television program creates a climax of attention just before a commercial. This has the result, which Hardy did not quite successfully revise out in novel publication, of anticlimactic moments in the novel.

While preparing to write The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy, according to biographer Martin Seymour-Smith (Hardy, 1994), immersed himself in the files of the Dorsetshire County Chronicle to attain verisimilitude for what he clearly intended as an historical novel about what we can call a vanishing rural culture, one that was for all intents and purposes extinct by the time Hardy began his novel. He sets the opening scene about a half-century before the time of composition, ("before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span," or before 1833) and most of the novel's action takes place some twenty years later or before 1853. Quite clearly Hardy wants to maintain some sense of historical perspective. His frequent references to folk culture and to the vestiges of Roman civilization, such as the "ring of Casterbridge" or the bridge from which Henchard late in the novel contemplates suicide, reflect a desire to broaden the historical scope, both to suggest what remains over time, such as the barbarious nature of the Roman Circus which resembles more modern acts of cruelty, or the Skimington or "skimity-ride" by which the poorer and less powerful members of the community band together to embarrass those community leaders who do not practice virtue consistent with their community norms. Throughout the novel, by means of pervasive references to the reminders of ancient Roman occupation—the Wessex setting of Hardy's novels lends itself particularly to this motif, for by its proximity to the English Channel it would have been a major site of Roman occupation armies and the building that attended Roman conquests—and folk customs whose roots are buried deep in antiquity, Hardy reminds us constantly that events are both historical in themselves and the product of historical causes.

A Victorian convention that Hardy often uses is the presence of an intrusive, editorializing narrator. Hardy's narrative voice assumes intimacy and control over the reader. That is, characters, and their actions, are often judged by the voice as virtuous, wise, or foolish. At times this narrative intimacy provides wonderful metaphors, such as the comparison of the defeated Henchard with a "fangless lion." At other times, the modern reader, influenced by theories of verisimilitude derived from Hardy's contemporary Henry James and successors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, might wish for more autonomy in assessing the behavior of the characters Hardy so memorably creates.

Finally, like all of his novels and those of his predecessors like Dickens, The Mayor of Casterbridge depends on coincidences in ways that may seem quaint and anachronistic to many modern readers. Several have been noted in the above sections of this study, most of which occur at the most inopportune moment possible, or just when a character has apparently reached a position of happiness. One example might be the outdoor celebration Henchard prepares for the community, in competition with a less elaborate one Farfrae plans to stage in a makeshift tent. Although the weather has been fair for weeks, a deluge occurs the morning of the fair, thus deciding the public evaluation of the fairs in the Scotsman's favor. Much later, Henchard stands on the bridge Hardy connects with despair, contemplating suicide, and is saved by the coincidental sighting of his own effigy in the water, which we later find the people who made the Skimingtonride have disposed of in the river. The simple volume of coincidence contributes to a sense of artificiality in The Mayor of Casterbridge and undermines the verisimilitude sought by many late nineteenth century novelists. Part of Hardy's dependence on what we can call an adverse coincidence (they seldom are beneficial to the characters) can be attributed to serialization. In small portions, the plot's dependence on repeated coincidence would not be so obvious. However, the omnipresence of such coincidence also elaborates, if at times crudely, Hardy's central theme, the inevitability of fate and the degree to which our greatness lies with our ability to face our fates with courage and honesty.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Mayor of Casterbridge is bound to raise stimulating discussions of fate and free will, and such conversations might lead inevitably to the degree to which Henchard's fate is what he deserves; or is he in the words of Shakespeare's King Lear (see "Literary Precedents" above), "A man more sinned against than sinning"? As a global question, then, it might be advisable to consider to what degree is Fate or destiny a malevolent presence in this novel? Those who want to do so might be advised to study some of Hardy's poems on the subject, such as "Hap," "The Subalterns," "The Dynasts," "Channel Firing," or "The Convergence of the Twain." Is his vision of fate in this novel consistent with that of the poems?

1. To what degree is the community act of the Skimington-ride, to mock Lucetta, Farfrae, and Henchard a legitimate response by an affronted moral community? To what degree is it a collective wickedness that stems from malice or depravity?

2. Is there any basis for the occasional claim that the novel deteriorates as it comes to rely more and more heavily on unexplained coincidences toward the end?

3. To what degree does Henchard's belief that he completed his penance by twenty-one years' abstinence from liquor contribute to his downfall?

4. How sincere do you think Farfrae is in his acts of charity toward Henchard?

5. Do the repeated references to ancient Britain and Roman rule finally interfere with the narrative? Or do these continue to enrich it?

6. When Henchard brings a gift to celebrate Elizabeth-Jane's and Farfrae's wedding, a caged bird, he forgets it and the bird dies. How effective a symbol is this for the fragility of human relationships that is one of Hardy's concerns?

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Major of Casterbridge opens with a brilliant and ominous scene that sets forth many key social concerns of this novel of colliding cultures. At Wedon Fair, a rural, communal custom tracing back at least to feudal times in southwestern England, a stranger and his family come to mingle with other bucolic people. The fair is itself a vestige of a past culture, one the novel will show as on the verge of extinction. At the fair strangers are welcomed, and the tent, with its "furmity," a local brew that can be, and in this case is, enhanced by rum at the consumer's request, can become a scene of conversation and exchange among farmers and workers in the agricultural trades. The opening scene thus engages several key cultural issues, most importantly the deterioration of folk customs into travesties of their original function in creating community, and the debilitating effects of a patriarchal system that demands that women be subservient.

Few readers will ever forget this powerful scene. A frustrated hay-trusser (an agricultural vocation that had been all but rendered obsolete by the time Hardy wrote the novel, but in its time a task demanding strength, energy, and great skill—Hardy describes his youthful protagonist as a "skilled countryman") imposes upon the artificial community created by the fair to complain about his frustration with his station in life. This is in itself a familiar theme to readers of Hardy's earlier novels Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Return of the Native (1878), although usually voiced by a woman who feels constrained by the customs and attitudes of rural England, rather than a man.

Michael Henchard, the protagonist of this narrative, blames his condition on certain choices he has made, specifically on his wife Susan and their child. Already Hardy has located one social concern central to all his novels, the rationalizations inherent in a gender-power system. Henchard has indeed chosen to marry Susan and the union produced a daughter, but he has subsequently elected to blame all his misfortunes on them. He deliberately directs the public conversation within the furmity tent to the theme of "the ruin of good men by bad wives" and eventually determines to auction his wife and daughter off to the highest bidder. This scene shocks readers, and in his preface to the definitive "Wessex" edition of his novels (1912) Hardy explained that there was a local story along the lines of a husband auctioning off his wife that, along with two others, led to the inspiration for the novel.

Three points need to be made about this powerful scene. As critic Irving Howe was among the first to point out, Henchard sells Susan not out of greed, but because he is "supremely dissatisfied with the drabness" his life has come to mean and therefore feels compelled to make a "gesture that will proclaim his defiance and disgust." The point is that Henchard's act is primarily a gesture, in which the happiness of persons is rendered less important than the expression of one's personal angst. An even more important point when we examine the novel's social concerns is that it is a gesture validated by the artificial patriarchal community at the fair. To perform an auction requires several components: one who sells, one who buys (as well as any other bidders), and those who either consent actively, by encouraging such behavior, or passively, by doing nothing to stop it. And although it is reasonable to assume that the company like the seller is getting drunk and therefore may believe this is nothing more than a joke, one observer eventually accepts the role as auctioneer and another offers an insulting bid. Only one ineffectual voice is raised in protest, and even the wife, who has tried desperately to divert her husband from his increasing drinking and complaining, eventually gives implicit if ironic consent when she says "her present owner is not at all to her liking."

This reduction of the spouse to chattel is completed when a serious bidder, a sailor named Newson, comes forth. Thus the crime against Susan's and Elizabeth- Jane's human dignity is not exclusively Henchard's, although he must and does bear the primary blame and as the novel develops suffers much more deeply than the other characters for his brutish act. But the sale of two human beings, their reduction to objects, is an act of an artificial community. Moreover, although the exposure by the "furmity-woman" of Henchard's past misdeed decades later in Casterbridge helps to seal his fall from power and influence, it is by no means the exclusive cause thereof. Although that community, somewhat more respectable and formally constituted than the tent at the fair, condemns the action of the past, it is Henchard himself, not the larger community, who can never forgive him.

Finally, the sale of the wife and daughter may be for some readers mitigated by the fact of Henchard's drunkenness. While it is a misreading of the novel to reduce it to a temperance tract, it is important to recognize the association Hardy makes in Henchard's life among several levels of intemperance and unchecked passion. His frustration in the opening scene leads him to intoxication, which in turn releases inhibitions within himself and among the members of his immediate audience. Upon sobering up and realizing what he has done, Henchard undertakes a finite effort—limited in part by the embarrassment of asking people for clues on behavior he is rightly ashamed of—to find his family and thereby to undo the past. He also makes a curious vow to refrain from drinking for exactly twenty-one years, or until he is nearly forty. What is unexplained is the duration of the vow—why twenty-one years?—but it provides an index to his character. After two decades of complete and hard-earned abstinence, during which Henchard achieves material prosperity and public respect, he accelerates his fall from prominence by waiting until precisely the twenty-first anniversary of his vow, then resuming his intemperate drinking. This resumption has inevitable consequences for a citizen already in a downward spiral both economically and morally (in that he is beginning the process of coming to terms with his past). In another historical inspiration the author mentions, the visit of a "royal Personage" to the remote town—another occasion for the assertion of community, this time a national one—the drunken ex-mayor makes a public spectacle of himself and brings disgrace on the community he has worked so hard to build.

The problem of community in The Major of Casterbridge is further complicated by Hardy's omnipresent theme of modernization. As early as 1866, with his marvelous dramatic poem "The Ruined Maid" Hardy had turned his pen to expressing his concern with the challenges facing a society in the later stages of an industrial revolution. With more efficient means of production and distribution had come new problems of urban crowding, poverty, and jobs lost forever.

He sets this novel in his beloved Wessex because, as he often reminds us, the industrial revolution was late in coming to rural England. In the interval between Henchard's selling his family and his fall from prominence twenty years later, however, changes in the culture of rural England had indeed taken place, transformations Hardy was to embody in the two central characters of the novel. In the emerging conflict between Henchard and his protege Donald Farfrae, Hardy encodes a synecdoche (a figure of speech in which the part stands for or represents the whole; in this case, the new commercial order) for competing commercial models that distinguish old England, with its roots in paternalistic feudal traditions, from twentieth century Europe, with its emphasis on efficient, precise methods of agriculture and business. After Henchard, the town's leading grain merchant, persuades the wandering Scotsman with an innovative formula for recovering grain that has gone bad to stay and be his righthand man, he eventually discovers that he has created a formidable adversary, a man of the new age. By the end of the novel Farfrae has taken over his old mentor's business, his house, his furniture, his former mistress, his position on the town council, and the woman Henchard at times believed was his daughter.

The conflict of these men is one of generations, and more importantly of ways of relating to the land and to the world. Farfrae's triumph is at one level a repudiation of older styles of business that have their basis in a paternalistic community. Much as in William Faulkner's elegy for the rural American south, The Hamlet (1945), the commercial events of the novel indicate that a system of agricultural business depending on trust, 6056 The Mayor of Casterbridge a handshake, and sloppy bookkeeping must in due course give way to one based on contracts, letters, ledgers, efficiency, and precise accounting. It is important to recognize as well the combination of personal choice, judgment error, and plain bad luck in Henchard's economic fall. For example, when he attempts to corner a grain market in order to bankrupt his rival, he buys against the expectation of a poor harvest, something entirely consistent with weather trends. Sudden and unpredictable changes in weather cause the crop to flourish, and all Henchard's schemes come to ruin, not through miscalculation but through bad luck. Of course this irony compounds the theme of the agricultural community. What brings prosperity to the Casterbridge farmers brings ruin to their leading citizen and grain-merchant. But it is equally critical to recognize that Henchard is a man of the past, Farfrae of the future. Henchard as a paternalistic figure in rural England was an anachronism even by the time Hardy wrote about the changes that were taking place in the provinces.

Farfrae's innovations in business are welcomed in the Casterbridge community, but scholars generally question their benefit for the citizens. Richard Carpenter, for example, says Farfrae is a "good man, all right. . . but he is too much like the new agricultural machinery he brings to Casterbridge"; he argues that Farfrae is "too efficient," too "like an adding machine." Perry Meisel agrees, calling Farfrae a "scientific, advanced businessman, the material representative of a new order that destroys the symbol of the old." By looking at two distinct moments from the conflict; however, we can develop some sense of a more complex ambiguity with which Hardy presents this conflict. He undoubtedly sees that Henchard's paternalistic methods are inexact and subject to the personality of the merchant, much like the feudal systems from which they derive. Farfrae's methods, by contrast, are fair, exact, and efficient. But they also divest the transactions of their human and personal element. One minor character complains that "we work harder, but we bain't made afeerd [aren't made to fear] now. . . . tho tis a shilling a week less I'm the richer man." Thus, this character suggests that Farfrae's methods of demanding more work for less pay are offset by stability and equity in the work place.

One of the very first contrasts between the two men and their economic systems involves Henchard's earlier treatment of this lazy employee, Abel Whittle, who had an irreversible habit of oversleeping. After repeated warnings to Whittle, Henchard marches to the tardy worker's house, gets him out of bed by threat of physical force, and marches him half dressed down the street to his job. Farfrae publicly criticizes Henchard's disregard for Whittle's feelings as "tyrannical" and Whittle threatens, more theatrically than seriously however, to "do myself harm" because of the humiliation. Because Henchard provided several noncontractual services for the Whittles, such as keeping the family in coal, and because he was Abel's employer, he felt that he had every right to subject Whittle's body and spirit to his iron will. By most reasonable modern analyses, Farfrae's regard for Whittle's right to privacy and his limiting the employer's role to matters of the work place seem far more appropriate. But then, we assess the experience from the perspective of citizens of the world Farfrae created, not the one Henchard inhabited. While it is true that Whittle later endorses Farfrae's business ethic as fairer than the old order, we should also note that Henchard's drastic method apparently worked. We hear nothing more of Whittle's sleeping in.

More persuasively, when the Mayor's fortunes decline completely, it is Whittle to whom he turns. The once chagrined employee goes to great personal costs to help his erstwhile tormentor find a hovel in which to end his life because "he was kind-like to mother when she wer here below, though 'a was rough to me." It seems possible to argue Hardy's case about the new model in either of two ways from this important event. The old way, Henchard's, was indeed tyrannical and paternalistic. But it was founded on a caring and concern that most readers do not see in Farfrae's way of conducting his official or public business.

A somewhat more definitive version of Hardy's attitude toward the new ways represented by Farfrae occurs in the famous scene in which a new seed drill is introduced to the farm country. Sitting in the home of Henchard's ex-mistress, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta view the new machine as a monstrous combination of natural entities, "hornet, grasshopper, and shrimp, magnified enormously." Henchard thinks the new contraption is simply ridiculous. But Farfrae from inside the machine bursts out singing, thus subtly creating the illusion of combining the organic with the mechanical, the aesthetic with the practical. He revels in the machine's intricacy and promises that it will "revolutionize" planting by providing for accurate and controlled distribution of seed, which is after all a farmer's capital. Elizabeth-Jane Henchard speaks for the romantic in Hardy and all of us: "Then the romance of the sower is gone for good." Farfrae reluctantly admits that the picturesque inefficiency must in due time give way to a progress men like himself superintend.

The machine is an ugly, efficient monster that can produce music if the right singer is inside it and will eventually make the sower obsolete. While many people depending on agriculture for employment will miss the paychecks manual sowing provides, and while poets and painters will lament the absence of this picturesque creature trudging over the horizon, most people who have sowed heavy bags of seed day after day might find it hard to understand what's to be lamented so. Thus might we construct Hardy's vision of a changing commercial order in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Clearly neither position, the bucolic past with its paternalism nor the new century with its efficiency and accuracy, is without its faults. Hardy, like the reader, sees an inevitable progress that cannot be stopped and a past that cannot be entirely put behind us.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Late Nineteenth Century: The price of English grain is falling due to competition from overseas farmers. Better transportation and refrigeration mean that foreign farmers can ship grain to England and undercut local farmers. Large estates in the grain-growing regions of England, such as Hardy’s Wessex, face falling profits and in some cases are broken up into smaller holdings. Unemployment is high among farm workers. Dairy and fruit farmers prosper, however, as they do not face foreign competition.

Today: England imports most of its food, including grain. England’s crop income is only about one-third of that from livestock and dairy products, but southern England is still an important farming region. Farms are much smaller than they were in Hardy’s time, averaging less than two hundred fifty acres, and are much more mechanized. Major crops are wheat, potatoes, barley, sugar beets, and oats.

Late Nineteenth Century: The Third Reform Bill of 1884 extends the vote to male farm workers in England; previously, only men of the upper social classes were allowed to vote. In addition, laws are changed to make it possible for upper-class women to retain their property when they marry, to vote in local elections, and to attend universities. Working-class women such as Susan in The Mayor of Casterbridge still have virtually no rights under the law.

Today: All men and women in England have the right to vote in all elections, and well over one hundred women serve in Parliament. Women also have property rights and access to higher education that equal those of men.

Late Nineteenth Century: Queen Victoria, namesake of the Victorian age, celebrates her golden jubilee—fifty years of rule—in 1887 and her diamond jubilee in 1897.

Today: Queen Elizabeth II takes the throne in 1952 and will celebrate her golden jubilee in 2002.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Mayor of Casterbridge has many affinities with the serialized novels that were so very popular in Victorian England. An equally important debt, to the classic and Shakespearian tragedies of which Hardy was so very fond, may help to account for the continued appeal of this novel.

The essence of tragic fiction involves the relative isolation of the hero, who deals uncompromisingly with forces that threaten and ultimately intimidate ordinary people. To give Henchard this tragic posture, Hardy closely follows the advice Aristotle offered in the Poetics, to deal with a person who is both greater and lesser than we—greater in his capacity to suffer, but one whose fate is the result of his own tragic error or flaw. Henchard's flaw is his excessive and impulsive nature, and his titanic rages and broodings have about them something both magnificent and despicable. It is the means by which he injures himself and others; but it is as well the path that leads him to self-knowledge, however terrible that knowledge must be.

To reinforce his tragic dimension Hardy constantly reminds us of the presence of history, a collective past dating back to the days of Roman conquest, thus superimposing on the bucolic landscape of Wessex the simultaneous scope and grandeur appropriate to tragedy. Moreover, the text of The Mayor of Casterbridge could almost be said to be Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, King Lear (1605). Like Shakespeare's hero, Henchard makes a catastrophic error in judgment that can be attributed to his massive pride. His error injures an innocent descendant, although in the Mayor's case the woman is technically not his child. Both heroes are brought to physical ruin by the aftereffects of their pride, and both undergo tearful reconciliations with the person they have wronged, only to lose that daughter yet again and to plunge into a despair so profound that life itself seems frivolous to them. Hardy underscores this association by constant references to the heath, a hovel, and loneliness at the end, all reminiscent of the middle act of King Lear. Finally, Henchard's admission to Donald Farfrae that he has wronged him—"God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time . . . And now—though I came here to kill 'ee, I cannot hurt 'ee!" recalls in a minor key the powerful reverberations of Lear's peccavi, to tragic recognition.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Unabridged audio versions of The Mayor of Casterbridge have been published by Books on Tape, Inc. (1983), Chivers Audio Books (1991), John Curley and Associaties (1991, with Tony Britton as reader), and the Audio Partners Publishing Corporation (1998, with John Rowe as reader).

The Mayor of Casterbridge was made into a seven-part television miniseries in the United Kingdom in 1978. It was directed by David Giles III and written by Dennis Potter. Alan Bates starred as Henchard, Jack Galloway as Farfrae, Janet Maw as Elizabeth-Jane, and Anne Stallybrass as Susan.

A 2001 made-for-television movie of The Mayor of Casterbridge was directed by David Thacker and written by Ted Whitehead. Ciarán Hinds starred as Henchard, James Purefoy as Farfrae, Jodhi May as Elizabeth-Jane, and Juliet Aubrey as Susan.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Alden, H. M., Review of The Mayor of Casterbridge, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1886, pp. 961–62.

Guerard, Albert J., Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories, Harvard University Press, 1949.

Seymour-Smith, Martin, Introduction, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Penguin Books, 1978, p. 21.

Further Reading
Armstrong, Tim, Haunted Hardy: Poetry History, Memory, St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This volume focuses on Hardy’s poetry and its frequent references to death and ghosts—particularly ghosts of lost children.

Bettey, J. H., Rural Life in Wessex, 1500–1900, Sutton Publishing, 1989. This nonfiction look at rural Wessex before and during Hardy’s time offers an in-depth view of the part of England in which Hardy set much of his work.

Mallett, Phillip, ed., The Achievement of Thomas Hardy, Palgrave, 2000. These essays explore Hardy’s fiction and poetry, covering elements such as the nature of storytelling and the relationship between poems and songs.

Mitchell, Sally, Daily Life in Victorian England, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1996. This comprehensive look at both city and country life in Victorian England covers social classes, morals, economics and finance, laws, and more. It includes excerpts from primary source documents and illustrations.

Turner, Paul D. L., The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography, edited by Claude Rawson, Blackwell Publications, 1998. Each of this book’s thirty-two chapters explores the biographical and literary context of one of Hardy’s works. One interesting aspect of Hardy’s life covered here is his self-education in Greek and Latin and the later influences of Greek tragedy, Latin poetry, and Shakespeare on his work.his work.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide