The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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What is Susan Henchard's role in The Mayor of Casterbridge?

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Susan is the wife of Michael Henchard. Henchard "sells" Susan to the sailor Richard Newson at the start of the book, complaining that being tied to a wife and child has kept Henchard from attaining greatness. Susan's simplicity serves as a contrast to Henchard's lack of integrity.

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Susan is the wife of Michael Henchard, the mayor of Casterbridge. At the start of the novel, Henchard sells her to a sailor, Richard Newson; years later, after Newson is presumed dead, she returns and remarries Henchard.

Susan is remarkable for her passivity and simplicity. In the first chapter, after Henchard gets drunk at the fair, she bears his criticism with tremendous patience. When Henchard announces that he will auction her off for five guineas, she remains resigned. It's only after Newson lays out real money for her and the transaction is completed that she bursts out crying and throws her wedding ring in his face. She lives with Newson for many years, believing that her purchase conveyed some legal right to Newson over her.

Henchard's moral weakness is constrasted with Susan's simple kindness and integrity. When Susan returns to Henchard after many years, Henchard is struck by her lack of anger at her treatment. She is honest in a way Henchard never is, and her presence serves to throw into doubt the nature of all his accomplishments. Indeed, Henchard's need to explain his relationship to Susan leads to an elaborate plan to publicly "court" and remarry his wife. The need for such fictions to conceal the truth about his past suggests that Henchard's identity as a successful merchant is itself a kind of ruse or lie.

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