The Mayor of Casterbridge

by Thomas Hardy

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2348

The most important theme of The Mayor of Casterbridge clearly concerns the weight and demands of the past. Not everyone has a secret in her or his past comparable with Henchard's, but many people have some element of the past they would like to change, ignore, or escape. Following the initial scenes Henchard seems to have done the impossible. After his brief and frantic search for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, he takes up his life again with great success. In a brief span of twenty years he settles in the modest town of Casterbridge, becomes its most prominent grain merchant, earns election to the town council and eventually to the mayoralty, and serves the community as a churchwarden.

But as often happens in a tragic play, and Hardy clearly intended The Major of Casterbridge to resemble such a drama, just as Henchard's fortunes seem at their highest point, the forces that will bring him down are already gathering. His former wife, believing her sailor husband has died, brings her daughter to Casterbridge on rumors that he has settled there, only to discover to her delight that he is a prominent citizen. On the eve on his reconciliation with his lost family he forces his great affections on an enterprising young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, whom he grooms as his protege, his confidant, and in some ways his surrogate son. But as the plot develops, he and Farfrae will become rivals, first in trade, later in citizenship, and eventually for love; as his decline is all but assured, Henchard imposes a wrestling match upon his former pupil, in which he handicaps himself by binding one arm so not to take undue advantage of his superior physical strength.

At its central concern, then, the theme of The Mayor of Casterbridge addresses the weight of the personal as well as the collective past. In dealing with the issues of social change Hardy suggests the omnipresent weight of the cultural past on the present. But his far more central concern responds to the need to assimilate, rather than escape, our personal past—and the costs such assimilation may impose upon us. Henchard's career in Casterbridge, in the time between his selling his family and his assumption of power and prestige, has been in many ways a triumph of the will, but the repeated coincidences of the novel remind us that his effort to escape the past will succeed only temporarily. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane seek him in Casterbridge after they believe Newsom has died, but their arrival coincides with the apex of Henchard's material fortune. Their arrival also happens at the time Farfrae stays over briefly, thus setting into motion forces that will lead to Henchard's financial ruin. The old furmity-woman, arrested twenty years later on a charge of public nuisance, happens to be arraigned on the exact day Henchard fills in for his successor as magistrate and, recalling his misconduct from two decades ago, exposes him and thereby accelerates his downward spiral.

Henchard is not the only character who is unable to escape his personal history. His former mistress, Lucetta, replicates in a minor key Henchard's tragic efforts to escape his past, as critic John Patterson (in "The Major of Casterbridge as Tragedy") may have been the first to note. She comes into wealth and moves to Casterbridge to be near Henchard, who has now decided that his moral duty is to marry Susan, the wife he sold many years ago, and thus to give legitimacy to their—as Susan permits him to believe Elizabeth-Jane is—daughter. Denied this intimacy with Henchard, Lucetta occupies one of Casterbridge's finest homes, taking her aunt's name as "Miss Templeton" and cultivates intimacy with Elizabeth-Jane. After Susan's (somewhat convenient, from the plot angle) death, Henchard resumes courting Lucetta as a respectable wife, but her attention has been distracted to the lively, spontaneous, immensely successful protege. She rejects Henchard's suit with the declaration that she will not be a "slave to the past." With her marriage to the town's new leading citizen it would appear that she has succeeded where Henchard failed: she seems to have put an indiscreet past behind her and has achieved success, wealth, and even an interval of happiness. Curiously enough, the only moments in The Mayor of Casterbridge one can associate with authentic human happiness involve Farfrae's gift for song and the early months of his marriage.

Of course a profound difference between approaches to the past is illustrated by this contrast. Lucetta enacts, as Patterson observes, a bourgeois version of Henchard's tragic fall. She believes she can simply ignore her past and it will go away. She rejects Henchard's suit with the declaration that she will not be a "slave to the past." She is incapable of learning what it takes great suffering for Henchard to discover, that there is an order in the universe that exacts a harsh payment for those who overreach, who place themselves beyond it. Lucetta believes that her future happiness requires only that she persuade Henchard to return some documents that incriminate her and him in their previous affair. After Henchard undergoes a profound moral dilemma —shall he use the letters to injure both Lucetta and Farfcae, toward both of whom he bears a grievance, or will he return them to her in an act of humane decency?—she believes that, having burned the evidence of the past she is free of it. As is characteristic of Hardy's novels, at the very moment she believes she has successfully put her history behind her, she hears the first noises of the Skimington-ride, a folk ritual of humiliation for her as an adulteress initiated by one Jopp, a resentful farm manager who in effect blackmailed her to intercede with Farfrae for a job in return for concealing his knowledge of her and Henchard's past. This confrontation with her past destroys Lucetta, resulting in a fatal miscarriage.

As the experience of Lucetta shows, the tragic order of The Mayor of Casterbridge is such that one cannot escape the pressures of the past. Almost every critic has noted that an element of determinism pervades all of Hardy's novels and indeed many readers feel that determinism is the central theme of all Hardy's poetry and prose. What is in question, and what the mirror image of Lucetta's experience indicates, is that our freedom and moral value depend on the way in which we meet our fates.

Hardy's tragic theme is that Henchard has committed a far greater sin than Lucetta, and he meets it both more honestly and more painfully. Along the way he comes to something approximating a tragic recognition of the gulf between what his life has become, through his choices, and what he thought it ought to be. The character gains a certain tragic stature as he tries, rather than to escape his past as Lucetta does, to redeem it. When Susan shows up he attempts to do what is right, to atone for his past sin. It is true that he tries to hold on to the gains of the present as well: their courtship and remarriage constitute a hoax because they were never divorced, nor was their former marriage ever annulled. It is an understandable expedient for Henchard to try to do the right thing without losing the benefits of the present. Something very similar occurs in his subsequent courtship of Lucetta.

The text offers little evidence that he actually loves her after these years, so his courtship stems from three conflicting motivations, here arranged in an hierarchical fashion. At its most ignoble, the courtship may be encouraged by economics. Lucetta has come into considerable money and Henchard's speculation in the grain market has strained his resources. To his credit, Henchard feels guilty about this element and represses it. Second, he competes for Lucetta's hand with his archrival Farfrae. This motive is far more compelling in that it goes to the heart of the tragic theme. It is his overwhelming love for the younger man that fuels Henchard's resentment, an economic and social issue compounded by the love conflict. Later in the novel he attempts reconciliation with Farfrae, even going so far as to undertake a dangerous journey to locate the Scotsman after Lucetta has taken ill because of the Skimington. More even than his resentment of his rival, however, his courtship of Lucetta springs from his need to set right their shared past. Her decision to marry Farfrae is by this logic an effort to be free of it.

It is not only that Henchard faces his past and its consequences with increasing self-awareness; he comes to feel profoundly his compounding errors and their implications for his very character. This tragic stature occurs precisely because, although the Mayor is obviously a man of excesses, as are the tragic heroes of Shakespeare and Aeschylus, he is also someone who does not flinch before his own moral failures. He faces them with some of the tragic dignity of an Oedipus or a Lear.

This notion of the cognitive aspect of tragic stature can be illustrated by looking at Henchard's complicated relationships with Elizabeth-Jane. Upon remarrying Susan and as he believes atoning for the past, Henchard is lavish in his gifts and expectations for his daughter, in whom he must painfully nurture what he believes is an illusion that she is someone else's (the sailor's) daughter. This is a theme particularly poignant for the childless Thomas Hardy. His hero even attempts to arrange a courtship between his daughter and the son he never had, Donald. But upon Susan's death, Henchard accidentally learns, from a document search almost immediately after he had told Elizabeth-Jane that he is indeed her biological parent, that the daughter he sold died shortly afterwards, and that Susan and Newson had a daughter whom Susan also named Elizabeth-Jane. Mortified by the discovery, which amounts to a sentence of childlessness, Henchard becomes cold, even cruel, to Elizabeth- Jane, virtually driving her from his home into the company of Lucetta. Like a typical tragic hero, his rage is as excessive as his love. If Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter and his future, she is an illusion and a creature to be shunned.

Henchard's reconciliation with Elizabeth- Jane also supports the notion of his excessive, tragic stature. After Lucetta's death and his own need bring the two together again, she, still believing erroneously that she as a daughter owes a duty to her parent who has fallen so low, Henchard—to say nothing of the reader— is shocked to discover that Newson is not dead and has come to seek out the family he has lost. In an understandable moment's weakness, Henchard tries to salvage what little love he has left. He lies to the sailor by telling him both Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are dead. From the moment the words leave his mouth, Henchard knows he must deal with the knowledge that he placed his own happiness above Elizabeth-Jane's as well as the dread that Newson will return yet again and that Michael's own lie will magnify the enormity of his deceptions of this young woman. While it is impossible to excuse or justify what Henchard did, we should acknowledge a human, understandable dread of loneliness and hopelessness that leads him to an instinctive rather than premeditated lie.

But pay for it he must, and this is the one act which neither Elizabeth-Jane nor he can forgive. Her rejection, when she eventually marries Farfrae, leads to Henchard's despair and his decision to expel himself from human company, much as Oedipus does when he learns, in Oedipus the King (Sophocles, c. 429 B.C.), that he is the polluter of Thebes. Echoing another figure with tragic associations, Henchard expresses his tragic hubris as well as his mental alienation: "I—Cain— go alone as I deserve—an outcast and a vagabond. But my punishment is not more than I can bear." Hardy carefully evokes yet another tragic figure, Shakespeare's Lear, when Henchard seeks refuge in a hovel on a heath, a very significant location in King Lear, to die in misery because of all the misery he has caused. As Perry Meisel observes, as he moves toward the inevitable hovel Henchard gives expression to his "final recognition that he is trapped within the prison of his ego." The excesses of temperament that made him insensitive to the consequences of his actions for others have made Henchard a terrible man; but the reason for these excesses was often, especially in the cases of Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, a depth of love and commitment no other character in this novel has.

The tragic theme of The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore focuses on the inevitability of fate and the awareness with which we meet our destiny, a theme central to all great tragedy. Much that happens to Henchard, like the failure of his effort to speculate in grain futures and therefore destroy Farfrae, occurs because of events beyond his control, such as the shift in weather. But what makes Henchard a tragic man is that he acknowledges his own responsibility, in undertaking such an enterprise. As all good tragedy causes us to wonder, is Henchard's fate the result of his own decision, or does something Hardy called "Hap" [happenstance] or Chance in a great poem, control our lives?

In this novel the author provides a perplexing gloss: "Character is Fate, said Novalis . . ." We cannot ultimately draw a clear line between what Henchard brings down on himself and what is fated for him. This is the case in many great tragedies, for the line between individual responsibility for setting something into motion and that of fate for accelerating that motion inexorably is deliberately blurred. What the tragic approach to life validates, however, is that one be great enough to accept responsibility for what happens to oneself and others. The Mayor of Casterbridge is exactly such a character. Even if there is a continuing hint of pride in his determination that fate cannot dish out anything Henchard cannot bear, it is a pride we admire and hope to share.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

Blind Fate
The idea of a blind, arbitrary fate is a central theme in Hardy’s fiction. Although this fate is blind, it is not neutral but almost always cruel. It is a force that brings suffering and feels no pity or remorse.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, blind fate manifests as a series of ruinous coincidences and unforeseeable circumstances. Such coincidences and circumstances seem to conspire against Michael Henchard from the opening scenes. There are two shops offering food at the fair; one clearly advertises that it sells liquor, but the other seems not to do so. Susan, knowing Michael’s weakness for alcohol, steers him to what seems to be the “safer” of the two establishments. But, as fate would have it, the proprietor there sells rum on the sly, and Michael is soon drunk and loudly insisting on his desire to sell his wife.

Next, along comes a coincidence in the person of a man who has both the money and the inclination to accept the offer that Henchard has been unwilling to let drop in spite of attempts by his wife and others to silence him. The man happens to be a sailor who takes Susan to Canada, far beyond Michael’s reach as he searches for her.

And so the tide of fate that will carry Michael inexorably to his tragic end gathers strength. It is not swayed by Henchard’s repentance, by his shame, by his vow not to drink, or by his lifelong efforts to right his wrong. It is as if a curse has been uttered and cannot be withdrawn.

Relationship between Character and Fate
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, more than in some of Hardy’s other fiction, the theme of blind fate is interwoven with a second theme that might at first seem contradictory: the theme of personal character as the molder of fate. Every coincidence or unforeseen circumstance is paired with a choice. Henchard could have refused the furmity woman’s rum, but did not. He could have refused Newson’s offer to buy Susan, which would have required the courage and strength of character to admit that the offer was a drunken mistake.

Circumstance and character hold a conversation throughout this novel. Each circumstance is a question that Henchard must answer, and each answer both illustrates what kind of man Henchard is and determines what kind of man he will become. In the beginning, Henchard has much control over his fate; more than once, he is presented with the opportunity to prevent the curse from being uttered. But once he has sold Susan, his choices have much less power. A line has been crossed, a process has been set in motion, a deed has been done that all of Michael’s future efforts will be inadequate to erase. Although he makes many moral choices from that moment on—to forswear alcohol and to “remarry” Susan, for example—Michael has lost control of his fate.

As these two themes of blind fate and personal character weave through the novel, Hardy leaves readers to interpret just how the two relate. Judging by Michael Henchard’s end, though, Hardy’s message seems to be that each choice a person makes limits future choices and that a single bad choice can put a person forever at the mercy of blind, uncaring fate. Michael Henchard can be compared to a seaman in a storm who, in a moment of carelessness, loses his grip on his ship’s wheel and is never able to regain control of his course.

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