(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 2348 words.)