Have you ever asked yourself why bad things happen in the world? Why people get divorced, good workers lose jobs, poor people get poorer, and gossip ruins innocent people's reputations? Well, you're not alone. Over a hundred years ago, our main man was asking these big questions too. In fact, is Hardy's attempt at finding some answers.
Hardy doesn't take the simple way out and just say, "Hey, it was fate!" No way. Hardy doesn't shy away from saying that the bad things that happen to Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, are a result of Henchard's own mistakes. But Hardy seems to suggest that Henchard only made those mistakes because of his character flaws, which he had absolutely no control over.
In the world of , your actions are the unavoidable consequence of your personality, and your personality is something you're born with. You're either born with the ability to exercise self control or you're not. You're either born with a gloomy personality or a happy one.
Think of it this way. Your personality and your actions are like a card game: you're dealt a certain hand of cards, and your actions are limited by that hand. Sure, you can change your hand slightly by drawing from the deck – but only slightly – and then you can still only play the cards in your hand. You can't act in a way that is out of character.
This isn't a very optimistic view of the world. But, hey, no one has ever accused Hardy of being an optimistic guy! Just look at the last sentence of the novel: Elizabeth-Jane's "youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." Man, what a downer.
So, do you buy all this? How much control do people really have over their actions? Do people ever change? Is there truly more pain than happiness in the world? Is life really "a general drama of pain"? Whether you think of yourself as an optimist or pessimist, provides lots of juicy food for thought.
The subject of sexual motivation and its inherent ambiguity with regard to Henchard's actions is a topic that caught my attention from the very first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge....
-------------------------------------------------------------- There are many factors which lead to the untimely demise of Michael Henchard "the Mayor of Casterbridge".
Meredith’s lines can very much be applied to the protagonist of Thomas Hardy’s novel which is popularly referred to as The Mayor of Casterbridge -Michael Henchard who has all the elements of a traditional tragic hero....
was an English poet and novelist writing during the late 19th century. Yes, we said "poet" first for a reason: Hardy always thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, even though nowadays he's remembered most for his novels. He started and ended his writing career as a poet, writing all those novels in the middle.
Part of what makes his novels so famous today is that they were ahead of their time in the late 1800s when he was writing. Even though he was writing during what we call the (i.e., during the reign of in Britain, 1837 to 1901), critics often consider Hardy's writing to have more in common with the modernist writers of the early 1900s, like , James Joyce, and . Hardy's novels weren't always well received when he was writing, and two of his last novels, and Jude the Obscure, were actually criticized so harshly for being "immoral" that Hardy stopped writing novels altogether and switched back poetry.
Hardy set many of his novels, including The Mayor of Casterbridge, in a fictional county of southern England that he called "Wessex." The fictional towns, farms, rivers, and forests in Wessex are common to all the "Wessex novels." You can actually find maps that critics and readers have drawn up of Hardy's imaginary county (see the "Best of the Web" section for an example), just like Lord of the Rings fans do for Middle-earth.
The novel follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of a man named Michael Henchard, who becomes a grain merchant and the mayor of a town called Casterbridge. Unfortunately for Henchard, he made some bad decisions as a young man that come back to haunt him just as things really seem to be looking up for him.
Like most of Hardy's novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy – no matter what the main characters try to accomplish, the fates (or their own flaws) seem to get in the way. The subtitle of the novel, "The Life and Death of a Man of Character," already tells us that Henchard will die at the end. And since this is a Thomas Hardy novel, we're betting that it won't be a happy death.
The novel opens with Michael Henchard and his wife, Susan, traveling through the country with their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. They stop for supper and Henchard gets totally drunk on rum. He offers to sell his wife and daughter to the highest bidder. He isn't entirely serious, but when a sailor offers five guineas (a lot of money to a poor man back then), Henchard takes it. Susan thinks it's a binding arrangement and that she now legally belongs to the sailor, so she takes the baby and leaves.
When Henchard wakes up sober and sorry, he tries to trace his wife and daughter. No luck. He swears a solemn oath not to drink any more alcohol for twenty years. After several months, he learns that the sailor has probably taken Susan and Elizabeth-Jane to North America, and he gives up hope of ever finding them. He settles down in the town of Casterbridge.
The scene changes. It's eighteen years later. Susan and her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, are traveling to Casterbridge to track down Michael Henchard. The sailor, whose name was Newson, has died, and Susan (who now calls herself Mrs. Newson, since she thought that her marriage was actually legally transferred to Newson) has decided that it's only right to return to her first husband to see if he can do anything for Elizabeth-Jane.
When they arrive in Casterbridge, they find that Henchard has worked his way up from a lowly hay harvester to a hay and grain merchant. He's wealthy now and has even been elected Mayor of the town. When he learns that Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are not only still alive, but in Casterbridge, he decides that it's only right to take them in and support them. But, as you might guess, he doesn't want to admit to anyone that he auctioned off his wife eighteen years earlier. So he suggests that Susan live in Casterbridge and call herself the widow Mrs. Newson, and he'll pretend to fall in love with her and propose to marry her. Then they can all live together, with Elizabeth-Jane as his "stepdaughter" instead of as his real daughter. Susan agrees, they follow the plan, and Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are soon living in the Mayor's house.
Around this same time, Henchard hires a young Scottish man, Donald Farfrae, to help manage his affairs. Farfrae has a much better head for business than Henchard does, and he quickly whips Henchard's business into shape. The two men become friends, and Elizabeth-Jane develops a crush on Farfrae.
Henchard confides everything to Farfrae, including the drunken auction eighteen years earlier. He even admits to him that before Susan and Elizabeth-Jane showed up, he had had a romantic entanglement with a young lady from Jersey (the British one, not the one with the Shore). The young lady was head over heels in love with him and didn't hide it, and everyone assumed they'd been sleeping together. They hadn't, but her reputation was ruined anyway. She wanted him to marry her to save her reputation, and he was going to – until Susan showed up. Farfrae is sympathetic when he hears the story and feels sorry for the other girl. Still, he agrees that Henchard did the right thing by remarrying his original wife.
Then things start to unravel. Henchard becomes jealous of Farfrae because the employees like him better. He fires Farfrae, who starts up his own business across town and does really well. Then Susan dies. Henchard tells Elizabeth-Jane that she's his real daughter, saying that he and Susan had been "separated" from each other for a long time (he doesn't admit to having auctioned them off).
But then he reads a letter that Susan left for him before her death admitting that Elizabeth-Jane his real daughter. She's actually the daughter of Captain Newson, and the original Elizabeth-Jane (the baby who was auctioned off along with Susan) died as a baby. Crazy, huh?! Henchard decides he doesn't really want Elizabeth-Jane around anymore and starts being mean to her.
And the drama continues. Elizabeth-Jane moves out of Henchard's house to live with a wealthy young woman who has just moved to Casterbridge. Turns out, that young woman is the one who was in love with Henchard before! Her name is Lucetta, but she changed her last name from Le Sueur to Templeman after inheriting a lot of money from a wealthy aunt named Miss Templeman. She has moved to Casterbridge because she heard of Susan's death and still wants Henchard to marry her. Henchard feels guilty about having messed up her reputation (even though he still swears they never slept together) so he's all for marrying her.
But then Lucetta meets Farfrae. Lucetta is a total flirt and Farfrae falls for her. Lucetta doesn't want to marry Henchard anymore, but she's worried that someone will find out about her past relationship with him. She'd written him a lot of steamy love letters and is worried that someone might show them to Farfrae. Henchard is angry that she doesn't want to marry him anymore, and he tries to blackmail her into promising to be his wife. Lucetta panics, then marries Farfrae on the sly. Farfrae knows nothing about Lucetta's past relationship with Henchard and has no clue why Henchard, who used to be his best friend, is acting like such a jerk.
Henchard's business has been failing ever since Farfrae stopped working for him, and finally he has to declare bankruptcy. Farfrae buys Henchard's house and business. Henchard ends up being hired to work for Farfrae as a lowly laborer, which really hurts his pride. He is still jealous of Farfrae and is tempted to show him Lucetta's old love letters as a way of getting back at them both.
Lucetta tries to persuade Henchard to give her all the old love letters so that she can burn them. Henchard reluctantly agrees. But he sends the letters in a package with someone who isn't trustworthy. The messenger opens the package and shows the letters to a few people in a bar. The rumors about Lucetta's past relationship with Henchard start flying around. A few drunken townspeople decide it would be funny to have a parade with a model of Henchard and Lucetta cuddling together. They have their drunken procession one night while Farfrae is out of town. Lucetta hears about it and is so upset that she gets hysterical and then dies. The drunken townspeople feel kind of bad about that. They didn't mean to her.
Henchard realizes that he's been a total jerk to Elizabeth-Jane and apologizes. Elizabeth-Jane moves back in with him, still thinking she's his real daughter and that Captain Newson, the man who brought her up, was only her stepfather. Then one day, while Elizabeth-Jane is taking a nap, Captain Newson shows up at Henchard's door. (Wait, we thought he was dead!) Turns out that Newson hadn't really drowned when Susan thought he did. He asks about Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard is afraid that Newson will tell Elizabeth-Jane that he's her real father and that she'll leave. So Henchard lies and says Elizabeth-Jane is dead. Newson leaves town immediately, but Henchard is paranoid that Newson will return and Elizabeth-Jane will find out about his big fat lie.
After Lucetta's death, Farfrae is at first heartbroken, but then he begins to realize that a much better woman than Lucetta has been there this whole time. Elizabeth-Jane still loves him, and they start thinking about getting married. Henchard has been uneasy ever since Newson's visit, and now that Elizabeth-Jane is going to get married, he decides he should just leave Casterbridge altogether. But he can't bring himself to go too far away from Elizabeth-Jane – he wanders around the countryside near Casterbridge for weeks.
Newson returns soon after Henchard leaves and tells Elizabeth-Jane the truth. She is understandably angry at Henchard for having lied to her about being her real father and for send Newson away. After she gets married, though, she starts to feel sorry for her stepfather. She searches for him but only finds him after he has died.
Hardy's use of irony is clear throughout his work; The Mayor of Casterbridge1 (referred to from this point on as Casterbridge) clearly features many ironic twists in the plot, both obvious ones such as Henchard discovering Elizabeth-Jane's true parentage at such an inappropriate time, and more subtle uses of irony as when Mrs.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy explores the personality of a man, Michael Henchard, who hands his family off to a stranger, Richard Newsom, for a mere five guineas.
Pauline I like reading … especially English novels … it’s a great way to improve your vocabulary and there are so many fantastic authors to choose from … one book that by my teacher was The Mayor of Casterbridge … I was studying at a school in The UK at the time and she said it would give me a picture of what life was like years ago in the area I was living … well I have to say I absolutely loved it … it was … it’s a and was a fictional town called Casterbridge … but actually it was a town near where I was studying called Dorchester … it had such a great … to cut a long story short the downfall of a man called Henchard who lives during a period of great social change around the time of the industrial revolution … the reason I enjoyed it so much … apart from the great story … it gave me a picture of what life had been like in the place I was studying at the time … I really … a fantastic story …