Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, like all the novels of his I’ve read, is about the rise and fall of men’s fortunes thanks to a combination of real fortune — chance — and their behavior in response to that chance. Hardy is very interested in the way certain people never seem to get a break, and others seem to get all the luck in life. But he explodes that theory: watch this, he says, and shows us the shimmering, dancing facets of temperament, genetics (that is, inherited family leanings), social class, stubbornness, education, marriage, and many other factors.The very title of this book is tricky: the position of mayor passes from one man to another when their respective fortunes change. But with Hardy, it’s never pure fortune.
The novel begins with a scandal. Michael Henchard, an ordinary workman, arrives at a market-town with his wife and baby girl in tow. As soon as he gets drunk, he gets malicious, and, in a memorable scene quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, he auctions off his family to the highest bidder: five guineas, as it happens, to a passing sailor. The wife, tired of this treatment, unexpectedly agrees to the bargain and simply goes with the sailor, having been bought and sold like a cow and her heifer. And it is not until nearly twenty years later that the wife and daughter rediscover Henchard, whose determination and ferocity have made him the mayor of Casterbridge.
Henchard finds himself up against a young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae, who is ingenious, adaptable, and well-liked. Farfrae has no enmity for Henchard — quite the contrary — but has far more self-control, and therefore fate (if there is such a thing as fate) serves him much better. As Henchard sees Farfrae taking his business, his friends, his standing in the community, and eventually the woman he once thought he might marry, his rage cannot be assuaged. Fate, or Hardy’s understanding of fate, does not come to the beck and call of a man bellowing with rage. Henchard eventually makes so many bad mistakes out of that jealous anger that he loses everything he cares for: money, standing, respect, and love.
Hardy does something particularly interesting with the way he deals with the past in this novel. Three of the main characters — Henchard, his wife, and the woman he later thinks of marrying, Lucetta — have something to hide in their past, and each will do almost anything to avoid discovery. Each character, at one point or another, takes an elaborate step of deception. This deception is always so amply punished by pain, sorrow, and in two cases death, that you might think Hardy was trying to deliver a moral, or something. The two characters who have nothing to hide — Farfrae and Henchard’s daughter Elizabeth-Jane — are as little troubled by pain as it is possible for characters in a Hardy novel to be. (Which is to say, only about half the time.)
I have, to some extent, moved away from needing or even wanting my characters to be sympathetic, and it’s a good thing when I read Hardy. Henchard is a hard, ugly man with little to like about him. Lucetta is a desperate flirt without the guts to be a Bathsheba Everdene, Elizabeth-Jane is rather dull, and even Farfrae isn’t as perspicacious as a reader would like him to be. Yet this book treats them all with respect and interest. How does a man like Henchard, with such a big heart, capable of such love and such power, reach such a pitiful end? How does a beautiful woman, loved by two wealthy merchants, the small Casterbridge world at her feet, lose everything at one blow? Hardy will tell you: chance and temperament, temperament and chance.