The Mayor of Casterbridge

mayor of casterbridgeThomas 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.

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14 Responses to The Mayor of Casterbridge

  1. I wonder what the result of that ethical stance might be? I mean, if everything is temperament and chance, what can we do to avoid suffering?

    Nothing, nothing!

    So perhaps we should just spend our energy learning to endure suffering.

    I have doubts about some of Hardy’s writing, but it is hard to argue with that opening scene, isn’t it?

    • Jenny says:

      I think Hardy would certainly say that there is nothing we can do to avoid suffering; his novels bear that out in spades. Learning to endure suffering is part of our job, but you’ve got to have the temperament for it, of course. If you’re a big mean beefy fellow, you’re not going to submit yourself to suffering very easily, and all the worse for you.

  2. I read Far From the Madding Crowd two years ago — my first Hardy — and adored it. That Bathsheba. Been very torn about what to read for my 2nd Hardy — this one has been on the list and I think I might go with it — sounds so dark and dramatic.

    • Jenny says:

      That Bathsheba, indeed! She’s terrific. I’ve also read The Return of the Native, which I really enjoyed, and most of Tess, which I read in high school and hated but would probably like now. Frankly they are all dark and dramatic; you can’t really go wrong if that’s what you’re looking for.

  3. Teresa says:

    That opening is something, isn’t it? One of Hardy’s most memorable, I think.

    I’m going to have to give some thought to whether there are any Hardy characters that I like much. When I was younger, I tended to like the pure but bland characters, but I’m more indifferent to them now. I think what makes these unsympathetic characters work is that Hardy shows them caught up in those same winds of chance that we all feel caught up in sometimes. You can’t help but sympathize because there but for the grace of God (or Fate) go I.

    I love what you say about temperament and chance. The importance of both show up again and again in Hardy’s books, with temperament seeming to be as much a tool for enduring (or not) as a driver toward the characters’ destiny. Yet how you endure influences what happens to you.

    So which Hardy novel are you considering next? You just have Jude and The Woodlanders (and finishing Tess) before you’re caught up with me. I’ve been hovering over some of the unread Hardy novels on my shelf and will probably pick one up to read soon.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve kind of been dithering over Jude, because everyone says it’s so depressing, but to be honest, how much more grim could it possibly be than just regular-strength Hardy? I mean, on the one hand, double suicide; on the other, soul-crushing poverty? Come on, flip the coin. :)

      • Teresa says:

        Didn’t you tell me you’d already been spoiled regarding its grimmest scene? Because if so, that’s as bad as it gets. The rest is more about the utter relentlessness of Jude’s suffering, which is typical Hardy. It just lacks some of the lighter moments you find in some of his other books. I would really like to know what you make of Sue Bridehead. I think she’s one of Hardy’s more interesting characters.

      • Jenny says:

        Yes, I have (though as you know I don’t mind spoilers.) I’ll probably read that one next, and just brace up the fores’l mizzen (or whatever.) What have you got on your shelf that’s by him?

      • Teresa says:

        I think between what I have on my shelves and what I could find at Project Gutenberg for my e-reader, I have just about all his novels and a couple of story collections. He’s not so very prolific to make completion seem impossible, unless you start factoring in his poetry (which is really quite good).

  4. Great review!
    I remember picking up an old copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge at a flea market in 2001. The story captivated me and at the end, left me with a tear in my eye.
    Life’s Little Ironies was even better, but An Indescretion In the Life of An Heiress was a short unpolished novel. I have Tess and hope to tackle it someday

    • Jenny says:

      As Teresa pointed out, I have yet to finish Tess. I probably ought to try it again now that I officially enjoy Hardy. Tom, above, says he has doubts about some of Hardy’s writing, but I can’t fault him for descriptive prose.

  5. I wish I had an example handy of Hardy’s sentence-level duddery, where Hardy’s ear seems not to work quite right, but I have not written about him and do not remember any. I only remember the good parts, like the descriptive prose, or that scene where Henchard is on the bridge, and when he looks down he sees – well, anyway, that is a well-written scene.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes — ugh, it is! And it casts back to Return of the Native, as well, so there’s an extra shudder in the scene for those who have read that book.

      I do agree with you that Hardy’s every sentence isn’t as lithe and lissom as, say, Nabokov’s. But that’s a pretty high bar, in the end. Hardy’s prose is very good, if occasionally a little rugged, and he can often be quite funny, something I didn’t mention in this review and something I think people might miss because he has such a reputation for grimness. He’s a real pleasure.

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