The decline of Michael Henchard, which comprises the primary action in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, is enacted against the backdrop of the agricultural and manufacturing upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. Henchard is committed to preindustrial methods and attempts to hold back the town’s modernization. He insists upon using old agricultural methods, for example, and his trust of a “weather prophet” to predict harvest conditions results in a ruined grain crop that threatens the town’s survival. Living in an area of southwest England that is littered with decaying artifacts of Roman power, Henchard ironically finds himself struggling to assert himself in a town destined for change beyond its own choosing. Henchard meets defeat in every encounter with newer ideas and procedures; his failure to understand and his lack of moderation in his desires incite him to brutal aggression followed by pain and regret, as he becomes more and more isolated from humanity.
The extreme guilt Henchard endures for years after selling his wife and infant daughter seems indicative of the intense emotions with which he responds to circumstances. As his status grows in Casterbridge, so does the importance to him of his own good name and character. Remarrying Susan soon after she and Elizabeth-Jane appear in town is not only a means of making amends but also an ill-advised attempt to protect his reputation. Henchard loses the esteem and respect of the town’s citizens because of his crop blunder, initiating and shaping his tragic relationship with Farfrae: The young man’s ability to repair damaged wheat benefits the town, but it causes him to usurp rather than repair the popularity that Henchard desperately wants to preserve. The fortunes of Farfrae, the novel’s representative of new methods in agriculture, rise, while those of Henchard tumble.
Like many of Hardy’s novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge prominently features elements of coincidence and chance, as each chapter introduces unlikely events and the timely appearances of major and minor characters. In fact, many scenes in each chapter are exquisitely crafted, incorporating coincidence into the narrative action and characterization with such skill that each scene seems a miniature of the entire novel. Hardy believed that chance was a force governing things over which people have no control. However, this force operates without conscious design, and, although it represents the will of the universe, it seems to produce...
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1. Analyze the sale of Susan and Elizabeth-Jane and measure its centrality to the plot.
Henchard’s sale of his wife and daughter occurs in the first chapter and sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Once he sobers up the next day, he is at first angry with Susan for allowing it to happen and he also hopes nobody knows his name (and so hopes to avoid the shame of his actions). As well as these emotions, he also experiences contrition, which leads him to take the oath not to drink alcohol for the next 21 years. All of these reactions to the sale demonstrate his character and the act of selling his wife becomes a fact he wishes to hide.
The novel pivots on this sale as it this drunken yet unforgiveable decision that shades his family’s life. It also represents a cynical view of their stale relationship, which, in turn, allows for a critique of matrimony.
2. Consider the characterization of Henchard.
Henchard is the central eponymous anti-hero who is given exaggerated human failings and strengths. His rise to the position of Mayor of Casterbridge and to a general level of respectability is seen to be thwarted and decimated by his own impulsive actions. His inability to control his jealous and angry compulsions lead repeatedly to further woes and then alienation from those who have cared for him.
This is most evident in his relationship with Elizabeth-Jane as he cannot bear to see her leave his affections even though he has been indifferent towards her in the past. In some senses, he is given childlike attributes as he suffers from this lack of control. He is also a characteristically overbearing patriarch who wishes to have only people in his life who behave as he sees fit.
3. Examine the relationship between Farfrae and Henchard.
Henchard’s impulsive desires are central to his characterization and these are not only evident when he sells his wife and daughter, for example, but also in his almost immediate liking for Farfrae. He persuades him to stay in Casterbridge and work for him and offers him his home to live in whilst he finds more suitable accommodation.
All of this generosity is put into the shade, though, when jealousy takes over Henchard as he sees how popular and successful his deemed protégé has become. This crisis may be seen as having Oedipal overtones as the older man fears being usurped by the (surrogate) son. This male rivalry climaxes in a staged fight between the two of them in the store that used to belong to Henchard, but by this point is owned by Farfrae.
Henchard’s mistrust of Farfrae is originally sparked because he regrets confiding in the younger man. On impulse (again), Henchard has told him his darkest secrets and later realizes after a dispute that Farfrae may use this information against him. This fear is unfounded and comes to reflect Henchard’s ability to deceive rather than Farfrae’s.
4. Analyze the way marriage and morality are depicted in this novel.
From the first chapter, when the readers are informed that the silent couple walking to Weydon must be married as ‘no other such relationship would have accounted for the stale familiarity’, it is evident that matrimony is not accepted here as a universally happy relationship. Henchard goes on to sell his wife and daughter and this emphasizes all the more, in a figurative manner, how the institution of marriage may be regarded as a business transaction. This is depicted as a shocking and shameful act, but in a metaphoric sense it typifies Henchard’s woman-hating views which he professes later to Farfrae.
Moral hypocrisy is also criticized as the happily married Lucetta is punished for the supposed misdemeanour of having a relationship with another man before she met Farfrae. Her humiliation is made public in the skimmity ride as effigies of her and Henchard are transported through the town to the sound of raucous music. Her death symbolically questions this supposed practical joke (and the hypocrisy of her humiliation) as those involved are suddenly silenced by guilt and by fear of punishment. Through her death, the novel forces the readers to deconstruct this carnival as we are made to see how unfair it is to judge a woman by her sexual relationships. In this light, the novel becomes modern in its interrogation of received, hypocritical morality.
5. Consider how this novel critiques propriety.
When the readers first encounter Henchard as a resident of Casterbridge many years after he sold his wife and child, we are told he has since risen in the hierarchy to become Mayor. As the narrative progresses, he reveals his desire to maintain this rank and is afraid that his shameful past will be revealed. For the sake of propriety, he pretends to woo and marry Susan for the first time after she appears in Casterbridge and both parents attempt to ‘hoodwink’ Elizabeth-Jane as to their true relationship.
These deceptions reveal hypocrisy and a desire for acceptance and this is echoed in Lucetta’s fears that people will find out about her past relationship with Henchard. For the sake of avoiding scandal and social ruin (which are the outcomes if propriety is not maintained), Lucetta agrees initially to marry Henchard even though she now loves Farfrae. Propriety, then, becomes the means to blackmail and frighten those who are afraid of losing their unstable class position and both Henchard and Lucetta are not born high enough in the social rankings to take their new wealth and status for granted.