The Mayor of Casterbridge

Sorry this is so overdue–I finished The Mayor of Casterbridge two weeks ago and am only now trying to turn my notes into a coherent review. It always seems that the more there is to say about a book, the more trouble I have doing so!

He experienced not only the bitterness of a man who finds, in looking back upon an ambitious course, that what he had sacrificed in sentiment was worth as much as he had gained in substance; but the superadded bitterness of seeing his very recantation nullified. He had been sorry for all this long ago; but his attempts to replace ambition by love had been as fully foiled as his ambition itself.

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles last summer knowing absolutely nothing about Thomas Hardy or the book. I quickly fell in love with the complicated characters, a reaction only heightened by watching the adaptation (thoughts here and here, but plenty of spoilers as well). Having read all I could about Tess means that I went into The Mayor of Casterbridge with a deeper understanding of Hardy’s favorite themes and plot devices. So forgive me if I make occasional comparisons, as that is in part how I made sense of the novel.

The mayor of Casterbridge is Michael Henchard. Twenty years ago he was a lowly hay trusser who sold his wife and daughter at an auction while drunk (not a spoiler); now he has become a successful and respected grain merchant whom fortune has treated well. His luck and status seem to change however, when a few newcomers arrive. His wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane come to claim his support as a “kinsman,” and Scotsman Donald Farfrae joins his staff as business manager. These events start a chain of interactions that last throughout the novel, as Hardy deftly reveals the complexities of Henchard’s character.

He certainly is worthy of study. Michael Henchard is both strong and weak, in that he succumbs easily to the passions of a moment but can also behave resolutely when he has decided on a course. For example, after selling his wife he took an oath to avoid alcohol for twenty-one years, and followed it. He bestows his affections only with conviction, and if he feels slighted is tempted to cast them off. Too often he places business before emotional connections, or behaves cruelly to those he loves, so that at times it’s hard to like him. On the other hand, however, Henchard finds it had to like himself. He is remorseful for wrongs he causes, and in his heart knows what courses he should take. Above all I found him a sympathetic character whom I came to understand.

Hence, when she felt her heart going out to him, she would say to herself with a mock pleasantry that carried an ache with it, “No, no, Elizabeth-Jane–such dreams are not for you!” She tried to prevent herself from seeing him, and thinking of him; succeeding fairly well in the former attempt, in the latter not so completely.

The novel covers not just Henchard, but all those in his sphere, especially Elizabeth-Jane. She is a sweet and studious girl, saved from vanities by the hardship of her early life. You can’t help but wish her every happiness, even if she thinks she doesn’t deserve them. The energetic and innovative Farfrae has the biblical luck of Jacob and Joseph in that he can do no wrong when it comes to the grain market. And Lucetta, a rich young woman with a tragic past, seems almost a precursor to Tess in that she refuses to let prior incidents dictate her future. We also see recurring townspeople, who add color, commentary, and a touch of humor.

Hardy does touch on some of the same themes as in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, such as the role of destiny or fate. Here the events are a bit more melodramatic without being piled up, and I wonder why his later book had less of a balance. At times it does seem as if something greater is dictating the happiness or success of the characters; Michael especially bemoans this. He also, however, recognizes that just as often the events that befall him are a result of his own character and choices. The biggest effect of fate seems to be in the timing of things, beginning with the simultaneous arrival of Susan and Farfrae.

Casterbridge was the complement of the rural life around; not its urban opposite. Bees and butterflies in the cornfields at the top of the town, who desired to get to the meads at the bottom, took no circuitous course but flew straight down High Street without any apparent consciousness that they were transversing strange latitudes. And in autumn airy spheres of thistledown floated into the same street, lodged upon the shop fronts, blew into drains; and innumerable tawny and yellow leaves skimmed along the pavement, and stole through people’s doorways into their passages with a hesitating scratch on the floor like the skirts of timid visitors.

Sorry for such a long quote, but I just loved that imagery. It’s important to remember that even when first published in the late nineteenth century Hardy’s novels were historical, set forty years earlier and describing a vanishing way of life. Casterbridge is a small town completely coexistent with the farming community. As with Tess there are scenes of harvest and rural life, the details of the grain trade. Roman ruins on the outskirts of town complete the pretty picture. Hardy’s view of Nature seems to be what is most natural and simple. The right path may not always make sense, but it scorns artifice or false aims.

After my experience with Tess I went into this with baited breath, waiting for bad things to happen. While as a character study this leans much more towards tragedy than comedy, it has better balance and retains a sense of hope and promise. I can’t wait to read the afterword, and see what others have to say about the book.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books lists. It is also my fifth and final book for the Classics Challenge. I’m so glad I chose it, because I ended up loving it almost as much as Tess. The characters feel like they will stay with me for a long time.

Published in: on October 24, 2009 at 8:54 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting post. The Mayor of Casterbridge is not usually the first choice if one wants to read Hardy. I did love Tess and Far From the Madding Crowd. I’ve had this on my shelf but have yet to pick it up. (sigh!) Another book to add to the To-be-read pile!

  2. […] wants but is blind to his own flaws, especially hubris. It also reminded me of other stories like The Mayor of Casterbridge or Maestro Don Gesualdo with other similar leads (I hesitate to call them heroes). We don’t […]

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