We will study yet another novel in this unit. It is The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy in which he presents the story of Henchard who auctions his wife in a fair. Thomas Hardy built a reputation as a successful novelist who saw novel writing primarily as a means of earning a living. Like his contemporaries, he tried to satisfy his audience so wrote according to the conventions of serialisation, and the readers to some extent influenced the plot of his novels. Hardy wrote between the 19th and 20th centuries. Consequently, some scholars feel that he should not be listed as a Victorian novelist yet we cannot categorise him as a modern novelist.
We will discuss a novel that is by all standards, a classical tragedy in which the tragic hero contributes to the catastrophe that befalls him and only realises his error in judgment usually very late. This is the case with Michael Henchard in this story that chronicles his life. His pride, his rigidity, his firmness and his inability to compromise culminate in his fall and eventual death. The novel presents his series of sufferings and reversal of fortune which leads to a climax when he recognises his own character and ends in his death.
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in Higher Bockhampton in Dorset, a rural region of southwestern England where he set most of his novels. He portrays traditional rural and agricultural life which he was familiar with in this novel. Hardy had wanted to go to the university and become a clergyman but because he did not have enough money, he decided to take up a career in writing instead. He did not get an instant fame through his novels but spent many years as an obscure writer before his Far from the Madding Crowd, (1874) brought him to limelight and he was able to support himself as a writer. In addition to novel writing, he read widely, attended lectures and concerts. The Mayor of Casterbridge was written in 1884-5, appeared in serial form in 1886 and was published in the same year in two volumes. His novels include: Desperate Remedies (1871); A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873); The Hand of Ethelberta (1876); The Return of The Native (1878); The Trumpet Major (1880); A Laodicean (1881); Two on a Tower (1882); The Woodlanders (1887); Tess of The d’Urbervilles (1891); Jude the Obscure (1896); and The Well-Beloved (1897).
Plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge
Michael Henchard is looking for employment as a hay-trusser and as he is travelling with his wife, Susan, they decide to stop somewhere and eat. Unfortunately, Henchard gets drunk, and sells his wife and their baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, to Newson, a sailor, for five guineas in an auction that starts as a joke. He wakes up the following morning to realise what he has done, he sets out to search the entire town for them but it was in vain. He therefore swears an oath in a church that he will not drink alcohol for twenty-one years to represent the same number of years he has lived.
Newson is believed to have died so Susan with Elizabeth-Jane go back to Casterbridge to search for Henchard though Elizabeth-Jane believes that he is just a long-lost relative. They learn that Henchard is the Mayor of Casterbridge. The parents meet and decide that in order to prevent Elizabeth-Jane from learning of their disgrace; Henchard will court and remarry Susan as though they had met only recently. They remarry but Susan dies shortly after the marriage.
Meanwhile, Donald Farfrae, the new manager of Henchard’s corn business develops interest in Elizabeth-Jane but Henchard becomes jealous. He asks Farfrae to leave his business and to stop courting Elizabeth-Jane. However as Henchard discovers that Elizabeth-Jane is not his own daughter, but Newson’s, his attitude towards her changes so Elizabeth-Jane is forced to leave Henchard’s house and live with a lady who turns out to be Lucetta Templeman, Henchard’s lover when Susan was away. Lucetta has come to Casterbridge to marry Henchard after Susan’s death. In a twist of fate, Lucetta meets Farfrae, who has come to see Elizabeth- Jane and marries him. She demands that Henchard return all her love letters to him.
Henchard obliges but the messenger, Jopp, stops at an inn where the peasants intercept the letters through which the romance between Lucetta and Henchard is discovered. They hold a “skimmity- ride,” which is a humiliating parade, one afternoon when Farfrae is away. In it they portray Lucetta and Henchard together and Lucetta faints when she sees the carricature and dies shortly afterwards. In another twist of fate, Newson resurfaces to ask for Elizabeth Jane and Henchard tells him that she is dead, Newson leaves in sorrow.
Elizabeth- Jane stays with Henchard and also begins to spend more time with Farfrae. Unfortunately for Henchard, Elizabeth Jane is reunited with Newson, her real father and Henchard’s deceit becomes obvious. Henchard leaves to avoid confrontation with Newson only to return on the night of Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding with Farfrae but she snubs him. He leaves again, telling her that he will not return but she regrets her action later, and she goes with Farfrae to look for Henchard to make amends but it is too late as they discover that he died alone in the countryside and left a will in which he states that he should be forgotten.
The major theme of the novel is the need for hard work and a good name. The novelist depicts the importance of hard work and good character. Henchard arrived Casterbridge as a jobless hay-trusser but through hard work he is able to build a big business and good reputation that earns him the position of a mayor. The importance of good reputation is further heightened by the consequences of dishonourable acts in the novel. For instance, when Henchard gets involved in petty jealousy of Farfrae, which leads to a drawn-out competition with him, he loses all he achieved in business and the women he loves.
In addition, his reputation as a worthy and honourable citizen suffers and in the end he dies, a lonely man. Lucetta dies also as a result of the loss of her good name precipitated by the “skimmity-ride.” Another major issue raised in the novel is the theme of agricultural and the impending erosion of the old country life with its value system. The theme of agriculture is explored through the presentation of agriculture-based business ventures which is the mainstay of the economy in Casterbridge.
The novel is set in Casterbridge, a rural town that adheres to certain traditions and customs. In Casterbridge, business is conducted by word of mouth and weather-prophets are consulted regarding crop yields. However, with the arrival of Farfrae, new and more efficient systems of transacting the business in the town’s grain markets were introduced. This results in an increase in agricultural production. This reflects the author’s portrayal of the introduction of technology, the mechanisation of farming, the extension of capitalism to the agricultural sphere in the 19th century England and the belief that with the growth of urbanisation, traditional agricultural will dwindle.
Michael Henchard: Michael Henchard is the protagonist in the novel; his personality enables him to bear his problems without blaming anybody. He is seen as a hero because of his determination to suffer, endure great pain and bear the burden of his own mistakes as he sells his family and mismanages his business. As a character, he has a volatile temper which forces him into ruthless competition with Farfrae that strips him of his pride and property. He has a sense of insecurity which leads him to deceive Elizabeth-Jane, and lie to Newson and pays dearly for it through a lonely death. Yet his strength of character manifests itself in his will that no one should mourn or remember him. He is a powerful, broad chested man who governed the values of the heart with with expansive good humour and tremendous warmth. He loves intensely and hates ruthlessly. He admires greatness and strength, but he is soft-hearted enough to keep Abel Whittle’s mother in coals and snuff throughout a hard winter. He is open, trusting and sincere but flinches from contemplating petty details (Brown 1954, 35). His moral uprightness, concern for the feelings of others, refusal to extenuate anything at the end, and his readiness to live on despite one of his worst accusers endears him to readers.
Donald Farfrae: Donald Farfrae could be said to be the antagonist in the novel. He is young, intelligent and the one who brings scientific revolution that helps the mayor to salvage damaged grain in Casterbridge. (Brown 1954, 34). He is ambitious and quickly takes over the agriculture business. He is light, slim, selfish, extremely secretive and settles everything in the light of cold logic after calm deliberation to ensure that he is not discredited or disadvantaged. Even his dancing and generosity seem practised, consciously done with an eye for effect so lacks imagination or a sense of humour. His primary motive in taking over Casterbridge’s grain trade is to make it more prosperous and prepare the village for the advancing agricultural economy of the later nineteenth century.
Elizabeth-Jane Newson: Initially, Elizabeth-Jane is mistaken to be Henchard’s daughter but it she turns out to be Newson’s. She is a kind, simple and uneducated girl but she improves intellectually and socially when she arrives in Casterbridge by dressing like a lady, reading voraciously, and doing her best to expunge rustic country dialect from her speech. This self-education comes at a painful time, for not long after she arrives in Casterbridge, her mother dies, leaving her in the custody of a man who has learned that she is not his biological daughter and therefore wants little to do with her. She marries Frafare in the end, despises Henchard but is determined to make amends but it is too late as she discovers that he is dead.
Lucetta Templeman: Like Michael Henchard, Lucetta Templeman lives recklessly according to her passions and suffers for it. Lucetta was involved in a scandalously indiscreet affair with Henchard and later marries Donald Farfare and as their relationship continues she is made the subject of a shameful “skimmity-ride.” She dies as a result of that.
Hardy adopts the omniscient narrative technique in this novel and makes intrusive comments on the action and the characters. However, some of the scenes are not realized adequately, especially the mysterious and seemingly unreal incidents which tends to destroy the concept of realism in the novel. The structural pattern relies heavily on coincidence and the chance occurrences that push Henchard closer and closer to failure (Gregor 1974, 45). Hardy relays the passing from one era to the next with a quiet kind of nostalgia. The extensive use of the oral tradition, folk-lore and folk superstition in the novel evokes a rural setting that is not influenced by the technology of modern society. Thomas Hardy presents a vivid and graphic description of the rural, old – fashioned, unscientific and superstitious town in a state of innocence and naturalness where honesty, integrity, and bonding exist. He presents a town that enjoys relative peace and stability before the advent of the foreigners with their new methods and manners that are bound to disintegrate the society.
In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Charles Dickens presents the story of Michael Henchard, a young ambitious hay-trusser who, who is not happy that his career is not progressing. He auctions his wife and daughter after drinking heavily at a fair but regrets his action later. Fortunately, they are reunited, unfortunately his wife dies shortly after that but unknown to him the daughter his wife brought back is not his and the realisation of this fact, his rivalry with Farfrae and “skimmity- ride.” helps to precipitate his tragic end. In the novel, Thomas Hardy is able to convey a picturesque picture of communal life in Casterbridge in which he captures all aspects of life of the people. He presents their beliefs, superstitions, occupations and their interpersonal relationships in such a way that the reader is able to relate with the all characters irrespective of class. He also depicts the gradual disintegration of the old order and its replacement with a new order that is not likely to be humane as exemplified in Farfrae who represents the new order.
In this article, we have studied a novel, Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy in which he presents the nineteenth-century English agricultural society. The novelist portrays the disintegration of rural traditional society and the introduction of technological mechanised agriculture. This novel confirms that Thomas Hardy belongs to both the Victorian and the modernist tradition as he records the change of a rural agricultural community into a modern city. He shows its effects on cultural and economic development which results in the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation; the decline of Christianity, folk traditions, and moral values.