In my continuing quest to broaden my knowledge of literature, I recently read the elegant and convenient Oxford World’s Classic volume of The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. The novel is famous for its scandalous beginning in which a traveling hay truser named Michael Henchard sells his wife to another man. The story then follows him from seeming redemption to ultimate downfall. It is a story of unbridled emotions, rivalry, betrayal, and tragedy. It may not be a page turner in the traditional sense but it is a fascinating portrait of human weakness and emotions.
In his introduction Rick Moody claims that The Mayor of Casterbridge is the first novel about alcoholism. In Moody’s view Hardy didn’t have the medical knowledge that we do today, but he was nevertheless describing the disease of alcolholism. Wether Moody’s claim is true or not, it is certainly alcohol that gets Henchard into trouble in the first place. Traveling in search of work with his wife and young daughter he arrives in a large village on a fair day. Seeking out refreshments the wife steers him away from the ale and cider tent and toward the furmity (a “mixture of corn in the grain, flour, milk, raisins, currants, and what not”) seller. Unfortunately, the old women serving the family was also selling liquor on the side. Henchard slyly figures this out and proceeds to get drunk on the concoction.
In a fit of bitterness and drunkenness Henchard begins to offer his wife for sale to the highest bidder. It is unclear at first if he means to go through with it or is just being a cruel drunk. But regardless of why he started down this road, he stubbornly continues to push the issue until it is too late. An out of town sailor steps forward and meets the bid (Henchard had rvrn gone so far as to have an auctioneer in the tent ply his trade). The crowd watches dumbfounded as the sailor walks away with the wife and daughter. The drunken Henchard is left to sleep it off in the furmity tent.
With this emotionally powerful beginning the reader is pulled into the relationships Hardy charts for the rest of the novel. Henchard, after a rather quiet attempt to find his wife and daughter, vows to abstain from alcohol for twenty-one years and again sets out in search of work. He ends up in the town of Casterbridge where he rises from his lowly beginnings – the dark secret unknown to the town – to a position of respect and financial success in the community. In fact, the town council even votes him mayor for a term (hence the novel’s title).
But Henchard is not the only character in this tale. His wife and daughter soon re-enter the picture and meet him in Casterbridge. This gives him an opportunity to bring his family back together and put the ugly past behind him. His wife Susan, however, has different motivations and has a few secrets of her own. Thrown into the mix is Donald Farfrae, a Scotsman who intially becomes Henchard’s business partner but ends up his greatest rival. Just to keep things lively there is also Henchard’s former love interest who moves to town after Susan passes away. Each time Henchard thinks he has finally put his past behind him and reached a plateau of stability, the past seems to reach out an grab him. His life becomes a complex web of emotions, divided loyalties, and potential traps.
Without giving the story away, suffice it to say that the story does not end well for Henchard. Despite occasional good intentions, his anger and stubbornness – as well as a return to alcohol – continue to corrode his life and destroy his relationships.
Two characters really form the focus of the novel: Henchard and his daughter Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard’s character can be read as a rather traditional morality tale. (I suppose you could, building off of Moody’s assessment, view his faults as caused by his alcoholism, economic conditions, etc. and not as personal failings – in other words blame society – but let’s not go there.) His initial indulgence in alcohol causes the tragedy. His vow and hard work gain him success but his subsequent pride and stubbornness – and his return to drinking – again cause his downfall. Henchard’s selfishness and pride prevent him from acting in a virtuous manner and therefor gaining the trust and admiration of those around him. When push comes to shove he tends to act in a selfish and often deceptive manner. In trying to shield himself from the consequences of his past actions he brings more trouble on himself. What makes him an interesting character, however, is his ability to glimpse this fault and yet fail to correct it. At times he is able to see the destructive result his actions inevitably produce but seems incapable of stopping himself. He is not an evil villain but a deeply flawed but nevertheless average human being. This gives Henchard some poignancy and gives the novel a melancholy flavor. Hardy depicts the inner conflict and turmoil of fallen man not a clear cut battle of good versus evil.
Elizabeth-Jane is of another sort altogether. Her character is virtuous but her virtue is mixed with naivetÃ© and stoicism. Her life has been hard and so she has trained herself to lower expectations. She seeks to do what is good and proper, to better herself whenever she can but she also struggles to keep her emotions in check when life is good. Elizabeth-Jane is in direct contrast to Henchard. She expects, and usually receives, a mixture of highs and lows from life and so she seeks an balanced temperament – to the point of stoicism at times – to keep an even keel. Henchard’s reaction to good fortune is pride, to bad fortune bitterness. In her relationships with others she seeks honesty and deference, he seeks selfish gain and withholds information when it suites him. Elizabeth’s beauty is revealed and enhanced by her character, Henchard’s outward appearance grows increasingly distressed to match his mental state. Because of these contrasting temperaments, Elizabeth reaches out to Henchard with compassion and pity but receives mostly pain. Ultimately, she is able to weather the storms and tribulations and seek happiness but Henchard dies separated and alone.
At the risk of being derided as a humanist, I think Hardy’s story gives us a powerful description of the weaknesses and foibles of the human character but it also gives us an inspiring, if melancholy, view of determination and dignity in difficult times. The Mayor of Casterbridge may be set in a time and place distant from where you live, but in fundamental ways the human condition is universal. For that reason, this story truly is timeless.