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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy


(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared in installments between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victorian Web.

Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger. Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character. Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self. Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.

For the next twenty years after that event, Henchard avoids alcohol and works successfully in the southern English town of Casterbridge (Dorchester in real life), eventually becoming the mayor of the town and owning a profitable agricultural business. He welcomes a sharp young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae as his friend and business assistant, but Farfrae’s intelligence and success engender some conflicts with Henchard, who is used to being undisputed and unrivaled in whatever he does. Eventually Susan, Henchard’s wife, returns to him with her daughter Elizabeth-Jane, and the Henchards remarry. At least partially through Henchard’s explosive temperament, obstinacy, and domineering attitude, Farfrae begins to win the favor of the townspeople over Henchard. Moreover, Henchard’s own confidence in his position in life is shaken by two events besides his tenuous relationship with Farfrae: an old lover named Lucetta has re-established contact with him and eventually moves into town; and he learns that Elizabeth-Jane, who was the main reason he remarried Susan, is not really his daughter but is the daughter of her interim husband, Newson. Newson himself, the man to whom Henchard had sold his wife, was a sailor. Susan thought him lost at sea, which was why she came back to Henchard. Susan dies, however, and Newson unexpectedly shows up to claim his daughter. Henchard has returned to heavy drinking after his twenty years’ vow expired, coinciding with his troubles with Farfrae and his devastation at the knowledge that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter. Alcohol accelerates his downfall, as does the discovery by the townspeople of his sale of Susan two decades ago.

Download this SPOILER if you want the ending revealed

Hardy is one of my favorite authors because of his love for the English countryside and for rural life in general, and because of his interest in the people and objects germane to such a setting. I admit to preferring the stables, walking-sticks and hayfields of Hardy’s novels to the ballrooms, snuff-boxes and coaches of some other Victorian writers. And the landscape is not just a setting for Hardy, but a sentimental window into a lifestyle. He takes a peculiar delight in telling us of little things about which he apparently wants to reminisce, much like Steinbeck (and then Springsteen) with his screen doors slamming. Hardy appears to have a particular soft spot for implements of the rural artisanry. A passage in ch.4 has got to be the epitome:

Scythes, reap-hooks, sheep-shears, bill-hooks, spades, mattocks, and hoes at the ironmonger’s; bee-hives, butter-firkins, churns, milking-stools and pails, hay-rakes, field-flagons, and seed-lips at the cooper’s; cart-ropes and plough-harness at the saddler’s; corndrills and winnowing-machines at the wheelwright’s and machinist’s; horse-embrocations at the chemist’s; at the glover’s and leather-cutter’s hedging-gloves, thatcher’s knee-caps, ploughman’s leggings, villager’s pattens and clogs.

The vivid and well-informed rural environment of Hardy’s novels is a precious thing for anyone who is familiar, whether directly or distantly, with the virtues and values associated with manually working the land– especially when combined with the realization that such familiarity is becoming scarce. But I would hazard a hypothesis that the agricultural worldview plays another important role in Hardy’s novels, one that is even more integral to their central themes. Nature will rule over the harvest like the goddess Demeter. The human is thrust against greater powers, in the face of which one might strive and hope, but sometimes in vain. This situation, where rain can rot the hay and so deplete the trusser’s paycheck, readies a reader for the more general situation of circumstance– especially social circumstance– tyrannizing over human destiny. Hardy was acquainted with the new biology of Darwin; and the pastoral settings of his novels gave him a felicitous opportunity to explore the similarity between natural and social forces, in the sense that both shape our lives and determine the success of our ventures. To put it most negatively, Hardy, like Darwin, saw that we humans have become our own most hostile force of nature.

However, we should not allow this realization to lead us (as it has led at least one introduction-writer to this novel) to think that Hardy’s message in The Mayor of Casterbridge is that success in life lies in capitulating to natural forces, in going with the flow, and that anyone with a distinctive personality worthy of the term character– anyone with guts, anyone who wants to carve his own niche in the world– is doomed by nature to failure. I think a better conception of Hardy’s message must take serious consideration of the huge flaws in Michael Henchard’s character. Yes, Henchard is a man of character, as the subtitle of the book says. Anyone who keeps a promise to stay away from strong drink for two decades, and is willing to marry purely from duty, must be a man of some character. But the latter point also reveals a major flaw, perhaps his biggest. What, perchance, might we suspect to be a woman’s response if a suitor said of marrying her “I ought to do it—I ought to do it, indeed!” (ch.18)? Might she think that he is admirably dutiful, a man of character? Maybe she might think that… as she immediately starts looking around for someone else to marry. For what the woman will notice right away is an absence of love in the man. It is not surprising that Lucetta falls for Farfrae, and that her love trumps her conscience, leading her to deny Henchard (ch.27). Not once do we ever receive an impression that Henchard is capable of love. Any warmth for Elizabeth-Jane proceeds either from the (misled) opinion that she is his daughter, or else mere loneliness. As for the two romantic interests in his life (this is a stretch, for there is no romance in Henchard), he is moved by duty alone. In ch.12 he makes this clear in relation to Susan his wife. When Susan dies, with bone dry rationality he decides that he will marry Lucetta “to right her position” (ch.22). But what he lacks in the tenderer emotions, Henchard has aplenty in the more acerbic ones. The sale of his wife shocks us into this realization from the start; but in case we have forgotten it by the time of Henchard’s downfall, we have his coldness to his stepdaughter and violence towards Farfrae to remind us. Henchard fails not because he was a man of character, but because he was a man of faulty character. There are two ways to get some chance of becoming comfortable (if not happy) in life, I think Hardy is telling us. You can simply go with the flow, doing whatever is necessary to stay afloat and avoid collisions. Elizabeth-Jane is such a person. She is successful because she does not rebel against the natural and social forces that confront her. Another way to be successful is to have character, but good character. A seriously flawed character—witness Lucetta’s earlier indiscretion with Henchard and then her later indiscretion in showing up in town to stay—is more dangerous than having no real character at all. Better to float around on the whims of nature and culture than to flout them with an unreliable set of armaments. Better flee than shoot with wet powder. Henchard sees that fate is against him (ch.27), but this is only part of the story. Events beyond his immediate control have caused his downfall, surely. However, for two reasons a better man would not have been knocked down by those events. First, the events are caused by his major previous failures, most significantly the sale of his wife at the fair. Second, a better man would not respond to the events in the way that Henchard does. When Henchard is threatened, for instance, he connives, returns threats, and becomes generally an intolerable person. Farfrae on the other hand, when threatened, defends himself but is well-adjusted and forgiving. Farfrae succeeds where Henchard fails because Farfrae is a good competitor, like Henchard, while also being free of Henchard’s antisocial tragic flaws.

Still, as the cynics who would eventually dominate novel-writing after Hardy would be quick to remind us, we must not be too hard on Henchard, and Farfrae must thank his lucky stars if he is honest. There are situations where character will not help… even situations where a man with bad character will do best. Not only Demeter but the capricious gods of every other aspect of nature and culture will have their way with us, willy nilly. Nevertheless, Hardy leaves us thinking: something could have been done. Henchard might have succeeded. If only he could have been better. It is not mere social forces, nor mere bad character, that make or destroy a person. It is the chemistry of their combination.  


Tidbits of Significance 

The chief—almost the only—attraction of the young woman’s face was its mobility.  When she looked down sideways to the girl she became pretty, and even handsome, particularly that in the action her features caught slantwise the rays of the strongly coloured sun, which made transparencies of her eyelids and nostrils, and set fire on her lips. When she plodded on in the shade of the hedge, silently thinking, she had the hard, half-apathetic expression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of Time and Chance, except, perhaps, fair play.  The first phase was the work of Nature, the second probably of civilisation.

-of Susan, ch.1.


…a well-formed young woman of eighteen, completely possessed of that ephemeral precious essence youth, which is itself beauty, irrespective of complexion or contour.

-of Elizabeth-Jane, ch.3.


…he was to them like the poet of a new school who takes his contemporaries by storm; who is not really new, but is the first to articulate what all his listeners have felt, though but dumbly till then.

-of Donald Farfrae at the King of Prussia, ch.8.


Thus Casterbridge was in most respects but the pole, focus, or nerve-knot of the surrounding country life; differing from the many manufacturing towns which are as foreign bodies set down, like boulders on a plain, in a green world with which they have nothing in common.



…the long-tied espaliers, as old as the old house itself, had grown so stout, and cramped, and gnarled that they had pulled their stakes out of the ground, and stood distorted and writhing in vegetable agony, like leafy Laocoons.



…never a gloom in Elizabeth-Jane’s soul but she well knew how it came there



To keep in the rear of opportunity in matters of indulgence is as valuable a habit as to keep abreast of opportunity in matters of enterprise.



But nothing is more insidious than the evolution of wishes from mere fancies, and of wants from mere wishes.



“just enough to make him silly, and not enough to keep him so”

-Elizabeth-Jane’s opinion of her appearance in the mirror before an attempt to win Farfrae’s heart, ch.17.


To learn to take the universe seriously there is no quicker way than to watch—to be a “waker,” as the country-people call it.



…the curious double strands in Farfrae’s thread of life—the commercial and the romantic—were very distinct at times.  Like the colours in a variegated cord those contrasts could be seen intertwisted, yet not mingling.



Her heart longed for some ark into which it could fly and be at rest.  Rough or smooth she did not care, so long as it was warm.

-of Elizabeth-Jane, ch.23.


“But settling upon new clothes is so trying,” said Lucetta.  “You are that person” (pointing to one of the arrangements), “or you are that totally different person” (pointing to the other), “for the whole of the coming spring:  and one of the two, you don’t know which, may turn out to be very objectionable.”



…a delicate poise between love and friendship—that period in the history of a love when alone it can be said to be unalloyed with pain.



“Yes, it is,” he said.  “But it is not by what is, in this life, but by what appears, that you are judged”



She had learnt the lesson of renunciation, and was as familiar with the wreck of each day’s wishes as with the diurnal setting of the sun.  If her earthly career had taught her few book philosophies it had at least well practised her in this.

-of Elizabeth-Jane, ch.26.


He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house when at church they professed so much and believed so little.

-of Mr. Fall the seer, ch.26.


Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers.

-of Elizabeth-Jane, ch.45.



…you are thinking about fate, or the factors that influence one’s lot in life;


…you are in the mood for a character study in a pastoral setting.



(for the student of character flaws and their consequences in life:)

  • William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens (~1607).
  • Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749).
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (1857).
  • John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960).

 (for the wanderers with Hardy through pastoral England:)

  • Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872).
  • Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).
  • Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1878).
  • Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887).

Find It!

Hardcover: Penguin has recently added The Mayor of Casterbridge to its new clothbound series.

Paperback: Always good to support the Wordsworth edition, which was founded to provide classic literature at a low price.

1 Comment

  1. Hardy’s focus on country life strikes a deep chord. Aren’t we ecologists, behaviorists, evolutionists all transmuted farmers? That was certainly true of my scientific origins – one can farm the land for understanding, not just alfalfa. And once we start, we can farm the whole world, though to a farmer as much as to a life scientist, place is always important.

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