The Mayor of Casterbridge
Alcohol’s Impact on Michael Henchard
Early in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy provides a lucid examination of some of the personal weaknesses of his protagonist, and of the sad ironies that these failings yield. Michael Henchard’s use of alcohol to escape the reality of his unhappy marriage resulted in the sale of his wife because Henchard’s emotions were heightened by his drunkenness. As Mr. Henchard entered the furmity tent at the fair during the opening pages of chapter 1, he was calm and level headed, although silent. As the night wore on, and he drank increasing amounts of laced furmity, he became progressively more agitated, loud, and argumentative towards his wife, Susan. As Henchard looked towards alcohol as a release from his restricting marriage, his emotions were elevated, which against his better judgement led him to sell his wife to the sailor, much as horses are sold at auction.
Henchard felt as though his family was restricting him and preventing him from being a successful man, which led to his excessive alcohol use. Michael Henchard is introduced to the reader as a man of few words, silently glum due to the disappointment of his life and the relative poverty he is forced to live in in order to support his wife and daughter. As a release from his suppressed emotions Henchard turns towards alcohol, as demonstrated when he is discussing the mistake of his marriage with the inhabitants of the furmity tent: “‘I married at eighteen, like a fool that I was; and this is the consequence of o’t’ He pointed at himself and his family with a wave of the hand intended to bring out the penuriousness of the exhibition.” (9) This quote exhibits how as Michael Henchard falls further and further under the influence of alcohol he also becomes more outspoken, and able to share his emotions, even with complete strangers. Alcohol seems to be the only release from Henchard’s dark and depressed existence, and without it he would be trapped in his self-inflicted silence.
After excessive alcohol use, Michael Henchard’s anger, so intense and extreme that it overcame him, caused him to lose control of his actions. In the furmity tent at the fair the reader watches as a transformation occurs in Henchard: “At the end of his first basin the man had risen to serenity. At the second he was jovial; at the third argumentative”. (8) Although the rum causes Henchard to at first to become humorous, as he continues to drink he becomes irate with his wife, and the situation he believes she and his daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, have put him in. As he hears the auctioneer selling horses, Henchard’s drunken rage allows him to do the same with his wife. Although, the sale was taken by the majority of the tent to be a joke, when Henchard finally receives an offer on his wife from the sailor, he is too inebriated and overtaken by the alcohol’s effects of rage to turn the offer down, as he believed he could be free from her restrictions forever without remorse.
Despite being dissatisfied with his marriage, Henchard would not have sold Susan without being heavily under the influence of alcohol. The effects of the alcohol upon Michael Henchard, mixed with his emotions caused a reaction so extreme that he was able to sell his wife to a stranger. However, if Michael and Susan Henchard had not entered the furmity tent that night it is safe to assume that Henchard would have never sold her. Without alcohol as a third party in their relationship the Henchards’ and their daughter lived an unhappy life in silence demonstrated by the opening of the novel: “What was really peculiar, however, was the couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved”. (3) This passage shows that although the Henchards’ did not particularly enjoy one another’s company, they were able to tolerate each other, which is completely contrasted by Michael’s drunken rage. As the rum-laced furmity made its entrance into the story, their relationship became much more complicated, and it was clear that neither was satisfied with the relationship they were being subjected to. Not only was Michael Henchard content to sell his wife, but Susan also had almost no objection. It is clear that without the complication in their relationship that the excessive rum provided, Henchard would not have sold his wife and daughter.
Although Michael Henchard turned to alcohol to escape his discontent, he actually ended up confronting the problem which was laying dormant underneath the awkward silence of his relationship. The laced furmity caused Henchard to become outspoken with his emotions, angry with his situation, and finally enabled him to sell his wife. If there was no alcohol present in the furmity tent that night, Michael and Susan Henchard probably would have left the fair that night equally as silent and discontent as they had arrived. Instead, Michael’s use of alcohol, and Susan’s contempt for him, caused her sale and their ultimate separation for the following 18 years to come.
Chance as an Excuse in The Mayor of Casterbridge
The question of fate is one that has been posed by human beings throughout the ages. Are our lives determined by that which is “bound” to happen, or is it simply by random chance? Thomas Hardy addresses this question in his poem “Hap,” which expresses the belief that life’s sorrow is simply due to chance, and that a vengeful God would be preferable to this state of existence. This idea that our lives are ruled by random chance is also woven throughout Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, which follows a man named Michael Henchard through his successes and failures in the small town of Casterbridge, beginning with the drunken sale of his wife and child. Hardy’s characters make reference at many points throughout the novel to chance as the cause of their misfortune, and in doing so, they fail to recognize that such misfortunes are due almost entirely to the choices and failures of characters themselves.
The poem “Hap”explores two possibilities—the first being that there is a cruel and “vengeful God” (line 1) at the root of the speaker’s suffering, and the second being that everything in life is left to chance. The latter is the one that Hardy’s poem ultimately recognizes as “true”; however, in either case, the discussion of these two possibilities completely ignores the existence of choice and free will. In the poem, the speaker says that “Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain” (line 11), personifying the concept of chance for the purpose of appointing blame to it. Hardy’s characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge often display the same belief, attributing their sorrows to a force outside themselves or their fellow humans, and thus failing to realize that it is their own choices that are the driving force behind almost every major event throughout the course of the novel.
At the very start of the novel, Susan poses this question of the role of chance in her own life. The narrator remarks of her that, “When [Susan] 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.” Here, Susan is expressing a pessimistic view not simply of life, but specifically of chance, which she feels will bring her anything but happiness. She fails to realize that her sorrow comes predominantly not through random occurrence, but as a direct result of the choices that she and her husband make. Even the trials that she herself is not in control of are not due to chance, but to Henchard.
Henchard is perhaps the prime example of the denial of the importance of choice and personal agency. This is evident in the narrator’s statement that, “The movements of [Henchard’s] mind seemed to tend to the thought that some power was working against him”. Here, Henchard is looking for an explanation for his misfortune, never considering that perhaps his present situation is merely a result of his own conduct. That Henchard fails to take responsibility for his actions, looking instead to outside forces on which to place blame, is even more evident in Henchard’s own pondering that, “I wonder if it can be that somebody has been roasting a waxen image of me, or stirring an unholy brew to confound me! I don’t believe in such power, and yet – what if they should ha’ been doing it!” Though Henchard is not blaming chance in these instances, opting instead for the view of a “vengeful God” presented in “Hap,” the fact remains that he has not yet arrived at the realization that his own choices have had immense consequences in his life as well as the lives of those around him.
This is not to say that chance plays no role in the fate’s of the characters in the novel. For instance, chance plays a role in the meeting of Lucetta and Farfrae; however, it is ultimately their choice that allows this chance encounter to transform into a relationship. In other words, it is chance which provided the opportunity, and the free will of both characters which led them to use this opportunity in the way that they did. Perhaps more importantly, it is chance that the furmity-woman who witnessed Henchard’s drunken sale of his wife remained in Casterbridge and was given the opportunity through her presence in the court to accuse Henchard. The narrator recounts that, “the retort of the furmity-woman before the magistrates had spread; and in four-and-twenty hours there was not a person in Casterbridge who remained unacquainted with the story of Henchard’s mad freak at Weydon Priors Fair, long years before,” attributing the consequences that follow to what is undoubtedly a result of mere chance. However, adopting such a view obscures the truth of the situation: that Henchard’s misfortune is due first and foremost to the fact that he sold his wife. Regardless of the presence of the furmity-woman, Henchard chose to sell his wife, and thus the consequences of this action, no matter how many years later, are entirely his fault.
In this way, even the chance occurrences that do influence the novel’s primary events do not leave the characters completely powerless; in fact, their own choices serve as the driving force in the novel from beginning to end. Henchard’s character in particular, though he often attempts to look elsewhere for a force on which to place blame, is responsible for nearly all of the misfortune that he as well as the other characters suffer throughout the novel. Though the question Hardy poses in Hap—“How arrives it joy lies slain, / And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?” (line 9-10)—is meant to underscore the failure of time and chance to bring about happiness, in the case of the Mayor of Casterbridge, perhaps the most obvious answer lies in the actions of the characters themselves.
The Irony of Elizabeth-Jane and Henchard
In Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Susan Henchard’s innate dependence on men displays itself in multiple ways and instances. However, the most notable is when Susan reunites with Michael Henchard in Casterbridge after 18 years of separation. Instead of telling him the truth about the untimely death of their infant child, Elizabeth-Jane Henchard, who is introduced in the opening scenes of the novel, allows him to assume that his daughter and Elizabeth-Jane Newson, the daughter of Susan and the sailor, are the same person. Susan allows this assumption to carry on until her death, effectively deceiving Henchard in exchange for protection and funds for her daughter. Although Susan puts the needs of herself and her daughter before the truth, Elizabeth-Jane’s presence benefits Henchard as she is a strong support towards the end of his life. Susan’s deception, fueled by the need for a male figure for herself and her daughter, is ironic because even though Susan tricks Henchard in order to gain a support system, Henchard ends up being dependent on the strong-willed Elizabeth-Jane.
Susan’s need for male support is displayed by her desire to stay faithful to the men in her life despite the misery associated with her situation. In the opening scenes of the novel, as Susan and Michael Henchard are journeying down the road to Weydon Fair, Thomas Hardy describes the pair as solemn and silent, never touching. As the events of the night play out, the discontent of the couple becomes more clear as Susan sits by her drunken husband’s side in the furmity tent and whispers: “‘Michael, you have talked this nonsense in public places before. A joke is a joke, but you might make it once too often mind!’” (10). From Susan’s statements, it can be inferred that this is not the first occurrence of Michael Henchard’s offensive comments, and that she has stayed faithful for the duration of their marriage in spite of his frequently demeaning, drunken remarks. Even in her final moments as wife to Henchard, she obeys his wishes to sell her, and then transfers all loyalty to Newson.
However, Susan’s ideas of dependency again display themselves in her marriage to Newson, as she disregards her own emotional suffering and remains loyal to their “marriage.” Although, Susan becomes unhappy with her relationship, it is not until Newson essentially releases her, by “dying” at sea, that she leaves. However, not coincidentally, Susan immediately goes in search of Henchard, hoping that he has improved his life enough to be able to provide for her and Elizabeth-Jane. Susan is so desperate for the male support she might gain by rekindling her relationship with Henchard that she is willing to deceive him, and allow him to believe that Elizabeth-Jane Newson is his daughter. Despite Susan’s disregard for Henchard, and her sole focus on finding male support for her daughter, the results of Susan’s decision end up positively impacting Henchard.
Susan’s motive for reuniting with Henchard was pursuit of a better life for her daughter, which she believed must be achieved by a male presence; she would do anything to obtain a male influence of this sort. In the beginning stages of the novel, the reader is completely unaware that Susan has any reason for fooling Henchard, as Hardy leads the reader to believe that she is a genuine and straightforward character, having to reason or need to deceive her husband. Recalling the moments in the amphitheater when Susan and Henchard first reunite after 18 years of separation, Susan says: “‘I came here for the sake of Elizabeth; for myself if you tell me to leave again to-morrow morning, and never come near you more, I am content to go’” (73). Although this statement still remains true in light of the end of the novel, in hindsight it is easy to see how Susan is duping Henchard. Susan allows Henchard to believe that his own daughter is in need of stability of protection, when in reality the young girl is not his. In Susan’s eyes, she and her surviving daughter, Elizabeth-Jane Newson, are in desperate need of male support, especially with the knowledge of her impending death due to her sickness. However, Elizabeth-Jane is a much more independent character than her mother, and is not in need of the same assistance. Elizabeth-Jane is not only capable of caring for herself, but also, ironically, of caring for the “father” who was expected by her late mother to provide for her.
Elizabeth-Jane’s function at the end of the novel is rather ironic because she plays a large role in sustaining the man who was originally expected to nurture her. Susan originally planned to fool Henchard into taking care of Elizabeth-Jane until her wedding day, when he would find out through her letter that she was not truly his daughter. Susan had expected that Henchard would remain a prominent member of society, able to care and look after Elizabeth-Jane until she was passed on to her husband. Unfortunately, after Susan’s death many unpredictable twists take place in the storyline, leaving Henchard bankrupt and depressed. Although Henchard was unable to care for Elizabeth-Jane as Susan had so carefully planned before her death, Elizabeth-Jane was much more independent and willing to care for herself, and the man she believed to be her father, despite his earlier mistreatment of her. When Elizabeth-Jane realizes the extent of Henchard’s depression as they look into the stream where he almost kills himself, she reaches out to him, “‘Father! – I will not leave you alone like this!’ she cried. ‘May I live with you, and tend upon you as I used to? I do not mind your being poor. I would have agreed this morning, but you did not ask me.’” Elizabeth-Jane’s attitude toward Henchard displays the independence that her mother had not expected of her. Elizabeth-Jane is not only willing to aid Henchard, but also insists upon it, regardless of the fact that the expectation of their relationship was originally much different.
Elizabeth-Jane’s character is intriguing because, unlike her mother, she is self-reliant and not in need of the male support that her mother attempts to secure. Although Susan seems willing to go to any measure to protect her daughter, even by lying and deceiving her husband, Elizabeth-Jane is still able to prosper when her mother’s plan backfires. After Henchard’s bankruptcy, among his other troubles, Elizabeth-Jane ironically becomes a pillar of support for Henchard, keeping him alive. Despite the early circumstances of her life, Elizabeth-Jane is able to thrive without a male to rely on. Elizabeth-Jane broke her mother’s notion that she would need a male figure in her life to support her. In reality, Susan’s efforts to rekindle her marriage with Henchard were more beneficial for Henchard than for Elizabeth-Jane.
The irony of Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane’s relationship is an important but easily overlooked element of Hardy’s story. As Susan seeks out male support for Elizabeth-Jane, she disregards Henchard; however, the results of her efforts have a positive impact of his life, and even save him from the grips of death for a moment. Susan’s extreme concern for her daughter’s well being turns out to be unwarranted, as Elizabeth-Jane is an independent young woman, who is not only capable of caring for herself but is also willing to take on the responsibility of her struggling “father.” Although Susan is convinced that Elizabeth-Jane will need the support of Henchard’s money, and is willing to go to endless measures to attain it, it is really the complicated and broken Henchard who needs caring for. In contrast to her mother, Elizabeth-Jane is strong-willed and capable of happiness without monetary and societal support from a male figure. Even as Henchard is thrown into the depths of his depression, she is willing to be the support system he so desperately needs.
The Mayor of Casterbridge: An In-Depth Look at the Insignificance of Human Life
Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men, said about the purpose of human existence, “The point is there ain’t no point.” This nihilistic outlook on life became common long before McCarthy’s time. The highly industrial and scientifically groundbreaking 19th Century marked a dramatic authorial shift from the optimistic, spiritually centered ideas of the Romantics one-century prior. In literature, humanistic, flawed protagonists replaced the traditional heroes of yore, as authors were no longer afraid to question the veracity of God and the purpose of life. One of the earliest works to reflect these new, controversial ideas was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Detailing one man’s rise and fall during the late 19th century, the novel became known for Hardy’s accurate portrayal of rural life and his unique perspective on how industrialization affected British society during that time. Significantly, Casterbridge is an early manifestation of the nihilist movement because of its innovative, individualistic, anti-heroic, and cynical themes. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless, and that human beings can never really know or communicate anything. The nihilist belief system is an extreme form of pessimism often associated with radical contrarian movements (e.g. anarchy). It is based on the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that life has no objective order or structure except for what people give it, and once humans realized this, they would discover that the rejection of moral and religious institutions would set human kind on the correct course (IEP.edu). The nihilist movement has gone on to inspire numerous modern novels and films, and philosophers today see it as the most vital of school of thought to arise following the Industrial Revolution.Aside from understanding the concepts associated with nihilism, it is also critical that the reader be familiar with the major characters of Casterbridge (the town in which the story takes place) in order to fully contextualize Hardy’s novel. The first and most dominant character, Michael Henchard, is a middle-aged, successful corn merchant and town mayor who sold his wife, Susan, and his daughter to a sailor as a result of being in a drunken rage eighteen years before the novel takes place. The character Donald Farfrae is a young Scottish businessman who earns the admiration of the townspeople with his liberal, free market ideas, and ultimately becomes Henchard’s power-obsessed rival throughout the novel. Finally, there is Elizabeth-Jane, Henchard’s supposed long-lost class-obsessed daughter who endures the hardships of being caught in the middle of Henchard and Farfrae’s business competitions. These three characters are the crux of the novel’s nihilist message, as each comes to realize that life is, on the whole, meaningless. In Casterbridge, the unbalanced struggle between progressive ideas and tradition reflects Hardy’s nihilistic belief that individual conventions are meaningless and only serve to hold society back from reaching its full potential, even though human beings will never stop their efforts to continuously advance themselves. Undoubtedly, the 19th century was an era of immense scientific and technological advancement. Electric light bulbs, dynamite, machine guns, and automobiles represent only a fraction of the multitude of innovations that developed during this time period. However, while these inventions were certainly revolutionary, many of them went against the traditions that people were accustomed to. In fact, it is probable that many individuals feared industrialization, because of the common belief that machines would soon take over jobs that previously only people could do. Regardless, technology eventually superseded these uncertainties, and society has not stopped progressing mechanically or ideologically since the Industrial Revolution. The struggle between innovation and tradition is at the core of Casterbridge, as Hardy clearly represents via the opposing business ideologies of Henchard and Farfrae. Henchard is traditionalistic, impulsive, and closed-minded towards modern ideas. In fact, at one point in the novel he goes as far as to insult Farfrae by calling him a “jackanape” for introducing a horse-drill to the community in the hopes of further advancing the corn business. However, it is Henchard’s ignorance that eventually results in the downfall of his character. The town ultimately denounces him for his unwillingness to change, and as a result, the community goes on to support Farfrae on his endeavors. On the contrary, Hardy presents Farfrae as industrial, economical, and indulgent towards revolution. As the novel progresses, Farfrae’s tolerance prevails over Henchard’s traditionalism, and ultimately Henchard dies without ever being able to fully utilize his abilities. Had Henchard simply accepted Farfrae’s radical business ideas, the duo could have merged to create a highly successful corn commerce, but Henchard would not stray from his strict adherence to custom. Thus, Hardy makes it clear that although humans tend to carry traditions for lifetimes, in reality, these beliefs are insignificant burdens that only serve to limit society from progressing efficiently. Another conflict that Hardy presents in Casterbridge is between individuality and community. It is probable that he included this paradox for a similar purpose as the anti-traditional elements. The nihilistic belief is that although morality and concern for others are human-defined responsibilities that people attempt to abide by, these practices are futile once life is over. The idea of individualism became popular during the Romantic period, and by the late 19th century it had expanded into a full-fledged philosophy. Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde sums up the ideology tersely and effectively in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “It is not selfish for a man to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all” (107). However, much like industrialization, the public also feared individualism because it went against the established norms of society. Nevertheless, the concepts of individual freedom and liberty outlived these insecurities, and eventually became the basis for popular belief all over the world (e.g. The United States). In the context of Casterbridge, Hardy showcases this dilemma through the competition between Henchard and Farfrae. Although Hardy portrays Henchard as being stern and tough as a boss, he also describes him as being caring and personally involved with his staff. For instance, Hardy mentions that prior to the events of the novel, Henchard took care of Able Whittle’s (one of his employees’) mother financially for an entire winter. However, at the same time it is Henchard’s collective approach to leadership that ultimately results in another one of his weaknesses: he is overbearingly involved in the community that he leads. Although his intentions are rooted in good, his domineering concern for everyone eventually pushes him beyond his limits and ultimately turns the town of Casterbridge against him. This becomes overwhelmingly apparent when Henchard drags Whittle out of bed in his underwear for being late to work. While this action is merely Henchard’s attempt to improve Whittle’s character, it only serves to embarrass Whittle (he considers suicide following the event) and strike fear into the other employees. In contrast, Hardy portrays Farfrae as taking a laissez-faire approach to business, and once he replaces Henchard as mayor, he allows his employees to work without getting too involved in their daily tasks. For the most part, the townspeople praise Farfrae for this practice. In fact, Whittle states that although the workers are paid less and work more under Farfrae’s leadership, they are happier than they were under Henchard, for they no longer fear the wrath of their former boss. Again, Henchard’s good intentions ultimately prevented his business from reaching its full potential, as the fear he struck into his workers turned them against him. This further adds to the idea that Henchard dies without being able to fully utilize his skills as an entrepreneur, and that morals and character are relative, human-defined ideas that mean absolutely nothing once life is over. Aside from showcasing the insignificance of both tradition and communal morality, Hardy also makes the point that all humans die the same death regardless of their heroism. Literature from the late 19th Century marked a dramatic shift away from the classical and Byronic heroes of the Romantic Period. Authors stopped highlighting their characters’ supernatural abilities in favor of emphasizing human flaws, emotions, and limited power. Additionally, writers dropped the common archetypes of protagonist and antagonist in exchange for characters that showcased traits of both. In Casterbridge, heroism is almost non-existent, for each character has both positive and negative qualities that reflect their truthful human nature. Henchard is caring but bad-tempered, Farfrae is understanding but power-hungry, and the entire town of Casterbridge is both supportive of its own but also obsessed with gossip. If anything, Henchard’s brute strength is the closest Hardy comes to portraying the emblematic Romantic hero. Henchard, whom Hardy describes as incredibly strong and tall, displays amazing physical abilities throughout the novel. His feats include taking down a bull with his bear hands to save Elizabeth-Jane as well as defeating Farfrae in a duel with one hand tied behind his back. However, in an almost mocking fashion, Henchard dies with nothing at the end of the novel. His achievements in protecting Elizabeth-Jane and defeating Farfrae end up being pointless, as the pair end up marrying at the story’s finale and Farfrae goes on to completely take over Henchard’s old business. In essence, regardless of his heroic efforts and supernatural abilities, Henchard experiences the same suffering that non-heroic humans experience and dies a common death. Thus it is clear that Casterbridge is a cynical novel, and it is this overwhelming pessimism that makes the narrative a distinct reflection of the nihilist movement. Considering the aforementioned transition from heroism to humanism that was typical of the late 19th Century, it would only make sense that authors of this period would also accept the philosophical possibility that life might be completely worthless, and as a result apply it to their characters. Hardy, being no stranger to nihilism, also referenced the idea of hopelessness in his well-known poem “The Darkling Thrush.” The poem reflects upon the glumness Hardy felt towards the new era, stating, “That I could think there trembled through/ His happy good-night air/ Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware” (lines 29-32). In essence, Hardy felt that the 20th Century would consume the ideals of the Romantic period, and the conclusion of the piece (the cited set of lines) leaves the reader with absolutely no hope regarding the coming of the new age. In a similar fashion, Casterbridge leaves the reader with no optimism regarding the lives of the living characters at the end of the novel. In the conclusion of the story, Elizabeth-Jane acknowledges that happiness only accounts for a small portion of the overall dramatic mess that is life. Furthermore, it is obvious that Farfrae will become too consumed by his business to truly have any compassion for his newly acquired wife. Thus upon completing the novel the reader is left with nothing, which is the central idea of nihilism. While Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is assuredly morbid and depressing for most readers, its influence on the nihilistic ideological developments of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is abundantly clear. In addition, the themes and philosophical arguments it sparked continue to inspire and reappear in modern novels and films (the works of the Coen brothers instantly come to mind). Although it is unquestionably saddening and discouraging to ponder whether or not human existence truly has any sort of purpose, it is important to acknowledge Casterbridge and its nihilistic theme for further expanding the realm of human thought and bringing new ideas to the public consciousness. As a result of nihilistic thought, people came to understand the power of individuality. Annotated BibliographyHardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. This poem by Thomas Hardy describes the transition between the 19th and 20th Centuries. While many people assuredly saw the new era as a time of celebration and praise, Hardy was more pessimistic, fearing that the age would consume the ideals that were developed in the Romantic period. In regards to the criticism, the poem is included in an effort to help the reader better understand Hardy’s nihilistic views on life. To fully support the thesis, it is vital that the reader comprehend that the novel is not the only pessimistic work that Hardy published, and that instead he was deeply rooted in the development of the nihilist belief system.Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. New York: Norton & Co., 1977. Print. Primary TextPratt, Alan. “Nihilism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The IEP, 23 April 2001. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. This page provides a description and history of the nihilist movement. Originating from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosophy has gone on to inspire countless modern novels and films, and has been the subject of moral debate ever since its inception. Understandably, nihilism is not the most well known ideology to come out of this time period. Thus in order to fully be able to extend the concepts presented in this criticism to the reader, it is crucial to first have them understand what nihilism is and how it came to be during the era in which Casterbridge was written. Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The Literary Collector Press, 1905. Print. This essay by Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde explicates his ideas on the topics of individualism, freedom of thought, and human liberties. In what is quite possibly the most well known section of this work, Wilde explains that people who do not think for themselves do not think at all. This mentality reflects the newfound concepts of the late 19thand early 20th centuries regarding humanism and the power of the individual, and also marks a significant expansion of the classically liberal ideas that arose during the Romantic period. In regards to this criticism, Wilde’s essay helps define and support the individualistic ideas that are represented in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In order to truly show just how drastically this philosophy had advanced from previous centuries, it was crucial to include a relevant text that was published during the era in which the novel was in print.
Rustic characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge
Hardy’s characters may be divided into three groups or classes on the basis of their significance in the main action of a novel: First of all, there are the protagonists. the action is chiefly concerned with their destiny. Secondly, there are characters of a secondary importance who are in contact with the chief figures and derive interest and significance from such contact. They play only a subordinate part in the development of action. Thirdly, there are the minor rustic characters who do not have much significance as far as the main action is concerned. They play the role of on-lookers and provide Hardy the opportunity to articulate his own views. They are also called the, ‘chorus group’ or the, “philosophical party”, on the basis of their function. The group of characters first seen looking in at Henchard presiding over the public dinner in the Kings Arms and later among the company at the Three Mariners listening to Farfrae’s songs constitute this group. They are common to Hardy’s Wessex novels with the exception of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and grandest of them being in Far From the Madding Crowd. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, this chorus comprises Mother Cuxsom, Solomon Longways, Christopher Coney, Buzzford etc. Though not essential to the plot they nevertheless serve a significant purpose in helping to place the major characters in a community and by a droll humour to the Novel. Hardy lived the major portion of his life in the countryside and therefore had an unerring insight of the Rustic community. In his novels, they are simple children of the soil: ignorant, superstitious and old-fashioned. They are quite content with their simple life and hardly ever think of rebelling against the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves through generations. They keep alive a tradition of life prevalent in the obscure corner of Wessex. Agriculture and activities associated with it pre-occupy them. It is the subject of their talks in marketplaces, dinner parties, and other social gatherings. Their fortune is bound up with the prospects of harvest. Thus, we hear how Henchard’s bad corn has caused a great deal of trouble for the common people. They are remarkably superstitious- belief in supernatural elements which has disappeared from sophisticated people’s mind, still lingers among them. They are reported as having seen ghosts of Roman soldiers in and around the ruined amphitheatre called the Ring, which is a relic of the Roman habitation in England many centuries ago. However, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, unlike in Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, no fun is made of the fear of supernatural on the part of some rustic characters. Rather it is Henchard himself who is struck with a supernatural presage to see his own image floating up under his eyes just when he is thinking of suicide by drowning. Although these rustics are realistically portrayed from real Wessex people, “there is thrown over them a veil of romantic glamour.” C. Duffin rightly remarks, “They are in a degree idealised, the faintest atmosphere of poetry laps them round.” They are divested to a great extent, “of that grossness and vulgarity which is seldom absent from rusticity in real life.” David Cecil has brilliantly compared Hardy’s Rustic characters to the chorus of Greek tragedy. First, they always appear in groups, rather than individually. The Chorus, Cecil points out, “is the symbol of the great majority humdrum mortals who go on living their uneventful days whatever catastrophe may the finer spirits place among them”. Second, like the Greek Chorus they also serve some important dramatic functions. They make the machinery of the plot run smoothly. Third, the Hardyan choric characters help bring out not only the immediate, but also the ulterior significance of all that is taking place around them, pointing to the excesses in nature and absurdities in the main characters. They are the sound of sanity with their feet firmly planted in the ground. That’s why Christopher Coney is perplexed in Henchard’s marrying Susan in a society where social status and Money is of the prime concern: “… daze me if ever I see a man wait so long before to take so little!”. They are deeply interested observers and occasionally drop shrewd comments. These rural-folks are also referred to as the “philosophical party”, for in their comments they constantly rise from the particular to the general and give wise reflections on life. The Mayor’s wife is dead and at her request four pennies are buried with her. One of the rustics, Christopher Conny, digs out the coins and spends them on drink, for says he, “Why should death rob life of fourpence?” The rustics at once see the reason of it and agree that as “money is scarce and throats get dry”, it would be folly to waste even four pence on death. Often in their philosophic comments, they represent Hardy’s own point of view. Mother Cuxsom’s final observations after Susan Henchard’s death are beyond doubt Hardy’s own: “… her wishes and ways will be as nothing”. Whatever humour we get in Hardy’s novels is provided by these rustics. Like the minor characters of Shakespeare, they, too, are funny in themselves and objects of great amusement for others. These country-folk do much with their racy comments and comic actions to add cheer and sunshine to otherwise dark and gloomy atmosphere of Hardy’s novels. Tess, otherwise a masterpiece, is deficient in rustic humour and so grows rather tedious and boring at places. Though Mayor of Casterbridge lacks to a certain degree this carefree humour unlike Hardy’s earlier novels, there are nevertheless a few funny moments. One can particularly remember the anecdote related by Mother Cuxsom about a party at Mellstock many years ago to Christopher Coney and other like Nancy Mockridge: “Canst mind the sherry wine and the zilver snuffers and how Joan Dummet was took bad when we were coming home and Jack Griggs was forced to carry through the mud and how a let her fall in dairyman Sweetapple’s cow-baitor and we had to clean her gown wi grass…” The genial rustic humour derives as much out of simple farcical situation as out of the authentic use of Dorsetshire dialect. It is to emphasise their realism that they are made to speak in dialect used by the rustics of Wessex. In this way, Hardy achieved not only a realistic presentation of Wessex life, but also created a sense of their aloofness from common civilised society and a sense of their nearness to nature, so necessary for the performance of their chorus-like function. They appear to be the emanations of the surrounding hills and dales, woods and heaths, and entirely different from the other characters. However, the dialect which they use is subjected to the same process of “selection and ordering of material” as is the key-note of Hardy’s art. Their speech is free from much of the grossness and vulgarity which characterises real rustic speech. Though rustic characters do not contribute much to the advancement of the plot in Wessex novels, this is not the case in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The “Skimmity ride” organized by the crowd of the Peter’s Finger inn causes the death of Lucetta and has far-reaching repercussions. The “Skimmington Ride” episode is unusual in that the villagers become participants in the action rather than commentators merely. Hence the emphasis on them is not just the addition of local color or explanation but is an important new plot development as well. One should also remember how the taunts of townspeople sparked the fire of enmity in Henchard and led to Farfrae losing his employment when the latter’s festivities became successful while the former’s did not. These rustic characters are not full-length portraits, but they are realistically drawn. As C. Duffin puts it, “their collective function precludes all individual realism.” As they appear always in a group, they have neither been individualised nor drawn at length. They are drawn in a convention different from the one used for the main characters. They remind us of the minor characters of Shakespeare, Sir Toby Betch, Sir Andrew, Maria, Feste, etc. they stand for real, Wessex country folk. Hardy presents only an outside, surface view and makes no attempts at diving deep into their souls or developing them at full length. It is only rarely that they are individualised. But they are permeated through and through with Wessex spirit and traditions. They are eternal like the woods and the dales which they inhabit. Man may come and man may go, but, like mankind, they go on forever and ever. As Baker puts it, “They are as eternal as the woods and fields and heaths; whereas the different lovers, the weak or faithless women, the anguished victims of despair, are symbols of a present phase of disturbance, restlessness and maladjustment.”
The Mayor of Casterbridge as an Aristotelian tragedy
According to Sidney Lamb in Tragedy (CBC: Toronto, 1964), although the form of tragedy written in Elizabethan England differs somewhat from that written in ancient Greece, in both eras tragedy was a reflection of a hierarchical society. Even late in the twentieth century with the tragedy of the average man well-established critically, we still tend to think of a tragedy as “the story of the fall from greatness of an exalted personage”–a king (Sophocles’ Oedipus or Shakespeare’s Lear), a general (Aeschylus’ Eteocles or Shakespeare’s Macbeth), or a man of great wealth, rank, and social prestige (The Old Testament’s Job or Shakespeare’s Romeo). Consequently, the fall of Michael Henchard from prosperity and power to obscurity and alienation is certainly the stuff of Aristotelian tragedy. The French tragedian Beaumarchais argued that “The nearer the suffering man is to my station in life, the greater is his claim upon my sympathy”. Michael Henchard in his rise and fall from a common hay-trusser to a mayor of Casterbridge and then a nobody hay-trusser again surely evokes the sympathy of readers belonging to every social standing. The deft manipulation of peripeteia, anagnorisis and final suffering in the plot inevitably generates the cathartic feeling of pity and fear in high and low alike. And in doing so, it bears a close resemblance to not only ancient Greek Tragedies, in particular, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, but also to Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear.
In the novel, Hardy’s reliance on chance occurrence implies that he shares Aristotle’s belief that the plot is important in the creation of a tragedy. But this does not imply, that he does not hold character to be responsible in deciding outcomes. Chapter 17 contains the statement- “Character is Fate, said Novalis”. Heavily influenced by Shakespeare, Hardy demonstrates how both Chance and character can decide destiny.
In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the arrival of the Messenger from Corinth initiates the tragic reversal of the protagonist. The Messenger, ironically attempting to help Oedipus by telling him that the Corinthian royal couple, Polybus and Merope, were not his real parents, creates the opposite effect; he provides the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi by killing his father and marrying his mother. In Hardy’s novel, Mrs Goodenough, the furmity woman from the opening chapter, enacts a function similar to that of the Corinthian Messenger in Oedipus the King. The return of the furmity woman and her dramatic revelation in court plays a vital role in hastening Henchard’s decline. Mrs. Goodenough exposes Henchard’s shameful secret: the sale of his wife Susan and their child, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor for five guineas two decades earlier. Her declaration results in Henchard’s social and financial ruin, as “the amends he had made in after life were lost sight of in the dramatic glare of the original act . . . On that day — almost at that minute — he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side.” Although at the point at which Susan and her grownup daughter enter the town he is the most influential man in Casterbridge, the revelation of the wife-sale destroys his public reputation as his financial difficulties compel Henchard to declare bankruptcy; simultaneously disgraced and ruined, he soon becomes a social outcast. The furmity woman’s accusation initiates the tragic reversal in The Mayor of Casterbridge; however, the reversal is complete only when Donald Farfrae becomes the new mayor. At this point in the plot, Henchard has lost his reputation as a worthy and honourable citizen, his political and fiscal capital, and the opportunity to marry the heiress Lucetta Templeman. Henchard, suffering from poverty and loneliness, finds himself again at the bottom of fortune’s wheel, while Farfrae now occupies a station at the top. The connection between the reversal and recognition scenes in the plots of both Oedipus the King and The Mayor of Casterbridge is essential in each writer’s development of an Aristotelian tragedy. In both the literary works, the reversal leads directly to the recognition. Specifically, Oedipus discovers his true identity only after combining details from the stories of both the Messenger and the Herdsman. Similarly, Henchard’s recognition of his true circumstances occurs following the visit of the Royal Personage (presumably, Prince Albert) to Casterbridge. During the state visit of the Royal Personage, Henchard attempts to conduct himself for the last time in the role of mayor. Instead of choosing to occupy the role of a mere onlooker, Henchard, dressed in his “fretted and weather-beaten garments of bygone years”, attempts to greet the visitor on behalf of the city. His “eccentric behaviour” merely represents a desperate attempt to regain some of the dignity previously accorded to him as mayor. Only after the confrontation between Farfrae and himself in the loft does Henchard fully recognize the loss of his status. With this realization, Henchard “finally acknowledges the overthrow of his own ‘reign'” (Kramer Dale. Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy) as the Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard’s insight and recognition of his current circumstance set into action his final suffering. In an Aristotelian tragedy, the suffering of the protagonist is irreversible: Oedipus’ self-blinding, prompted by Jocasta’s suicide, cannot be reversed — he is bound forever to suffer in self-imposed darkness. Similarly, Henchard experiences a final suffering in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard suffers through more than one death in the novel. Long before his physical death, Henchard dies in reputation and public esteem, no longer a man of wealth and power when his time as mayor ends. The moment of his final suffering, however, occurs after he experiences the loss of his step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. Immediately following the recognition/ anagnorisis, Hardy notes that a great change comes over Henchard regarding Elizabeth-Jane: “[I]n the midst of his gloom [Elizabeth-Jane] seemed to him as a pinpoint of light . . . and for the first time, he had a faint dream that he might get to like her as his own, — if she would only continue to love him.” Unfortunately, Richard Newson’s appearance in Casterbridge destroys any hope Henchard has of a possible future with Elizabeth-Jane. When he lies to Newson about Elizabeth-Jane’s death, he is trying to avoid losing her. Sadly, his deception of Newson betrays Elizabeth-Jane’s trust and ultimately destroys their relationship. Henchard dies because he sees no reason to continue living; he has lost the last person who loved him and whom he loved in return. According to Aristotle, a tragedy must contain the presence of a tragic hero: “a leader in his society who mistakenly brings about his own downfall because of some error in a judgment or innate flaw”. Both Oedipus of Thebes and Michael Henchard of Casterbridge satisfy many Aristotelian requirements of the tragic hero. Hardy presents Henchard at the outset as an ambitious, proud, and impulsive hay-trusser who “rises from shameful obscurity to the mayoralty” (Chapman). Consequently, his position and recognition among the society is considered to be high enough to evoke tragic emotion, but at the same time not beyond the reach of the common people as demanded by Beaumarchais. Their downfall is caused by their Hamartia or tragic flaw- their excessive pride or hubris. The essence of the tragic hero, however, is that their very nature compels “them to take actions the least advantageous to them” (Kramer) despite possessing free will. For example, Teiresias adequately warns Oedipus not to pursue the investigation of Laius’s death, but Oedipus, too stubborn to listen, continues his search for the king’s murderer. He becomes the instrument of his own destruction because his pride prevents him from paying heed to the prophet Tieresias’s advice. Henchard’s hamartia is his impulsiveness and quick temper as well as his pride. In this aspect he bears a close resemblance to King Lear- Lear banished Cordelia due to a momentary fit of anger, an action which haunted him for the rest of his life. In a similar manner, Henchard auctioned off his wife because in a drunken stupor he thought early marriage ruined his life. Even after that, if only he had not been too proud to ask for help the morning after the auction in Waydon Priors to locate his wife and child, his destiny could have been much more pleasant. It is his pride which forces him to fire Donald Farfrae when he thought the latter had become more popular than him. His jealousy of Farfrae causes “him to lose both a faithful employee and a good friend” (Kramer). Michael Henchard’s excessive pride not only destroys his relationship with Donald Farfrae, but it also causes him to alienate Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard’s discovery that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter wounds his fatherly pride; as a consequence of this knowledge, his treatment towards her changes dramatically. Another important feature of Aristotelian tragedy is, Hero should not offend the moral sensibility of the spectator. Henchard time and time again proves his moral high stature- his silent corroboration of Mrs. Goodenough’s accusations labelled against him in the courtroom, in his refusal to exploit Lucetta’s youthful letter feeling that she is a “very small deer to hunt”, his inability to kill Farfrae, the man he hates the most, reveals that largeness of heart that contributes so much to his stature as tragic hero.
In an Aristotelian tragedy, the most important element in the audience’s response, catharsis, depends upon the emotional effect of the literary work. Despite being classified as a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge evokes both the feeling of pity and fear in response to Michael Henchard’s suffering. The destruction of harmony in the novel following Henchard’s tragic fall affects the lives of those around him, such as Farfrae, Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane. These individuals are witnesses to the repercussions of Henchard’s actions and are also subject to suffer from his transgressions. For instance, the reader fears for Farfrae’s life immediately following the battle of physical strength between himself and Henchard. Hardy uses the reader’s uncertainty regarding Farfrae’s fate to instill the emotion of fear. Like the bull, Henchard’s nature is self-destructive. His death at the end of the novel is tragic, yet it also alleviates the reader’s anxiety. Subsequently, Hardy succeeds in creating a cathartic experience Henchard is a man “who reacts to circumstances according to his character — a man ready to absorb greater opposition than he receives and then laying himself open, willing to accept full blame for what unexpectedly happens” (Kramer 90). For instance, Henchard refuses to defend himself against Elizabeth-Jane’s accusation regarding his deception of Newson; he does “not sufficiently value himself to lessen his sufferings by strenuous appeal or elaborate argument” (Hardy 402). Furthermore, Henchard seeks out his own punishment because he is determined to shoulder the burden of his own mistakes. Even in death, he is punishing himself for his past misdeeds. An example is the closing lines of Henchard’s will where he asks “that no man remember” (Hardy 409) him. The more Henchard punishes himself for his past transgressions, the more sympathy and pity the reader feels for him. Michael Henchard’s last requests are that no formal ceremonies accompany his burial and that Elizabeth-Jane not be informed of his death, firmly establishes his stature as a tragic hero. The reader understands that all Michael’s sins have been expiated, not by his death, but through his suffering. His suffering, of course, is the direct result of his rash behavior as a young man.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a drama, but Hardy combines the elements of plot and the presence of a tragic hero to induce a cathartic experience at the end of the novel, which renders it as “the most valid and meaningful modern revival and adaptation” (Seymour-Smith) of an Aristotelian tragedy. It fulfills the Aristotelian requirement of the depiction of the downfall and death of the hero because of some tragic flaw in his character. It also conforms to the pattern of the Greek classical tragedy in the cruel workings of Fate. the tragedy in it is caused not only by mere external factors or circumstances but also by the tragic flaw in his character. The tragic content in the novel assumes a timeless significance. Notwithstanding its similarities with ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex as well as Shakespeare’s King Lear, The Mayor of Casterbridge stands independently as an exceptional piece of nineteenth-century literature.