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.
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