The Mayor of Casterbridge as an Aristotelian tragedy

January 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

Read more