The Mayor of Casterbridge

book imageby Thomas Hardy

Published: 1886

My Rating: **** 4/5

When a book begins with a man auctioning off his wife while in a drunken stupor, you know it’s going to be a real humdinger.  The whole scene is cacophonous and chaotic, if you can imagine a slovenly drunk man, stumbling around calling out bids for his wife in between lamenting his lot for marrying so young and having his ambitions ruined by marrying a simple-minded woman.  At first, I almost laughed because I didn’t think that such a thing would seriously occur.  But it did occur.  Immediately after the sale is complete, the man becomes struck with the reality and the finality of it, as though he too thought it wouldn’t really happen — that it was all a big, cruel joke that he had played on himself.  Following this realization comes one of the most achingly beautiful passages in the novel:

“Is she gone?” he said

“Faith, aye; she’s gone clane enough,” said some rustics near the door.

He rose, and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load.  Some others followed, and they stood looking out into the twilight.  The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the willful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place.  In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey.  Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet.  The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed.  To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium.  In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.”

Wow.

A man callously sells off his wife with a harsh disregard of her as a fellow human being and then goes to the door of the inn where he is met with the natural world in all its calm radiance, where even the animals are managing to show more affection for each other in that moment.

But before you can jump to any hard and fast conclusions about the state of things, Hardy quickly reminds us of the impermanence of the conditions of the natural world.  All is fleeting, and tomorrow the the scene may reflect the exact opposite.

As an interesting side note – the act of selling one’s wife may seem barbaric to our modern ears but an essay by Philip Allingham that is published on the Victorian Web states that the practice was not unheard of among rustics as a way of ending marriages that had gone sour.  Hardy says as much when he says at the beginning of chapter four that there have been “numerous other instances” of such transactions.

illustration

Image from Victorian Web

The main protagonist is this man who sold his wife, Michael Henchard.  When the deed is done – when he comes to the sobering realization that it cannot be reversed – Henchard vows not to take another drop of alcohol for 21 years and then he heads for Casterbridge to start anew.  He does improve his standing considerably but Henchard is never happy.  When he’s poor he is unhappy and when he’s rich he is unhappy.  When he’s alone he is unhappy, and when he’s married, you guessed it, he is unhappy.  Towards the end of the novel he finally obtains something to increase his happiness but even that becomes marred by a selfish act that puts a permanent suspicious cloud over what he’s obtained.   Michael Henchard seems almost cursed to loneliness no matter what his circumstances are.  As a result, the tone of the novel can mostly be described as melancholy and sorrowful.

In true Hardy fashion, there are a number of coincidences peppered throughout the novel, and there are times when the plot is driven by Chance.  However, Michael Henchard is not so much a man abused by Fate as he is completely responsible for his own downfall.  There is a strong note of personal responsibility in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Though Henchard improves his lot after his drunken heinous act, he still cannot escape the treacherous dealings of his past.  Again and again, he pays for his mistakes.

Despite all of his misgivings, Hardy does not set Henchard up to be disliked by readers.  I had an incredible amount of sympathy for his plight and I think that Hardy intended this.  Michael Henchard is a complicated man.  He is hard, aggressive, selfish, and spiteful.  Yet, he’s also a man who can be thwarted from violent action because of being moved by music. He reconsiders a vengeful act when he hears a song that touches his heart.  He is a man who needs human contact and affection but he doesn’t know what to do with it once he’s got it.  He often abuses those who offer it.  It was painful to watch this lonely man attempt to remedy his situation only to further debauch it, with one mangled act or interaction after another.

Henchard is both emotionally unsound and a force of nature.  He is a moody man who is ruled by his moods.  In a moment he can flip-flop between acceptance and bitter resentment.  Henchard is certainly not one-dimensional.  He embodies the sort of complexity that makes Hardy’s characters true to life.  The intricacies of Henchard’s nature reflect Hardy’s personal view of character and personality as expressed in his book Life and Work:

“I am more than ever convinced that persons are successively various persons, according as each special strand in their characters is brought uppermost by circumstances.”

So perhaps every man has grievous flaws that could bring him to his end given the right set of circumstances, when Chance collides with human nature.   This notion is strongly manifest in Michael Henchard and it also speaks to the complexity of man in general.  As in life, characters like Henchard cannot be boxed in with general characterizations.    The gentle person is not always yielding and mild; the rough person is not always hard and unfeeling.  No one is completely good or evil.  Life and people are too complex to be contained within generalities.

That’s what I most love about Hardy.  I love the depth and the intricacy of his characterizations.  I love that nothing is ever cut and dry, black or white, good or evil.  I love that Hardy can take a man like Michael Henchard and ask you to understand him better and sympathize with him.  Those sympathies don’t change the tragic end that Henchard meets, but it does leave your heart a little softer towards him.  Like The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye, the elemental force of Henchard’s nature dooms him to a life on the fringes of society.  These are characters that just don’t seem to fit anywhere.  They are too extreme; society hasn’t made a place for them and their natures are too wild and nonconforming to ever be deemed socially acceptable.   Through his characterizations, I believe that Hardy expresses a deep sympathy towards the likes of Michael Henchard and Eustacia Vye.  Yet, their fates also reflect a harsh reality.  Hardy was not an idealist.  He doesn’t depict these characters as reformed, nor are the communities that they inhabit reformed in order to accept them.

As I concluded in my review of The Return of the Native, the outcome of The Mayor of Casterbridge reflects a survival of the fittest.