The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy


I read this novel in my spare time, and it doesn’t figure into my dissertation research per se, but it’s got an excellent bigamy plot, and so I thought it would be appropriate to add it to my general pool of thoughts. The line of influence from the sensation genre to Hardy’s plots is clear, in my opinion (and I think that the last chapter of Winifred Hughes’ book talks about Hardy in relation to sensation novels), but I was intrigued by how unsusceptible the Casterbridge folk are to sensation in this novel. References to sensation come up about twice in the final chapters of the novel, and they are treated with the same blase attitude both times. In chapter XLIII, when the “members of the philosophic party” (316)–Hardy’s typical country Chorus–meet at a tavern to discuss the impending wedding of Elizabeth-Jane and Donald Farfrae, the narrator cautions:

“But we must guard against a too liberal use of the conventional declaration that a great sensation was caused by the prospective event, that all the gossips’ tongues were set wagging thereby, and so on, even though such a declaration might lend some eclat to the career of our poor only heroine. […] It would be a truer representation to say that Casterbridge […] looked up for a moment at the news, and without drawing its attention, went on labouring and victualling, bringing up its children, and burying its dead, without caring a tittle for Farfrae’s domestic plans.” (317)

Similarly, in the final chapter, Casterbridge is only momentarily interested in Richard Newson, the fascinatingly long-lost sailor. This, according to the narrator, could have been because “Casterbridge was difficult to excite by dramatic returns and disappearances, through having been for centuries an assize town in which sensational exits from the world, antipodean absences, and such like, were half-yearly occurrences” (336). Basically, Casterbridge doesn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about anything that happens in Hardy’s novels, since they see it all the time. I think it’s fascinating that Hardy builds into his novel a town full of blase readers, who are so over-exposed to sensation that they don’t turn their heads for his carefully crafted “sensational exits” and “antipodean absences.” They’re a lot like Simmel’s blase city-dweller, except, interestingly, they’re rural through and through (I think that Simmel essay is “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” if I remember correctly).

Ultimately, I think Casterbridge’s boredom with sensationalism goes back to their relation to temporality. As in all of the other Hardy novels that I’ve read, Casterbridge goes about its humdrum daily existence in a town that has been around since the ancient Romans invaded Britain. Susan Henchard, for example, shares her eternal real estate with the bones of rich Roman maidens, and the famous “Ring,” where all illicit meetings happen, is actually an ancient colosseum. Time is personified continually throughout the novel (again, the same as in any Hardy novel), so the old cliche applies: the more things change, the more they stay the same. There is something earthily eternal about Casterbridge, in spite of the petty changes Time wreaks on individual lives. So, sensationalism–that apex of popularity so contingent on the present moment–is noticed briefly, then discarded. The Mayor of Casterbridge, I think, is basically a sensation novel in plot, without the benefit of a sensational audience.

Character List

Michael Henchard: Gets drunk and sells his wife to a sailor for five guineas in the first chapter. When he sobers up and realizes what he’s done, he vows not to drink any more liquor for 21 years (the same number of years he’s been alive at the time), and his subsequent industriousness eventually leads to his becoming the mayor of Casterbridge. After the sailor who bought his wife gets lost at sea, she looks him up, they get remarried, and live relatively happily until she dies. Then Henchard finds out the daughter he thought was his is not his, and treats her coldly. Meanwhile, he tries to marry the woman he “ruined” years earlier, but she secretly marries a new flame, and Henchard’s luck goes downhill from there. His rivalry with Farfrae leads to his financial and social ruin, and he falls back on the affection of his supposed daughter, only to discover that her blood father is still alive. He lies to Newson, telling him that Elizabeth is dead, but Elizabeth marries Farfrae, who finds her father anyway, and Henchard leaves Casterbridge a broken man. He dies in a hut about 20 miles away, tended by a day laborer whom he once publicly shamed.

Susan Henchard: Described as “simple” by all the men in her life, she gets sold by her husband in the first chapter. Her daughter by Henchard dies three months later, but she has a new daughter (also named Elizabeth-Jane) by the sailor who buys her. She lives a relatively happy life with the sailor, thinking that the sale is socially and legally binding. When a friend tells her that’s not the case, she becomes depressed, so the sailor-husband’s supposed death comes at a perfect time for her. She goes back to Henchard, not telling him that her Elizabeth-Jane is not actually his Elizabeth-Jane. But on her death-bed, she writes a note telling the truth, telling Henchard not to open it until her daughter’s wedding day. He opens it early and sorrow ensues.

Elizabeth-Jane Henchard/Newson: First she thinks she’s a Newson, then she thinks she’s a Henchard, then it turns out she’s a Newson after all. In the midst of it all, she’s steady, hardworking, humble, modest, affectionate, and beautiful. When Farfrae falls in love with her, she wants to return his affection, but Henchard forbids it (then encourages it, then forbids it again, then finally resigns himself to it). She stays in love with Farfrae through the whole mess of the rest of the plot, and ends up marrying him in the end.

Donald Farfrae: He’s a Scottish immigrant on his way to America when he passes through Casterbridge and revolutionizes Henchard’s ideas about corn and wheat purification. Henchard decides that Farfrae is the best thing to ever happen to the world, and he persuades him to stay in Casterbridge and manage his very successful corn business. They become best friends, until Henchard sees that Farfrae is becoming more popular and successful than he is. He gets jealous and fires Farfrae, who then goes into business for himself and eventually takes over Henchard’s business when he goes bankrupt. Unfortunately, Farfrae also takes over Henchard’s ex-lover, Lucetta, knowing nothing about her past. This marriage ends in Lucetta’s death, along with the death of their unborn child. Then he ends up with his first love, Elizabeth-Jane, whom, clearly, he should have been with all along.

Lucetta Templeman (Le Sueur): As Lucetta Le Sueur, she was a native of Jersey (an island between Britain and France), where she met Henchard during one of his bouts of depression and nursed him back to health. This relationship turned sexual, and the town started a-talking. To make matters worse, Lucetta wrote a series of incriminating letters to Henchard begging him to make an honest woman of her. He agreed, but said that, although he had not seen her in many years, his first wife might still be alive. Right about that time, Susan did indeed come back, and the marriage plans are called off. Lucetta is poor until a rich aunt of hers dies and leaves her wealthy. Susan dies around the same time, and Lucetta comes to Casterbridge a wealthy woman, ready to claim Henchard as her husband. But she meets Farfrae and they fall in love at first sight. After a witness to Henchard’s wife-sale reveals his shame, Lucetta gets scared of marrying him (rightly so!) even though she has already promised him that she would. She runs off with Farfrae and does her best to keep all her secrets from reaching his ears. But her letters to Henchard fall into the wrong hands, and her secret gets out. The townsfolk arrange a skimmington (effigies to make fun of cuckolds and adulteresses), she falls into an epileptic fit and dies.

Richard Newson: He buys Susan Henchard for five guineas and lives a relatively happy life with her. When she starts getting nervous about their living arrangement, and he gets lost at sea, he decides the kindest thing is to let her think he’s dead so that she can go back to Henchard in good conscience. Toward the end of the book, well after Susan’s death, he shows up to claim Elizabeth-Jane, with whom he wants to share all his riches. Henchard tells him she’s dead, but he eventually finds out the truth and returns in time to see her get married. Then he moves to Budmouth to be near the sea.

Joshua Jopp: A guy from the wrong side of the tracks (Mixen Lane, to be exact). He is initially slated to be Henchard’s manager, until Henchard decides to hire Farfrae. This gives Jopp a grudge against Henchard. Later in the narrative, he rents a room to Henchard after the bankruptcy. When Henchard decides to be a good guy and return Lucetta’s incriminating letters to her, he gives them to Jopp to drop off at the Farfrae residence. Unfortunately, Lucetta has just scorned Jopp earlier that day, and he vows vengeance. So he takes the letters to a tavern and reads them aloud to everyone there. Thus, the town discovers her past and arranges the skimmington that inadvertently kills her.


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September 8, 2012 · 7:18 am

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