The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy, 1885
Are you getting tired of Thomas Hardy yet? I’m not!
The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s take on the Greek tragic hero archetype. I loved Ancient Greek drama in high school and college. At age thirty-something, I found on my first read through that I have no time for an aggressive patriarch whose fits of pique threaten to destroy the lives of everyone he encounters. Gee, I wonder why I’m feeling particularly frustrated by that personality-type?
I couldn’t enjoy the book the first time through, because I was so aggravated by Michael Henchard’s string of selfish, destructive actions. I was too pissed off to have any fun. However, on my second read—I read pretty much every deserving novel at least twice before posting about it—I knew what was coming. No longer shocked and surprised by the protagonist’s behavior, I was free to expend my mental energy on admiring Hardy’s handiwork.
It’s a good’un, folks. I love a twisty, curvy, complicated plot and The Mayor of Casterbridge sure has one. I’ve always found the descriptors “plot driven” and “character driven” too facile. Sure, “plot driven” can be used to mean a novel is all action with weak characterization. However, a story can have a great plot and great characterization. I think Victorian readers would be baffled by that supposed dichotomy, because all good Victorian novels focus heavily on character development AND have compelling plots. The Mayor of Casterbridge takes the reader on quite a ride, plotwise, but every turn is propelled by the beautifully elaborated characters.
I almost don’t want to tell you a single other thing about this book. It’s so great; you should discover everything for yourself. I can’t even describe the relationships between the characters without misleading you or giving something away. After some contemplation I’ve decided to try to tell you a few key things.
Michael Henchard begins as a grumpy man with too little money, too great a fondness for alcohol, a wife and a daughter. He commits a spectacularly strange act that separates him from said wife and child. Many years later, they reappear and discover that he has risen from a lowly hay-trusser to a position of such wealth and influence that he has become the mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy describes this semi-agricultural and semi-urban town so masterfully that I have profound feelings about the bridges, the market days, the villagers who carouse at the secret pub, all of it. I’m not kidding about the bridges. If you read this book, you will have strong emotions about the bridges of Casterbridge.
Henchard has a foil in the character of Donald Farfrae, a young Scottish fellow he hires to help him manage his grain business. Farfrae is everything Henchard is not: forgiving, reasonable, thoughtful. Henchard soon torpedoes their friendship because of jealousy. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Oops, one more. Hardy establishes that Farfrae is indisputably the better man of the two, yet they both commit the same disastrous mistake: undervaluing Henchard’s daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.
Oh, Elizabeth-Jane. My queen. She’s a steady woman, whose impoverished childhood instilled a keen sense that injustice and suffering are inherent to human existence. Yet, she is compassionate and selfless. She aspires to refine herself, not so that she can make an entrance in society, but to attain a greater degree of personal dignity, something she lacked in her early life. She attempts to do this by reading rigorously. Do you see why I love her? Here is just a snippet of her lovely characterization “Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness […] But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who deserved much more.” I could cry. My only criticism of this book is that I could have used so much more Elizabeth-Jane.
There are other actors in the cast, but I won’t go into it further. Just know that Hardy puts them all in such intense and odd, yet plausible situations. If you can get past what a jerk Henchard is, and I think you can, you will enjoy seeing these characters react to their fascinating circumstances.
Just as a bonus, this book contains my favorite Brit Lit trope: someone goes out into the wilds to consult a mystic. Love it. Hardy, of course, describes this character with his typical incisive wit. Ostensibly god-fearing Anglicans, his clients put on a show of not truly believing in his prophetic powers. “Whenever they consulted him they did it ‘for a fancy.’ When they paid him they said ‘Just a trifle for Christmas,’ or ‘Candlemas,’ as the case may be. He would have preferred more honesty in his clients, and less sham ridicule; but fundamental belief consoled him for superficial irony. As stated, he was enabled to live; people supported him with their backs turned. He was sometimes astonished that men could profess so little and believe so much at his house, when at church they professed so much and believed so little.” I cackled at that one. Got ‘em.
You might enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:
- you like things that are good
You might not enjoy The Mayor of Casterbridge if:
- you have no time for stories about toxic patriarchs. Which is how I felt at first, but I realized that the story isn’t just about him. It’s about the way that he fails to destroy anyone but himself. It’s about the way that the people around him endure his toxicity and remain compassionate, giving people. True to themselves to the end. That’s a story worth reading. In these trying times.
Final Thoughts: The more I think about this book, the more I love it. It is considered one of Hardy’s masterpieces for good reason.