The Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character. Thomas Hardy. New York: The Pocket Library. 1886/1956.
Why read it? Novel. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a novel and a mood piece. The mood is of futility, irony and despair that sees life as primarily tragic, punctuated by occasional moment s of happiness. Character is fate. Our mistakes in the past strike us in the present. Life is not to be lived, but to be endured. A mood of pessimism. Vengeance might be the theme of the novel, that vengeance that seeks us out and punishes us for our actions in the past. The wheel of fortune, from being poor to achieving wealth to destitute poverty in both physical circumstances and mind.
This novel might almost seem to be a negative caricature of life—that life is a series of humiliations, a series of mistakes with only a few moments of happiness, serenity, gaiety—call it what you wish.
The novel might almost be a “how-to” on enduring life. It is a vision of life as acceptance of continual disappointment. Of life as being crushed by fate, which seeks you out for destruction. The character of Michael Henchard is of a man who tries to right himself, but who actually creates the conditions of his own self-destruction. In trying to deal with his guilt, he is actually seeking his self-destruction. He is guilty and he needs to be destroyed for it. He knows this and he tries, unconsciously, to bring destruction upon himself.
But his destruction is not all of Henchard’s doing. Things happen to him, things that he can’t control. His wife comes back. He does not know that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter, that his own daughter has died, that she is the daughter of the man to whom he sold his wife and daughter. He is the victim of misunderstandings between him and his daughter. They are not able to communicate their understanding of the situation in which their relationship has fallen apart.
And the town. It is not only indifferent to Henchard, but to every one.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is a mood piece and the mood is that life is Hell created by ourselves, abetted by the machinations of others and by coincidental circumstances.
“Henchard…becomes a ‘man of character’ whose whole life will be determined by that youthful crime [while drunk, selling his wife and daughter to another man].” p. v. ………. “…the chronic failure unconsciously seeks out failure in an attempt to work off his feelings of guilt.” p. ix. ………. “…the guilty not merely flagellate themselves but also thrust themselves in the way of bad luck: create what appear to be unlucky accidents. Henchard is such a man. The obligation to punish and degrade the self is at times fairly conscious.” p. ix.
“When a man is said to be worth so much a minute, he’s a man to be considered.” .p. 82. ………. “These tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control, he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.” p. 110. ………. “Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it.” p. 124.
“But Donald Farfrae was one of those men upon whom an incident is never absolutely lost. He revised impressions from a subsequent point of view, and the impulsive judgment of the moment was not always his permanent one.” p. 237. ………. “…that chaos called consciousness…”p. 117. ………. “I have tried to peruse and learn all my life; but the more I try to know the more ignorant I seem.” p. 295.
“…the secret…of making limited opportunities endurable…. p. 331. ……….”What Henchard had written in the anguish of his dying was respected as far as practicable by Elizabeth-Jane [his step-daughter], though less from a sense of the sacredness of last words, as such, than from her independent knowledge that the man who wrote them meant what he said. She knew the directions to be a piece of the same stuff that his whole life was made of.” p. 331. ………. “He seemed to feel exactly as she felt about life and its surroundings—that they were a tragical rather than a comical thing; that though one could be gay on occasion, moments of gaiety were interludes, and no part of the actual drama.” p. 53.
Life is half full. Depends on how you want to see it. RayS.