REVIEW: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy and I have a fraught relationship (not that he’s aware of it, having been dead for the past 89 years). Once upon a time I read Jude the Obscure, and I did not like it. It was boring and depressing , a particularly noxious combination. Then I read Far From the Madding Crowd, and liked it quite a bit better; I gave it a B+. Recently, I decided to give The Mayor of Casterbridge a try. It ended up falling in the middle of the other two books; not as dull or depressing as Jude the Obscure but less compelling (and more downbeat) than Far From the Madding Crowd.
Michael Henchard is a 21-year-old itinerant hay-trusser who shows up at country fair with his wife Susan and young daughter Elizabeth Jane. Henchard proceeds to get drunk and belligerent, and in a moment of impulsive hostility towards his wife, he offers her for sale. A sailor who has happened by, Newsom, accepts the offer and pays five guineas for Susan and Elizabeth Jane (it should be noted that Susan is pretty fed up with Michael at this point and accepts the situation with alacrity). The next day, a sober Henchard regrets his actions and sets out to find his wife and daughter, but they are gone.
Twenty years later, Henchard has prospered as a businessman in the nearby town of Casterbridge; in fact, he is the mayor. Susan Newsom, his erstwhile wife, shows up in town with her daughter Elizabeth Jane. Her “husband” Newsom has been lost at sea, and Susan, having no financial resources, has looked for Henchard in order to get a better situation for her daughter. Also, Susan, who is far from the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, has only recently come to realize that you can’t just transfer ownership of a wife like you might a horse. In other words, she realizes that she’s actually Mrs. Henchard, and has been all along.
Henchard took a vow of sobriety after his actions at the country fair all those years ago (though not a permanent vow; he had said he would remain sober for as many years as he was previously on Earth – i.e. 21 years; thus his vow’s end date is approaching). He still greatly regrets his actions, and though he’s not especially keen to be married to Susan again (he’s formed another attachment in the meantime), he’s happy to have Elizabeth Jane back. He decides that since he’s thought to be a widower in Casterbridge, the best thing to do is set up Susan and Elizabeth Jane in a house and “court” Susan with an eye towards marrying her. Of course the marriage isn’t necessary; they’re already married. But the town doesn’t know that, nor does Elizabeth Jane, whom thinks Newsom is her father.
The same night that Susan and Elizabeth Jane arrive in Casterbridge, a Scotsman named Donald Farfrae happens to be passing through on his way to America. He impresses Henchard with his knowledge of the grain and corn business (which is Henchard’s line of work), and Henchard offers Farfrae a job. Farfrae demurs but accepts the position when Henchard persists.
So, at this point, you have Henchard reunited with his wife and daughter, and employing an endlessly competent and innovative (not to mention good-tempered) young man, one who begins a slow and patient courtship of Elizabeth Jane. Can we have a happy ending? Noooooo. For one thing, there’s a lot of book left. For another, if my reading of 19th century British literature has taught me anything, it’s that no one gets away with anything. Henchard made a grave mistake and it’s one that will haunt and eventually destroy him (spoiler alert!).
There are a couple of things that start the balling rolling towards Henchard’s reckoning. The first is the arrival of Lucetta, Henchard’s one-time love. He had met her on a business trip to Jersey; Henchard had fallen ill and Lucetta had ended up nursing him. If my reading of the hints in the book are correct, the two were also lovers (scandalous!); at the very least the community thought something happened between them, because Lucetta’s reputation took a hit. Henchard sort of promised to marry her, with the caveat that he might have a wife out there already. As it turns out, Susan arrived shortly afterward, and Henchard has to let Lucetta down gently (helped, he hopes, by a monetary settlement). Either way, though, Lucetta’s pursuit of Michael complicates things.
The other, much larger, issue is Henchard himself, in that he’s his own worst enemy. He goes from thinking Farfrae is the greatest thing since sliced bread to doing a slow boil over him, motivated by pure jealousy. Farfrae is younger, smarter, better liked, better respected than Henchard. Instead of thinking to himself, “maybe I shouldn’t be such a dick?” Henchard tears up his relationship with Farfrae and stomps on the pieces. He fires him, after which Farfrae goes into business for himself, and naturally, ends up being much more successful than Henchard (see “younger, smarter, better liked, better respected” above).
I was going to spoilertag the next bit, but then I realized that “the next bit” was really the second half of the book, in which a lot happens. So if you just haven’t gotten around to reading this one, but don’t want to know what happens, beware ye olde infodump below. SPOILERS AHEAD:
Susan dies. She decides, for some reason, to leave Michael a note letting him know that Elizabeth Jane is *not* his daughter; his daughter died and then Susan had a kid with Newsom and gave her the same name (an old-timey practice of which I do *not* approve; creepy). Her confession made no sense since her whole reason for seeking Henchard out in the first place was to give Elizabeth Jane a chance at a decent life. Henchard then turns against poor Elizabeth Jane, who has no idea what she’s done. Lucetta comes to town to stay, but her resolve to marry Henchard is tested when she meets Farfrae, whom she greatly prefers (join the club, Lucetta). Michael meanwhile decides he *wants* to marry Lucetta. He also loses all his money trying recklessly to compete with Farfrae in business. Lucetta and Farfrae marry and poor Elizabeth Jane (at this point her name should just be “poor Elizabeth Jane”) ends up with nothing; no lover, no doting father. Michael though eventually decides that he wants to be a good father to Elizabeth Jane after all; she’s the only one who has stood by his side. To that end, when Newsom turns up alive, Henchard sends him away, telling him that Elizabeth Jane is dead. Being a good father; ur doing it wrong, Michael.
Wait, where was I? I might be forgetting some stuff or mixing up the order; again, A LOT happens in the latter part of the book. For instance, somewhere in there, Henchard sort of tries to kill Farfrae, but it’s rather half-hearted and Farfrae, who has a VERY high tolerance for Henchard’s nonsense, brushes it off. Meanwhile, Lucetta, who is pregnant, frets endlessly that her husband will learn that she was once involved with Henchard (Donald has no idea about that). She attempts to get letters that she sent to Michael back from him, but Michael, who is endlessly mercurial, sort of taunts her about whether he’ll give them back or not (then regrets it, then taunts her some more). Finally he does return the letters, but they fall in the hands of a man who is no friend to either Michael or Lucetta. This man, Jopp, was supposed to get the job that Michael ended up giving to Donald. He thus hates Michael, isn’t too fond of Donald, and dislikes Lucetta for her “airs.” Others in town have a similar disdain for Lucetta, and they organize a skimmington; the distress causes Lucetta to have an epileptic fit and miscarriage, and then to die.
Whew. Okay, in the home stretch: Newsom returns and is reunited with Elizabeth Jane, who realizes that she’s been lied to again, some more, by a (supposed) parent (remember, Susan lied to her about being Henchard’s child, though at first it seemed like she had lied to her about being Newsom’s child, who it turned out really was the father; it’s basically a 19th century version of The Maury Povich Show). Elizabeth Jane and Farfrae reunite and are married. Henchard goes off in disgrace and dies alone. The end.
So what did we learn, boys and girls? Well, the subtitle is “The Life and Death of a Man of Character”; this means Henchard. (It *could* refer to Farfrae, who supplants Henchard as Mayor, as well in as every other way, but he doesn’t die. Not in the book, anyway.) I’d be tempted to view this subtitle as ironic, but I’m not sure irony was really Hardy’s Thing. At least not the snarky, subtweet-style irony that is implied in the subtitle.
But really, Henchard is by far the most interesting character in The Mayor of Casterbridge, and it’s because he does try to be an honorable man. Unfortunately, most of these attempts at honor come after some reckless/vain/stupid/petty/selfish/mean/all of the above act. He is his own worst enemy, and that’s saying something, since he’s also good at making enemies. His impulsivity is his constant downfall: from selling Susan and Elizabeth Jane to offering Farfrae a job on a whim (which could have been a good thing if Henchard hadn’t mucked it up) to sending Newsom away with a lie. Elizabeth Jane is so endlessly forgiving that he could have confessed the truth to her (it wasn’t with him, after all, that the lie about her parentage started) and received absolution; she would have continued to regard him as a second father and taken care of him. I think what makes Henchard so interesting and recognizably human is that his first instinct is usually reactive and motivated by anger, fear, shame – very recognizable, if base, human emotions. But he always repents and accepts the responsibility for what he’s done (if not publicly, at least to himself). There is indeed something honorable about that, and something that speaks of “a man of character.”
I was going to give The Mayor of Casterbridge a B, a bit below Far From the Madding Crowd, but I think I’ve talked myself into a B+. I’m still not ready for Tess of D’Urbervilles though, I don’t think.