Notes on Nineteenth-Century Literature: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

mayor of casterbridge hardy modern library 41xSvd8PH3LI would love to live in a city in a nineteenth-century novel.

The Moscow of War and Peace, the fictional Bruges of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, the Casterbridge of Thomas Hardy, and the London of Dickens, no, wait, perhaps not the London of Dickens–too bleak.

Try to talk me out of the nineteenth century. It cannot be done.

I am in a heavy-duty 19th-century classics phase.

I have recently become addicted to Thomas Hardy, that Victorian giant who fought Victorian mores.

mayor of casterbridge hardy oxford 3fdd9edb0388d7ce910e5d2d21038443-gI just finished rereading his tenth novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, a masterpiece. The chiastic structure of this brilliant novel (chiasmus refers to an A.B.B.A. pattern, in this case a repetition of various themes and plot elements) is classically balanced.   Hardy, an autodidact, studied Latin at school, but learned Greek largely on his own, as did the hero of his last novel, Jude the Obscure. Hardy rose at 4 am. to read Virgil, Horace, Homer, and Sophocles.  He struggled with Greek dialect, but was a master of writing his own Wessex dialect in his novels.  If I read much more Hardy, I am likely to start talking in  dialect like the Greek chorus-esque rustics  in his fictional pubs.

The Mayor of Casterbridge describes the rise and fall of one of the most memorable characters in literature, Michael Henchard, a hay trusser who gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor.  You cannot get much more dramatic than that.  He vows to stop drinking for 20 years.  Years later, after the death of Susan’s second “husband,” she and her daughter return to Wessex to find him.  Susan is stunned to learn that he has become the Mayor of Casterbridge.

Thomas Hardy was very classical, and had a strong sense of place.  Place and character reflect the elements of geography and the human passions.   Casterbridge, the dowdy major city of his imaginary Wessex (based on Dorchester), is very much an agricultural town. And it is here that Henchard, a  popular businessman and a dealer in hay and grain, has succeeded.  Henchard could not become the mayor of a larger, more sophisticated city.  Hardy is realistic.

In the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, edited by Norman Page, we learn that Casterbridge here does not so much resemble Dorchester as is supposed.  It represents in many ways the conservatism of Henchard.

Paramount for Hardy is the necessity of depicting Casterbridge as an isolated, conservative, and thoroughly traditional community, with a social organization belonging to the pre-railway age.

Hardy himself describes it as

… a place deposited in the block upon a cornfield.  There was no suburb in the modern sense, or transitional intermixture of town and down.  It stood, with regard to the wide fertile land adjoining, clean-cut and distinct, like a chess-board on a green table-cloth.  The farmer’s boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk; reapers at work among the sheaves nodded to acquaintances standing on the pavement-corner…

Michael Henchard is generous, if bipolar (my diagnosis of his ups and downs). He drops his plans to marry his younger, more attractive girlfriend, Lucetta, which has repercussions later. He decides to pretent to court Susan and then marry her. And when he takes a liking to Donald Farfrae, a Scotsman who is on his way to Canada to make a name for himself as a scientist and inventor, he persuades him to stay as his manager. But  Farfrae is more brilliant than Henchard, and soon Henchard finds himself nettled by his superiority and senselessly competing with him.  The competition leads to his downfall.  And there is a queer sense of the repetition of the triangulation at the long-ago fair:  after Susan’s death, Henchard ends up losing both of the women who were close to him, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane.  He blames it on Farfrae, but it is largely his own fault.

An illustration by Robert Burns from Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge

An illustration by Robert Barnes from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

On the internet, I have looked up Thomas Hardy tours of Dorset. I want to walk on the heath and have a beer in Casterbridge, but do I want to go on a three-day walking tour? Do I want that much of Dorset?

I do really, really love Hardy, though.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Nineteenth-Century Literature: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge

  1. Excellent “heavy duty” blog. Not the same mood, but I wanted to say my older students this term are loving Trollope — and what I feel they are loving is the 19th century book. Next spring I’m going to go all 19th century in my teaching — I’ll do Gaskell’s North and South for example. As a very different perspective, my daughter Laura tells me if one joins facebook there are ways quietly to disseminate one’s blog and slowly build an appreciative audience. I could get her to repeat details if you’d like. More people should read your blogs; I realize you have a good audience and people from periodicals read your blog but these ought to be more widely read yet. That’s a very good choice of illustration.

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    • Ellen, so many great writers in the 19th century! I would love to take your Trollope class, and even the mention of Gaskell makes me realize I should get back to her.. And you’re very kind about my blog. It is so difficult to write about the classics, but I do know this book fairly well. It was my “favorite” Hardy for many years.

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  2. I am very glad you’re a Hardy fan! I checked on Goodreads to see how “consumer” readers rated him, not knowing if he’s still in style. Oddly, it’s different for every edtiion, but the Penguin MoC gets 3.76 stars.

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