Hardy’s novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge – A Story of a Man of Character” was written in 1886 and is a story about Michael Henchard, a simple hay trusser looking for work, who has a problem with the bottle. He walks into a town down on his luck and attempts to find solace in an alcoholic mixture, which loosens his tongue. Henchard publicly auctions his wife and child, in the midst of a drunken stupor. Eventually, someone accepts his price and leaves Henchard passed out at the town fair.
When he awakens, he shows much regret and vows not to drink alcohol for 21 years. He searches for his family, but unable to find them he continues on in search of work, eventually doing so well in business that he becomes the Mayor of a town called Casterbridge. The rest of the story deals with Henchard repenting for his past mistakes, but never fully learning how to cope with his internal struggles.
As all Victorian novels go, most of the troubles that plague Henchard could have been avoided through honesty. Of course, Henchard is a “Man of Character” and feels there are certain ways in which all events in life should be handled. He insists that his methodologies are genuine and true, while others are vindictive and malicious. As a result, a contempt broods within him and he attempts to take back what is rightfully his. To this end, he epitomizes the traits he claims to be opposing – vindictiveness and maliciousness.
As a reader, you must constantly choose whether Henchard is tragic or sympathetic; a case can be made for each. It is my personal opinion that Henchard’s downfall was his lack of ability to accept others with character and morals different from himself and his emotional reactions to negative events, instead of eliciting rational thought. Henchard was a hopeless romantic that constantly miss-communicated his love by over-thinking and over-reacting.
“The Mayor of Casterbridge” was not Hardy’s best novel. It held glimpses of promise but lacked the imagery and passion exhibited in “Tess of D’Ubervilles.” The story was based in a progressing urban landscape, in stark contrast to the rural landscapes in Tess. If “Tess of D’Ubervilles” was a game played by a master chess player, calculating every move in advance before the inevitable fall of King, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” was a chess game in which the result was a steady stalemate, with little care for the mid-game movements and only faint interest in the ending.
Structurally, Hardy was less sophisticated with his language in “The Mayor of Casterbridge” – choosing to limit the high-brow vocabulary and instead experiment with a simplistic form. However, I must admit that the prose was still fairly ‘chunky’, a common criticism of Hardy’s work.
The novel had some beautiful moments, but I did not find myself running for a pad and paper to capture quotes, themes or general insights into life. However, I can see why this novel has withstood the test of time – due mainly to Michael Henchard, a constant reminder to be honest and direct, and never to dwell too much on the negative.
I personally think that a secret to happiness is to withhold your own personal morals, but not put down others that do not feel the same way. Since we all have different vantage points which dynamically change over time, we can’t all feel and act the same way as in every circumstance. Those who can accept others for their faults as well as accept variances in other’s perception of character and integrity will find they are headed closer towards a harmonious existence.
"I have tried to peruse and learn all my life; but the more I try to know the more ignorant I seem." 316
"And being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." 354
Well done. I agree with your assessment that Henchard can be read different ways - as either a tragic or sympathetic character. I love that about Hardy's work too - two differing viewpoints can be given about a character or perhaps an event with neither being definitively right or wrong. If you decide to read The Return of the Native, I'd be interested to hear your take on Diggory Venn.
I am glad that Casterbridge was not my first experience with Hardy. His common themes and ideas were more subtle and it definitely lacked the beautiful imagery and complex insights of some of his other novels. I read somewhere that Hardy was frustrated with writing Casterbridge because he felt pressured by publishers to have an action-packed plot with lots of twists and turns to keep people reading from issue to issue (one of the disadvantages of serialized publication, I suppose). It definitely feels more like a sensation novel than some of his others.
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