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The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy



It is Fair Day in the large Wessex village of Weydon-Priors. Michael Henchard, a young hay-trusser looking for work, enters the village with his wife and infant daughter. Seeking refreshment, the three go into a tent where an old woman is selling furmity, a liquid pudding made of boiled wheat, eggs, sugar, and spices. Henchard consumes too many bowls of furmity spiked with rum. Feeling confined by his marriage and spurred by drunkenness, Henchard threatens to auction his family. The auction begins as a kind of cruel joke, but Susan Henchard in anger retaliates by leaving with a sailor who makes the highest bid. Henchard regrets his rash act the next day, but he is unable to find his family. He vows not to drink again for 21 years, his present age.

Exactly eighteen years pass. Susan and her daughter Elizabeth-Jane come back to the fair, seeking news about Henchard. The sailor has been lost at sea, and Susan is returning to her "rightful" husband. At the infamous furmity tent, they learn Henchard has moved to Casterbridge, where he has become a prosperous grain merchant and even mayor. When Henchard learns that his family has returned, he is determined to right his old wrong. He devises a plan for courting and marrying Susan again, and for adopting her daughter.

A young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae enters Casterbridge on the same day as do Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard takes an instant liking to the total stranger and convinces Farfrae to stay on in Casterbridge as his right-hand man. Henchard even confides to Farfrae the two greatest secrets of his life: the sale of his wife and the affair he has had with a Jersey woman, Lucetta, whose reputation has been destroyed by the affair. Henchard is perplexed about how to make amends to both women.

Henchard remarries Susan, who dies soon afterward, leaving behind a letter to be opened on Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day. Henchard nevertheless reads the letter and learns that his real daughter died in infancy and that the present Elizabeth-Jane is actually Susan and the sailor's daughter. Henchard immediately cools toward Elizabeth-Jane.

Henchard also grows jealous of Farfrae's rising influence in both Henchard's business and in Casterbridge. The two men quarrel and Henchard fires Farfrae, who then sets up a successful competing grain business. Henchard begins rash speculation in wheat in an effort to wipe out Farfrae, but he fails miserably in the attempt. Henchard is rapidly going bankrupt.

Soon after Susan's death, Lucetta Templeman, Henchard's former paramour, comes to Casterbridge to marry Henchard. In order to provide Henchard with a respectable reason for visiting her, Lucetta suggests that Elizabeth-Jane move in with her. Henchard tries to force Lucetta to marry him, but she is unwilling. She has fallen in love with Farfrae and soon marries him.

Henchard's business and love life are failing; his social position in Casterbridge is also eroding. The final blow comes when the woman who ran the furmity tent in Weydon-Priors is arrested in Casterbridge. When she spitefully reveals Henchard's infamous auctioning of his wife and child, Henchard surprisingly admits his guilt. The news, which is harmful to Henchard's reputation, rapidly travels through the town. Henchard is soon bankrupt and forced by his poverty to become Farfrae's employee. Henchard's 21-year abstinence also ends, and he begins drinking heavily again. He moves to the poorest section of town.

Farfrae and Lucetta buy Henchard's old house and furniture. The Scotsman then completes his displacement of Henchard by becoming mayor of Casterbridge. Later, Henchard challenges Farfrae to a fight to the death. Henchard is on the verge of winning when he comes to his senses and gives up.

As the mayor's wife, Lucetta becomes the stylish and important woman she has longed to be. But she fears her secret affair with Henchard, if revealed, might destroy her marriage to Farfrae. She begs Henchard to return the damning letters she had written him years before. Henchard finds the letters in his old house and reads some of them to Farfrae. He intends to reveal their author as well but relents at the last minute. Later, he asks Jopp, a former employee, to deliver the letters to Lucetta. Henchard doesn't realize Jopp hates both him and Lucetta. Jopp shares the letters with some of the lowlife of the town. Excited by the scandal, these people plan a "skimmity-ride"- a mock parade to ridicule adulterers through the town to shame Henchard and Lucetta. Lucetta sees herself paraded in effigy, and the shock kills her.

Henchard reconciles with Elizabeth-Jane, who continues to believe Henchard is her father. He sees his final chance for happiness crumbling, however, when Elizabeth-Jane's real father, the sailor Newson, comes to Casterbridge to find his daughter. Out of affection for Susan, Newson reveals that he pretended to be lost at sea so that Susan, who hated their relationship, could return freely to Henchard. Henchard lies to the sailor, telling him Elizabeth-Jane died soon after her mother's death. Newson leaves, but Henchard worries that the sailor might return to reclaim Elizabeth-Jane.

During the following year, Henchard's life becomes fairly settled. He lives with Elizabeth-Jane and runs a small seed store. Farfrae begins courting Elizabeth-Jane, and the two plan to marry. Then the sailor returns, and Henchard flees Casterbridge.

Henchard appears at Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae's wedding to deliver a present. Elizabeth-Jane spurns him, and Henchard sees that Newson has taken over as father of the bride- a role Henchard can never play. He leaves Casterbridge broken-hearted. A few days later, Elizabeth-Jane discovers Henchard's present, a bird in a cage. The unattended bird has died of starvation. Touched, she and Farfrae go in search of Henchard. Too late, they learn he has just died in the hovel where he had been living with the humblest of his former employees. The young couple read Henchard's pitiful will, in which Henchard asks that no one remember him.

[The Mayor of Casterbridge Contents]



    The Mayor of Casterbridge is almost completely dominated by one character- Michael Henchard, the itinerant hay-trusser who becomes mayor of a Wessex town. Even when Henchard is not present, the other characters always seem to be talking about him or wondering how to deal with him. He is larger than life, as are his successes and failures.

    As you read The Mayor of Casterbridge, you are likely to be impressed by Michael Henchard, but you may have trouble deciding whether you admire, loathe, pity, or condemn him. Some readers see Henchard as a victim of a fickle fate, while others feel that he deserves all of the anguish he has to endure in the course of the novel. Henchard has a special moral code all his own.

    Hardy subtitles the novel, "A Story of a Man of Character." What do you think he means by the word character? One noted critic, Irving Howe, states that character "indicates energy and pride of personal being." The word character also implies consistency. Those three terms- energy, pride, and consistency- clearly summarize Michael Henchard.

    Henchard's energy is amazing. You might think of him as a billiard ball in constant motion. He is a man of action. He rushes headlong, bounding from one impetuous act to another. He may regret an action, such as auctioning his family, but he never tries to take back anything he has done. Instead, he may do something else, equally rash, in order to make amends for his first action. For example, he readily takes Susan back into his life and just as readily admits his guilt when he is confronted by the furmity woman.

    Pride is another major character trait of Michael Henchard. His personal pride separates him from the other people around him. It is at the core of his successes as well as his failures.

    Hardy points out Henchard's pride throughout the novel, starting with his initial description of the main character on page 1. Henchard's walk is that of a skilled countryman- not that of a general laborer- and "in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself..."

    Henchard's combination of energy and pride results in his becoming a prosperous merchant and the town leader. However, the combination also proves self-destructive. He is driven to outdo Farfrae, and this leads to the breakup of their friendship and partnership, and, ultimately, to Henchard's bankruptcy. He cannot accept the truth of Elizabeth-Jane's parentage, and he becomes estranged from her as well. In addition, he cannot comfortably allow Lucetta to marry another man.

    Consistency is another major character trait of Michael Henchard. He is always the same man. His wife Susan points out this consistency several times as she and Elizabeth-Jane seek their "distant kin." In Chapter IX, she says, "He was always so." Do you think Henchard's consistency is an admirable trait? Henchard tells people exactly what he thinks of them, and they know exactly what to expect of him. Yet his inflexibility makes him an almost impossible person to live and work with.

    Hardy leaves a major question about Henchard for you to answer: Is he a villain who commits evil acts, or is he a pawn of fate? Does he deserve the terrible end that he suffers? Hardy seems to admire Henchard, but he does not allow Henchard to find peace and happiness.


    Susan Henchard's personality contrasts with her husband's. While he is active, she is passive. He is certain and enthusiastic; she is confused and bitter. In Chapter II, Hardy describes Susan as being a fatalist. She is resigned to whatever life brings her- even being auctioned off to another man whom she accepts as her new mate. Susan's actions add a fatalistic tone to the whole novel. Yet what happens to her influences much of the action of the novel. Hardy also uses the word "mobility" to describe Susan. She is a moveable person, physically and emotionally. She does not live for herself. Most of her actions are motivated by the desire to help her surviving daughter. She leaves with the sailor in hopes of finding a better life for Elizabeth-Jane, and she returns to Henchard in hopes of helping the second Elizabeth-Jane get ahead in life.

    Hardy purposefully only sketches Susan for you. She is undeveloped as a character. If she were stronger, she might draw your attention away from Michael Henchard. Think about it. Do you feel real sympathy for what happens to Susan?

    Yet, when Susan does act or make decisions, she unwittingly influences many of the major events. She leads the family into the furmity tent. She accepts the auction, rather than fighting for her rights as Henchard's wife. She reminds the furmity woman of the auction and of Henchard's whereabouts. She leaves behind the poorly sealed note that reveals Elizabeth-Jane's parentage. She even gives both girls the same name, which adds to Henchard's confusion. Susan Henchard may be a minor character but she has major influence in this novel.


    Elizabeth-Jane is the embodiment of a proper young woman. She is reserved, innocent, and polite. You may think that some of her views, particularly those she expresses early in the book, are a little prim. For example, she is concerned about Susan's talking with the furmity woman and is shy in approaching Farfrae. By Victorian standards, however, Elizabeth-Jane should be concerned with acting properly at all times. She must live up to her status as a mayor's daughter.

    Elizabeth-Jane becomes a more interesting and more fully realized character as the book progresses. As the only person in the novel who grows and changes, she works very hard at educating herself academically and socially. She is always trying to improve herself. At the beginning, Elizabeth-Jane may seem to be a prig or a naive small-town girl, but she grows into a gentle, kind-hearted woman. She never becomes cynical. She can even forgive Henchard for his lies to her. Elizabeth-Jane is also the only character who seems to express warm feelings, even love, toward others. Susan and Farfrae are stoical; Henchard and Lucetta are overemotional. One question you will have to answer for yourself is whether Elizabeth-Jane is really a heroine.

    Does her emergence in a position of strength at the end of the book show that she has actively grown or passively survived?

    Elizabeth-Jane touches all the other main characters in the novel. First, as a child, then friend, and later, wife. She serves as a sounding-board for the others. Elizabeth-Jane is a listener and confidante, offering protection and advice. She also acts as an outside observer for you. You learn a great deal about Henchard, Susan, Lucetta, and Farfrae from Elizabeth-Jane's interaction with them, and their reaction to her.


    While Michael Henchard represents energy in the novel, Donald Farfrae represents reason. He thinks more than he feels. He has a sharp business mind and writes every transaction in ledger books. Henchard makes deals with handshakes; Farfrae makes them with contracts. Henchard uses brawn and personality; he even challenges Farfrae to a fight to the death. Farfrae uses intelligence and logic. Notice the difference in the way the two men feel toward each other. Henchard's emotions toward Farfrae are strong ones that range from love to anger to hatred to jealousy. Farfrae's feelings about Henchard are mild ones that range from respect to friendship to annoyance to pity to mild indifference.

    Farfrae's courtships of both Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane don't show much depth, either. Notice how quickly he turns against Lucetta when he learns of her affair with Henchard and how rapidly he forgets her and moves on to a new relationship with Elizabeth-Jane.

    You may have mixed feelings about Farfrae. He is admirable in his basic honesty and good will. These qualities win him the respect of most of the people- rich and poor alike- in Casterbridge. But he is also callous in his disregard of Henchard's feelings. He appropriates everything of Henchard's, even his house and furniture, and goes so far as to paint his own name over Henchard's on the signpost when he takes over Henchard's business. Farfrae is successful, but is he the "man of character" that Henchard is? Henchard is always colorful, even in utter defeat; Farfrae is usually drab. Yet Farfrae survives at the end, and Henchard doesn't. Whom do you think Hardy admires more? Whom do you admire more?


    Throughout the novel, Lucetta seems to play the role of "the other woman." She has an affair with Henchard while he is still technically married to Susan, then she marries Farfrae instead of accepting Henchard's offer to clear her reputation. Lucetta may have changed her name to the properly English Templeman, but Hardy lets you know that she is French at heart. To British readers, her Frenchness implied sensuality and possibly even moral looseness. In Chapter XXII, Hardy writes, "She had arrived at Casterbridge as a Bath lady [a proper Englishwoman], and there were obvious reasons why Jersey [where she was condemned as a loose woman], should drop out of her life." But it never does.

    Lucetta is flighty and at times conniving. She is also the one character in the novel who feels sexual passion. This sexuality makes her a more interesting character, but it also gets her into trouble. Her rapid romance with Farfrae contrasts greatly with Elizabeth-Jane's slow-building relationship with him. Lucetta is as impulsive as Henchard and even more emotional. Why else would she suffer a stroke at seeing herself paraded in effigy in the skimmity-ride?

    Like Henchard, Lucetta is also self-destructive. Notice, for example, the letters that she writes to Henchard or her meetings with him after she has married Farfrae.

    Lucetta also has a snobbish streak that brings her trouble. She wants to be the great lady of Casterbridge. Her attitude causes Joshua Jopp, Henchard's fired grain manager (see below), to want to destroy her and leads the townspeople to enjoy humiliating her.


    Newson, the sailor who buys Susan and her daughter at the auction in the furmity tent, appears only at the beginning and end of the novel. In each instance, he helps point out glaring weaknesses in Henchard's character. His dealings with Henchard bring out the mayor's self-indulgent side. Each of Newson's appearances also marks a downward turning point in Henchard's life.

    Hardy never develops Newson's character fully. His role seems mainly to serve as a contrast with Henchard. Newson's willingness to "disappear" so that Susan can find peace of mind shows his kindness and sensitivity. Elizabeth-Jane's loving feelings for him confirm these characteristics. He is also jolly and forgiving, two qualities Henchard doesn't possess.

    Some readers feel that Newson's reappearance at the end of the novel, after having been deceived by Henchard ten months before, is too much of a coincidence, a convenient opportunity for Hardy to finally push Henchard out of the way. Think about this criticism. Decide if you think Newson's return helps to give the novel a fitting ending or one that is too contrived.


    Joshua Jopp is an almost standard villain, the type of character who often appears in a Dickens novel. Feeling that he has been wronged by Henchard and put down by Lucetta, he bears grudges toward both. Jopp is a poisonous influence on the action of the novel. Like a rat, he appears most often at night or in dark places. He directly causes Lucetta's destruction by helping to instigate the skimmity-ride. When Henchard moves in with Jopp, their association symbolizes Henchard's tremendous downfall.


    The furmity woman appears four times in The Mayor of Casterbridge- twice in Weydon-Priors, first playing a major role in the auction, and then, 18 years later, giving Susan the message that leads her [Susan] to Casterbridge. Mrs. Goodenough again appears twice in Casterbridge, where she both reveals Henchard's "crime" and participates in the skimmity-ride. Each time you see her, the furmity woman's appearance and fortunes seem to have deteriorated further. She goes from mistress of the furmity tent to tender of an outdoor pot, to town vagrant. Although her fall is in direct contrast to Henchard's rise, in the end, she helps to bring him down to her level. Mrs. Goodenough seems to fill a role as Henchard's conscience and an instrument of his self-destruction. Perhaps that is the reason for her name. She reveals to Henchard that he is not always good enough.


    Abel Whittle makes two brief, but significant appearances. First, he is the subject of Henchard's verbal abuse and humiliation when he continually fails to arrive at work on time. Henchard's almost cruel treatment of Whittle seems to mark a turning point in Henchard's business fortunes. The second time, Whittle acts as Henchard's companion in his final days and announces the former mayor's death.

    Whittle is a simple man but a faithful one. He stays with Henchard at the end because of the latter's kindnesses toward Whittle's mother. His first name is significant also. As Abel, his companionship helps Henchard recognize his own "Cainness." (Remember that Cain, in the Bible, became an outcast after killing his brother Abel. Henchard's association with Abel emphasizes Henchard's alienation from the rest of Casterbridge society.) Abel's surname, Whittle, seems to refer to the whittling down of Henchard's fortunes. In the end, only Abel Whittle, the lowliest of the people of Casterbridge, is left to remember and mourn the man who was once the most powerful person in the town.


    Several minor characters appear in The Mayor of Casterbridge, filling you in on past events and giving the common people's impression of their leaders. These people- such as Mother Cuxsom, Nance Mockridge, Christopher Coney, and Solomon Longways stand outside the windows of the hotel, drink in the Three Mariners Inn, or gather in the side streets of the town. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus in the novel. [In Greek dramas a group of actors appeared on stage to comment on the action and fill in plot details.] The town chorus here maintains the traditions and superstitions of Wessex life. Significantly, they are the only true Wessex citizens in the novel. All of the other characters are outsiders who have immigrated into the region.

[The Mayor of Casterbridge Contents]



Most of the action of The Mayor of Casterbridge takes place inside Casterbridge, the largest town in Hardy's Wessex. Hardy focuses carefully on the architecture and the historic nature of the town. As is typical in a Hardy novel, the landscape almost takes on a life of its own. Casterbridge itself seems to be a character in the novel. It has moods and emotions and a magnetic appeal that affects the other characters. Notice, for example, Hardy's first description of the town as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane enter in Chapter IV:

The lamplights now glimmered through the engirdling trees, conveying a sense of great snugness and comfort inside, and rendering at the same time the unlighted country without country without strangely solitary and vacant in aspect, considering its nearness to life.

Casterbridge is part Roman, part Wessex, and part Dorchester. It is a place of ancient artifacts, rustic customs (including skimmity-rides), and early nineteenth-century architecture and life-styles. Casterbridge is a traditional place preparing uncomfortably for industrialization and modernization.

Hardy, who was an architect, provides a very detailed look at the bridges, roads, buildings, inns, marketplace, and surrounding areas of the town. As you read The Mayor of Casterbridge, pay careful attention to the way Hardy describes the different landmarks. For example, he points out cracking paint or worn paths to symbolize deterioration, and he interplays images of light and darkness to add to the gothic (haunting) character of many of the locations. Each landmark seems to have a symbolic function. Bridges are for contemplation of one's turns of fortune. Inns are for gatherings of social classes. Houses are for looking out onto the town (High-Place Hall), for enclosing one in high status (Henchard's house, later occupied by Farfrae and Lucetta), or for locking one away from the world (Jopp's cottage).

The accompanying map of Casterbridge (see illustration) will give you a better idea of the town's layout, and you might want to refer to it as you read. The map shows the wall of trees on the west and south and the closeness of the surrounding farmland.

Here is some information related to the map that will help you place the action of the novel: Susan and Elizabeth-Jane enter Casterbridge from the southwest, on the Port-Bredy road. That's why their first impression of the town involves the trees. Port-Bredy is also the town in which Farfrae and Lucetta are married. Damer's Barn is where Henchard saves Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane from the charging bull in Chapter XXIX. The Maumbury Rings south of the town is where the Roman amphitheatre is located. Grey's Bridge to the east is the stone bridge on which Henchard contemplates his fate. Mixen Lane in the east is where the lower classes live and where Peter's Finger is located. Both Henchard's (and later Farfrae's) house and High-Place Hall are on Corn Street. Significantly, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane's home is in the direct center of town, while Henchard's is a few blocks away.

In only the first two and last two chapters of the novel does the action occur outside Casterbridge. These chapters concern the auction that begins Henchard's troubles and the death that ends them. In the first two and last two chapters, Henchard is a restless wanderer. In these prologue and epilogue sections of the book, Hardy shows the bleakness of the Wessex landscape and its magnetic power as well. Once people enter Wessex, they are seldom able to leave or stay away for good.


Hardy develops several themes in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Some are related to the story of Michael Henchard himself. Others are related to Hardy's sense of history or of literary tradition.


    Like many of the great tragic heroes in literature, Michael Henchard suffers from excessive pride. The Greeks called this sin hubris. Hubris involves a combination of excessive pride, ambition, and self- confidence. In a sense, a tragic hero creates his own sense of morality that may run counter to the basic moral rules of the society. The punishment for hubris is often a slow and painful death, in which the hero must first be stripped of personal possessions and public favor.

    Hardy illustrates Henchard's excessive pride throughout the novel, from his blaming liquor for his having sold his wife, to his concealing the real reason behind his oath of abstinence, to his refusing to take the loss in the sale of the bad wheat, to his "buying back" Susan with five guineas, to his lies to Elizabeth-Jane and Newson. Ironically, even the will he leaves shows his pride. He asks to be forgotten completely rather than be remembered as a man who had flaws.

    Because of his hubris, Henchard loses his wealth, his social position, and his chances at being loved. He leaves Casterbridge dressed as a hay-trusser, just as he was when he first entered the town.


    Hardy came from a religious background, and his architectural career was spent in restoring churches. He admired the security of Christian faith. Yet he was also drawn to the writings of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer about evolution and religious skepticism. He eventually began to doubt his own faith. Without a God controlling the universe, he felt, people had no spiritual force to rely on for comfort or to "blame" for their problems. Hardy grew to believe that what happened to people was determined by fate; people could not really overcome fate. Thus, what seem to be coincidences that occur in one's life (and numerous coincidences plague Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge) are actually events controlled by an unknown, and often uncaring, outside force. In his poem "Hap," Hardy refers to such forces as "purblind doomsters" who just as easily strew "blisses about my pilgrimage as pain." This dominance of fate creates a sense of emptiness or loneliness in Hardy's Wessex. Surviving in Wessex involves learning to accept one's fate and living within it, something Henchard never learns how to do.

    Fate plays a major role in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard thinks he is in control of his life, but he is unable to avoid matters that lead to turning points in his life- a furmity woman who laces her concoction with rum, a long-lost wife who wanders back into his life, a poorly sealed letter that reveals his true daughter's death, the arrest of the furmity woman in Casterbridge, the poorly closed packet of letters, the appearances of Newson. Henchard's indomitable belief that he can somehow overcome his fate makes him stand out as a special person. He has a nobility that cannot be totally destroyed. But his ultimate failure may be a sign of Hardy's own sense of depression over the loss of religious faith.


    Closely related to the dominance of a malevolent fate in the novel is the feeling of pessimism that is evident throughout. Hardy conveys this sense of pessimism in two ways- through images and through characterization. Look for repeated images of rain and darkness in the book. They nearly always accompany downturns in Henchard's fortunes. Also notice how Henchard's appearance and feelings of self-worth deteriorate as he is punished for his hubris. Increasingly, he begins to doubt his own strength as he regards the world with greater pessimism.

    As readers, we also grow increasingly pessimistic about the ability of a person- even a strong man such as Henchard- to succeed in this world. Survival is the best a person can hope for. And survival doesn't mean real joy or happiness, as Hardy notes in the final two pages of the book; it means finding a "latitude of calm weather."


    In Hardy's lifetime, England was rapidly becoming industrialized. Hardy felt that something important was being lost through modernization. That's why he set most of his novels in preindustrial times and in an agricultural region.

    In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard represents the traditional ways of working and doing business. He makes deals with handshakes and bases business deals on hunches or prophesies. Farfrae, on the other hand, represents modern methods. He introduces technology to the town and keeps careful business records.

    Much of the novel is built around the contrasting attitudes and actions of Henchard and Farfrae. Through his focus on the two men, Hardy makes the major social statement of his book. Farfrae, the man of technology and modern business methods, displaces Henchard, the man of tradition and superstition. Farfrae's name tells you a lot about him. He is a free man from far away, bringing distant and free ideas into a tradition-locked area of England. In much the same way, the Industrial Age is rapidly taking over in Wessex and in all England, replacing the traditional agricultural society of the past centuries.


    The interaction between Henchard and Farfrae strongly echoes the biblical story of Saul and David. Saul is the outsider who becomes king of Israel and whose major characteristics are pride and jealousy. Music soothes him over his moments of bad temper. He is a man of brawn who does not always think clearly before he acts. David, the musician, begins as Saul's comforter and eventually replaces him as king. He is a man of creativity and reason. Notice how these characteristics compare to those of Henchard and Farfrae. For example, look at the role that music plays in the novel. Farfrae is a brilliant singer, and Henchard is drawn to music. Also, note Henchard's bullying attitudes (especially toward Farfrae) and contrast them with Farfrae's more sensitive approach.

    The story of Saul and David also symbolizes the replacement of the old order by the new. By utilizing biblical images, Hardy once again shows the conflict between tradition and modernization.


    Nearly all of the main characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge put on a front. As readers, we know or suspect their true identities, and we wait for the truth to surface. Hardy presents many hints that foreshadow the reality behind the illusions. As you read, you might want to see how good a detective you are. Jot down any hints of illusions that you see and your suspicions about the truth. Then see how many of your suspicions are confirmed.

    Hardy also interplays illusion and reality in his description of the skimmity-ride. Lucetta narrates the scene, and the events seem to take place more in her head than on the street below her window. Reread that scene carefully. Can you explain why the paraders just seem to disappear into thin air?


The style of The Mayor of Casterbridge is clear and descriptive. The sentences are generally carefully developed. At times Hardy's language seems almost poetic (and, indeed, Hardy thought of himself primarily as a poet). Hardy, the poet, is clearly at work in his first extended description of Elizabeth-Jane in Chapter IV:

The sun shone in at the door upon the young woman's head and hair, which was worn loose, so that the rays streamed into its depths as into a hazel copse. Her face, though somewhat wan and incomplete, possessed the raw materials of beauty in a promising degree. There was an under-handsomeness in it, struggling to reveal itself through the provisional curves of immaturity, and the casual disfigurements that resulted from the straitened circumstances of their lives. She was handsome in bone, hardly as yet handsome in the flesh.

Look at the repetition of 's' sounds that give the description softness and 'h' sounds that give it strength. (This repetition of sounds is known as alliteration.) Hardy wants you to know that Elizabeth- Jane is a mixture of these two qualities. Her later actions will bear out this description.

Sometimes Hardy's language may seem old fashioned or wordy, but that is how Victorian authors often wrote. Note, for example, Hardy's explanation of Farfrae's business successes (from Chapter XVII):

Whether it were that his Northern energy was an overmastering force among the easy-going Wessex worthies, or whether it was sheer luck, the fact remained that whatever he touched he prospered in. Like Jacob in Padan-Aram, he would no sooner humbly limit himself to the ringstraked-and-spotted exceptions of trade than the ringstraked-and-spotted would multiply and prevail.

This passage may seem wordy or archaic to you, but notice Hardy's craftsmanship in using repetition, imagery, and allusion.

Hardy relies heavily on images and symbolism in his writing. Many times in The Mayor of Casterbridge he uses rain to add a pessimistic feeling to Henchard's actions. He also creates an ominous feeling by presenting some of the pivotal events in Henchard's downfall in nighttime shadows or in darkened rooms. In addition, Hardy uses animal images in his descriptions of Henchard and Farfrae. Hardy shows Henchard changing from "raging bull" to "fangless" lion and caged bird. Through extended metaphor, Hardy shows Farfrae acting as a powerful male animal laying claim to and taking over the territory of the former dominant male.

One interesting aspect of Hardy's style is his use of conversation and dialect. You can learn a great deal about characters, including their social status, from the way they speak. For example, Henchard's conversation generally consists of short sentences strung tightly together. He talks as quickly and as impulsively as he acts. Farfrae speaks precisely, illustrating his correctness. Farfrae's Scottish dialect also illustrates his foreignness. He is the new man on the Wessex scene. (Note the conversations between Henchard and Farfrae in Chapters VII and XII.) Elizabeth-Jane's speech pattern becomes increasingly refined as her character develops. The members of the town chorus show how unrefined they are by the colloquial quality of their rural dialect.


The Mayor of Casterbridge is written from the point of view of a third-person omniscient narrator. As an outside, all-knowing observer, the narrator can jump through time as he chronicles Henchard's rise and fall, as well as reveal the private thoughts of each character. He can also anticipate or review actions or speeches. He can even make value judgments, which he often does.

Note, for example, the following passage from Chapter IV, in which the narrator comments on Susan Henchard's actions and motives, briefly mentions the thoughts of another character, and makes some value judgments of his own. -

But Susan Henchard's fear of losing her dearly loved daughter's heart by a revelation had little to do with any sense of wrong-doing on her own part. Her simplicity- the original ground of Henchard's contempt for her- had allowed her to live on in the conviction that Newson had acquired a morally real and justifiable right to her by his purchase- though the exact bearings and legal limits of that right were vague. It may seem strange to sophisticated minds that a young matron could believe in the seriousness of such a transfer; and were there not numerous other instances of that same belief the thing might scarcely be credited.

The narrator is not the only observer who comments on the action of the novel. Hardy often places two characters on the scene at one time, with a third character (usually Elizabeth-Jane) observing from a place "off-stage." Think of Henchard and Farfrae talking in the inn while Susan overhears them (Chapters VII and VIII), or of Henchard's contemplating pushing Farfrae from the hay-loft while Elizabeth-Jane silently watches the scene (Chapter XXXIII). Do you think this technique gives you a closer "insider's" view of the action, or does it seem distracting to you? Hardy controls your observation of the action by linking you with the outside observer.


The story line of The Mayor of Casterbridge consists of plot twists, coincidences, echoes, and a series of minor and major climaxes. Throughout, Hardy deals with time in interesting or unusual ways. He can take several chapters to cover the events of a single day or whisk through six months in a single paragraph. He even leaps completely over a period of nearly 20 years and lets you in on the events of those years little by little as the major characters reflect on the past.

Because The Mayor of Casterbridge was originally serialized in 20 magazine issues, the narrative is episodic. You might want to think of the book as a script for a television series. (In Hardy's time, books and magazines provided entertainment similar to television in our time.) Hardy puts just enough suspense at the end of one episode to make you want to read the next episode. That's just what a television writer does to make sure you'll be there for the next show. Look for the elements that connect one episode to another or lay the groundwork for future events.

The Mayor of Casterbridge may be divided into five sections:

  1. Chapters I and II- the auction and oath
  2. Chapters III-XIX- from Susan's return until her death
  3. Chapters XX-XXX- from Lucetta's entrance until her marriage to Farfrae
  4. Chapters XXXI-XL- from Henchard's bankruptcy until Lucetta's death
  5. Chapters XLI-XLV- from Newson's appearance until Henchard's death

Each section develops an important link to Henchard's downfall. Each part opens with Henchard asserting the strength of his character and ends with Henchard's strength being undercut. At the end of section 1, Henchard has lost all contact with his family. At the end of section 2, he learns the truth about Elizabeth-Jane. At the end of section 3, he has admitted his guilt and lost public favor. At the end of section 4, he grieves over Lucetta's death and learns of Newson's arrival. At the end of section 5, he has died unremembered.

You might think of the plot in terms of five descending lines, marking the downward movements in Henchard's fortunes.



ECC [The Mayor of Casterbridge Contents] []

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