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The Mayor of Casterbridge, much like a Greek tragedy, explores the relationship between humans and their destiny and how little control they have over life or what is often called "fate.". There are four stages in the development of the story, which reveal how one man confronts the ups and downs of life. In the first stage, Henchard is a journeyman hay trusser who sells his wife, repents, and vows not to drink for twenty-one years. In the second stage of the story, Henchard is at the pinnacle of his career. He is the mayor of Casterbridge and is reunited with his wife and daughter.
In the third stage, he becomes estranged from Farfrae, loses Susan through death, and makes the discovery that Elizabeth-Jane is not his daughter. His past misdeed is exposed by the 'furmity woman', and he begins to decline socially and financially. In the last phase of the story, the reader witnesses Henchard's utter downfall as he ends up a pauper, alienated from the residents of Casterbridge as well as Elizabeth-Jane. He ends up, ironically, as he was twenty- five years earlier as a lowly hay-trusser.
The minor theme of the novel is closely related to the main them. Lack of character leads to a man's downfall. It is Henchard's drinking and lies that lead to his loss of his wife and daughter, leaving him a man filled with misery.
The mood in the novel is very gloomy and pessimistic and is summed up in the last sentence of the novel when Elizabeth-Jane thinks that her youth "had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." This sentiment is revealed in the life of the tragic hero, Michael Henchard, as he strives for personal happiness; fate, however, always defeats him, manifesting itself in the form of bad choices, co-incidence, and nature. His drinking and foolish decisions show his own belligerence to further tempt fate. He rises to tragic proportions because of the suffering he faces in life, most of which he has brought upon himself.
There is one small ennobling quality about Henchard when he proudly bears his self-imposed smile and declares "my punishment is not greater than I can bear." For a moment, he disperses some of the darkness that surrounds him.
The pessimistic mood throughout the novel is accentuated by the gloomy weather, the gothic descriptions Hardy uses, and the constant tragedies that befall the characters.