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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Thomas Hardy was born on June 2, 1840, in the village of Upper Bockhampton in Dorchester in Southwestern England. His father was a mason. Hardy owed much to his parents. He developed a love for music from his father and a love for reading for his mother. The impressions of his childhood became the subject matter of his "Wesson" novels. In fact, the town of Casterbridge has been modeled after Dorchester.
Hardy first studied at a village school and then in school in Dorchester. In 1856 he was apprenticed to John Hicks, an ecclesiastical architect in Dorchester. After work each day, he would study advanced Latin and Greek. He also began to write essays and verse in 1857. Hardy went to London in 1862 and became Assistant to A.W. Blomfield, a well-known architect. He returned to Dorchester in 1867 and began to devote more time to writing, including novels and poetry.
Hardy's novels include Desperate Remedies (1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Hand Of Ethelberta (1876), The Return Of The Native (1878), The Trumpet Mayor (1880), A Laodrecan (1881), Two On A Tower (1882), The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess Of The D'urbervilles(1891), The Well-Beloved (1892), and Jude The Obscure (1895). From 1895-1928, Hardy devoted himself to poetry. He wrote over 800 poems and a long epic drama called The Dynasts (1903-1908).
In 1874, Hardy married Emma Lavinia Crifford, but it was not a happy marriage. Emma died in 1912. In 1914, he married Florence Emily Dugdale. His house, Max Gate, became a place of pilgrimage for young writers like Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, J.E. Lawrence, and Siegfried Sassoon, all of whom he greatly influenced. In 1910, he was awarded the order of Merit and became the greatest living man of letters in England. He died at the age of 87 on January 11, 1928.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was originally published in a serial form, which can be noted by the many mini-climaxes embedded in the narrative. Eventually, it was published as a book in 1886. Hardy, in his preface to The Mayor of Casterbridge, states that "Readers of the following story who have not yet arrived at middle age are asked to bear in mind that, in the days recalled by the tale, the Home Corn Trade, on which so much of the action turns, had an importance that can hardly be realized by those accustomed to the sixpenny loaf of the present date, and to the present indifference of the public to harvest weather. The incidents narrated arise mainly out of three events, which chanced to arrange themselves in the order and at or about the intervals of time here given, in the real history of the town called Casterbridge and the neighboring country. They were the sale of a wife by her husband, the uncertain harvests which immediately preceded the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the visit of a royal personage to the aforesaid part of England."
From the preface, it is clear that the period Hardy intended to portray was immediately after the repeal of the Corn Law in 1846. Until then the rich landowners had flourished at the expense of the poor farmers. Meanwhile, other important changes of far reaching consequences were taking place. The old business methods were giving way to new systematic proceedings, machines were replacing men, people were flocking to towns and cities in search of jobs, and small farms were being absorbed by larger ones. In short, England was in flux due to the industrial revolution. These changes were very apparent in the rich, farming lands of Southwest England, the geographical area Hardy called Wessex.
Most of Hardy's novels are set in Wessex, an ancient name for the West Saxon kingdom of the Middle Ages. It comprises Dorsetshire and ports of other western English counties. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the reader can detect Hardy's upbringing, his regional knowledge, and his architectural background throughout the novel. The colorful dialogue, the rustic crowd, and a contrasting poetic treatment of both town and country are woven into the novel, giving it a particular and unusual treatment of the human condition.
Hardy's characters are simple rural folk who may act rashly or impulsively, usually out of a lack of inner knowledge. Michael Henchard clearly belongs to an earlier, rustic age and also reveals his raw, primitive passions that include jealousy, hatred, and love. As a study of character, this novel is different from his others, where females are often the focus of attention. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, the character of Henchard is intensely rendered; the novel is ultimately his story, and he commands all of the attention. Among the women characters, only Elizabeth-Jane is carefully and sympathetically shown, and she is not found in a large portion of the novel.
Henchard's tragedy is the result of a combination of factors. He refuses to keep pace with the transition that was taking place in England; he stubbornly sticks to the old way of doing things, refusing to adopt and accept new trends. As a result, he is beaten by Farfrae, who embraces newer ideas, especially concerning agricultural technology. Secondly, Henchard is comparable to the old Greek tragic heroes who bear a fatal flow. Henchard's weaknesses are the main causes of his undoing; his drinking and his lies are at the root of his downfall. Finally, Henchard's tragedy is the result of Hardy's interpretation of the human situation, which he sees as a struggle between man and Fate. Much of Henchard's misery is caused by unforeseen circumstances and the ironies of Fate. Love, another incarnation of Fate, is the predominant motive for much of Henchard's actions. Because he does not realize this until the end of the novel, he is denied happiness and dies a lonely and embittered man.
Many critics charge that Hardy is unduly pessimistic, but he lived and wrote in a time of great change. Science had upset all the old established ideas and traditions that Hardy knew. Darwin's The Origin of Species had called into question the old, fundamental beliefs of Christianity. Man was no longer viewed as a noble creation of God, but a descendant of the lower species. This meant that humans could rise and fall for no apparent reason. The Mayor of Casterbridge reflects this spirit, the conflict between the old and the new and the ability to carve out one's fate or submit to it.