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Free Study Guide for The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy-MonkeyNotes
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The Mayor of Casterbridge, one of Hardy's most renowned works, focuses almost entirely on the rise and fall of Michael Henchard. There are no digressions to divert the reader's attention from his story; even the sub-plots of the book include Henchard. It is fortunate that Henchard appears in almost every chapter to hold the book together, for the plot is lightly knit, only giving a vague impression of unity.

The plot develops in a typical bell-shaped curve. The first chapters introduce the main characters and give a flashback to reveal how Henchard sold his wife and daughter. Once Susan returns to Casterbridge, the rising action begins, as Henchard meets with one challenge after another. His main concern, however, is to hide his past so his good reputation and fortune in Casterbridge will not be lost. The climax occurs in the courtroom scene when the 'furmity woman' exposes his past. From that point forward in the novel, the falling action shows a series of events that rapidly lead Henchard into losing everything, including his good name, his business, his home, and his daughter. The conclusion centers around Henchard's pathetic death and will and Susan's ironic attempt to find him and ask forgiveness.

The plot is further unified by a single main setting. The action, except for the first two chapters, takes place in Casterbridge. The characters are also woven tightly together, with many overlapping relationships: Henchard has a relationship with Lucetta, who also has a relationship with Farfrae. At the time that Lucetta first flirts with Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane is seeing him. Lucetta is well aware of that fact, because Elizabeth-Jane stays with her. Elizabeth-Jane, of course, is Henchard's stepdaughter, and Farfrae is his rival. The closeness of all the main characters helps to strengthen and unify the plot.

Since this novel was written in installments, it is easy to understand why so much suspense is used in the plot from chapter to chapter. The chapters are short with a lot of action packed into each of them. Many of the chapters are filled with dramatic scenes, especially the ones in the courtroom where the 'furmity woman' exposes Henchard's past, where Henchard is reading his letters aloud to Farfrae, where the skimmity-ride takes place, and where Henchard attempts at a reconciliation with Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day. Each of these scenes is filled with a sense of pathos to draw the tragic novel together.

There are also repeated, detailed descriptions of the inhabitants, neighborhoods, and architecture of Casterbridge, forming a motif throughout the novel. The reader is made to vividly see the Ring, the two bridges, the courtroom, and Mixen Lane. Many critics view the descriptions as interrupting the narrative, but they are essential in so far as they give a vivid presentation of the setting and keep the pace of the story from spiraling out of control. Hardy also uses an omniscient narrator, who gives his own comments on characters and situations, to control the pace of the plot.

Although the main and subsidiary plots are realistically portrayed, Hardy uses a great deal of coincidence in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Susan's return after eighteen years, the reappearance of the 'furmity woman'," and Newson's return are glaring examples of improbability. These coincidences emphasize Hardy's belief that man is not in control of his own destiny, but is ruled by Fate.


The Relation between Character and Fate in The Mayor of Casterbridge:

In all of Hardy's novels, character, society, nature, chance, fate and coincidence are responsible for the tragic human situation. In The Mayor of Casterbridge character plays a far greater role than Fate in bringing about Henchard's tragedy. Henchard's misfortunes result from his own deeds and actions. Though Fate plays an important role in the story, Henchard's character plays a much greater role. When the story opens, the reader sees that Henchard is a poor, ambitious, rash, and impulsive young man, who, in a drunken state, sells his wife and child. His past catches up with him more than twenty years later, in the shape of the 'furmity woman' who accelerates his downfall. Thus, the reader witnesses an example of how Henchard's own actions are responsible for his misfortune.

Henchard's pride cannot accept the fact that Farfrae has become more popular and successful than he. As a result, he completely breaks off his relationship with Farfrae and does not allow the courtship between Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane to progress. Had he been less impulsive and more reasonable, Henchard would have continued to prosper because Farfrae was never against him, not viewing Henchard as a rival. But Henchard does everything possible to get the best of Farfrae, challenging him to a wrestling match and contemplating murdering the successful, young man. Fate intervenes, however, to make Henchard come to his senses.

Henchard does not treat Elizabeth-Jane much better than he treats Farfrae. When he learns that Elizabeth-Jane is not his biological daughter, he becomes very cold towards her, making her want to move out of his house and leave him isolated and lonely. When he realizes how much he loves and misses her, fate again comes into play, for she has learned about his lie to Newson and wants nothing to do with him. He tries to reconcile with her on her wedding day, even taking her a caged goldfinch for a wedding present. Unfortunately, he leaves it outside and does not retrieve it when Elizabeth-Jane states she wants nothing to do with her stepfather. Then fate again kicks into control. Elizabeth-Jane finds the goldfinch and realizes it was a token of her father's repentance; but it is too late for the goldfinch and Henchard, for both have died.

Nature plays a fateful role in The Mayor of Casterbridge as the fluctuations of weather are witnessed twice in the novel. Once, the rain ruins Henchard preparations for a grand entertainment, which furthers Henchard's jealousy for Farfrae who has prepared for rain; another time, Henchard speculates heavily on the weather and loses. As a result, Henchard faces bankruptcy.

Fate, in the guise of coincidence, has a greater impact on Henchard's fortunes. Had Susan not returned, Henchard might have married Lucetta and lived peacefully for the rest of his life. Similarly, just when Henchard reveals his paternity to Elizabeth- Jane, he finds Susan's unsealed letter and makes the discovery that she is, in fact, Newson's daughter. It is by coincidence that he finds the letter, and it is also coincidence that he is tempted to read the letter because it is unsealed.

When Henchard finally accepts Elizabeth-Jane, he becomes dependent on her for love. Fate intervenes again, and Newson appears on the scene. The meeting between Farfrae and Lucetta is also the result of a coincidence, for she just happens to be alone and available for conversation.

Although the reader sees the arbitrary and pernicious workings of Fate upon the destinies of man, Hardy also implies that Henchard and Lucetta are responsible for their own destinies.

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