Classics: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Hi, friends. Today’s classic is the first novel I’ve read from Hardy, who wasn’t a Victorian (Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters) yet not quite Modernist (D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf). This book has elements of both styles.

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Published in 1886, The Mayor of Casterbridge explores the high’s and low’s of our protagonist, Michael Henchard–a tragic hero. When the novel begins, he is walking with his wife, Susan, towards a village; he seeks work in hay-trussing, and she clings to a baby, Elizabeth-Jane, in her arms. Later, in a drunken rage at the country fair, Henchard rashly offers his family for sale. A sailor named Newson makes an attractive bid, and just like that, Henchard’s wife and daughter are gone forever. [Yes, it really is that jarring.] Realizing what he’d done once he sobers up, Henchard vows to never touch alcohol again.

Fast forward about twenty years–Newson has died, so Susan and Elizabeth-Jane set out to find Henchard. Since Elizabeth-Jane only knows Newson as her father, Susan lies about who Henchard is and why she is looking for him. They soon learn that he stays in Casterbridge, and when they arrive, they discover he’s a powerful figure there–the mayor and a successful business owner. The novel follows the roller coaster of events that take place after the women reunite with Henchard.

Along the way, Henchard is on top of the world sometimes and at rock bottom other times. His envy and pride cause him to act destructively, and he often sabotages himself. His paranoid emotions drive him, but sometimes, a warmth of heart prevents him from doing irreversible damage. He’s the kind of protagonist who makes you feel conflicted.

Additional Details

“She had the hard, half-apathetic expression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of time and chance, except perhaps fair play.” 

“It was part of his nature to extenuate nothing and live on as one of his own worst accusers.” 

“Henchard, like all his kind, was superstitious, and he could not help thinking that the concatenation of events this evening had produced was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him.” 

Thomas Hardy

Henchard is considered “a tragic hero.” Tragic heroes have “hamartia,” aka an error in judgement or personality flaw that causes their downfall

“The Aristotelian hero is characterized as virtuous but not “eminently good,” which suggests a noble or important personage who is upstanding and morally inclined while nonetheless subject to human error. Aristotle’s tragic heroes are flawed individuals who commit, without evil intent, great wrongs or injuries that ultimately lead to their misfortune, often followed by tragic realization of the true nature of events that led to this destiny.” (Read more here)

Hardy regretted that he may have put too many “incidents” throughout the book because, with the novel being published chapter by chapter in a magazine, he was trying to keep the story exciting every week. Many nineteenth century books were originally published in this serial format.

Thanks for reading! Have you read any Hardy? What are you reading right now? Let me know in the comments.

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