The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge

In the June of 1883 Thomas Hardy and his wife, who since their marriage had lived at a variety of addresses in London and Dorset, moved to Dorchester, where they were to remain. Returned to his native town Hardy began work, appropriately enough, on The Mayor of Casterbridge, finishing it in the April of 1885.  It came out in weekly instalments in the Graphic, from January to May 1886.  Smith, Elder & Co. issued the work in two volumes in May 1886.

It is distinctive in two technical respects, each of which conduces to clarity of focus.  As Hardy remarks in his 1895 Preface: ‘The story is more particularly a study of one man’s deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex Life.’  His sub-title makes the point explicitly: ‘A story of a Man of Character’.  Michael Henchard, the hero of the novel is, for all his faults, energetic, decisive and whole-hearted, ready to take responsibility for his actions and shape his own fate.  As the most forceful individual in any of Hardy’s novels he comes closest to the traditional status of ‘tragic hero’. 

Also exceptional is the extent to which the action of the novel is confined within a single vividly evoked location - which becomes in effect an arena: the town of Casterbridge, Hardy’s fictionalised Dorchester.  With the right guidance it is still possible to trace many of the streets, buildings and landmarks which feature in the novel and help to shape the action.

Both these factors conduced to unity.  So also does the tautness of structure.  Each of the four main characters – Henchard, Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta, - is circumstantially and emotionally linked to each of the other three.  A shift in any one of these relationships has implications for the others.

Altogether, then, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the most tightly-knit of all the Wessex novels.  The author’s comment on it in the Life is therefore surprising:

It was a story which Hardy fancied he had damaged more recklessly as an artistic whole, in the interest of the newspaper in which it appeared serially, than perhaps any other of his novels, his aiming to get an incident into almost every week’s part causing him in his own judgement to add events to the narrative somewhat too freely.

There are plenty of ‘incidents’, but in most cases they are generated more plausibly from the evolving central situation than is usual in Hardy’s fiction.  The author himself goes on to admit that the novel is ‘quite coherent and organic’.

The relative topographical confinement of the setting does not deny Hardy the larger perspective that he so often seeks.  Here it is supplied by time:

Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct.  It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome.  It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire…

The reader is recurrently reminded that the story being told is but one among thousands that have been enacted over the centuries on this same plot of land.  Casterbridge, as Hardy depicts it, is on the cusp of change: Soon agriculture will be mechanised, and traditional practices will give way to new methods; soon the Corn Laws will be passed and the market will change.  The town is subject to endless evolution.

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