This was at least the third time I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge. Could be the fourth. I was a big Thomas Hardy fan back in college. For years I’ve been haunted by that final image of the dead songbird in the cage sitting on the back door steps of the newlywed’s home. Forgotten and forsaken, like the bride’s father.
Not quite how it happened, it turns out.
I was not moved by Michael Henchard’s story this time around, nor by those of the other characters for that matter.
The Mayor of Casterbridge just doesn’t hold up all that well.
Except when it does.
For those of you who escaped Thomas Hardy through high school and college, The Mayor of Casterbridge is the story of one Michael Henchard, a man given to acting rashly during fits of anger, a mistake he regrets making again and again.
In the books famous opening scene he offers his wife and baby daughter for sale to the highest bidder at a rural country fair. A visiting sailor takes him up on the offer, leaving town with both before the next morning when Henchard awakes, sober and horrified by what he has done. Henchard tries to undo his actions, but it is too late. Leaving in shame he vows not to drink another drop for 21 years during which time he moves to Casterbridge where he becomes a big success, eventually earning the job as mayor.
Some 18 years later the woman he abandoned returns, daughter in tow, and Henchard’s life begins to unravel.
Let’s start with the women. The wife, Susan, is ridiculous, even by late 19th century standards. Too simple to realize that she is not obliged to abide by the terms of her husbands sale to the sailor, she goes with him, lives with him, eventually has a daughter with him after Henchard’s child dies. When the sailor does not return from a voyage to America she decides to return to Henchard who insists she keep their history a secret though he will take care of her and the girl he thinks is his daughter. He even marries her a second time.
Elizabeth-Jane, the daughter is not much better. Devoted first to her mother and then to her “step-father” she is the apex of the Victorian virgin. Though she falls in love with Mr. Farfrae she quietly steps aside as soon as she realizes he is interested in Lucetta, the third woman in the story. Reading this I could not help but wonder how a literature that produced Elizabeth Bennet could produce such wet blankets as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard.
Lucetta had promised herself to Michael Henchard before she his wife reappeared. Once his wife Susan dies, convenient yes, she says she will marry Henchard only to turn against him once his original sin is exposed. She then marries Mr. Farfrae, Henchard’s former assistant who has risen higher in social circles than Henchard ever hoped to due to his business acumen. While Lucetta is a fully realized character in my opinion, she is so unlikable for what she does to both surviving Henchards and even to Farfrae that her death generates no sympathy. She actually dies from a miscarriage brought on by having her own scandal exposed.
Perhaps Mr. Farfrae is meant to be admirable as he rises while Henchard falls, but I found him insufferable. Henchard finds Farfrae’s attempts to help patronizing as did I. He takes Henchard’s business, moves into his old home, marries the woman he wanted to marry, and finally marries his step-daughter who refuses to have anything further to do with him once she learns of her mother’s “sale.”
That Henchard keeps making the same mistake again and again, makes him annoying to say the least, but I have to admit it also makes him human. Much closer to human than any of the other characters in the novel. His end, when it finally comes, still packs a punch in spite of it all.
The professor who brought about my devotion to 19th century English novels once said that “Thomas Hardy is a great writer, but he’s not a good writer.” Or something to that effect. So, I will admit that when Lucetta revealed she had married Mr. Farfrae I gasped aloud. I was shocked. I knew this meant financial ruin for Henchard who felt it as a true romantic betrayal as well. That I still felt for Henchard, that I felt for him right up to the end, in spite of all that he does in spite of having read the book several times, speaks to how great a writer Hardy is. That bit about the bird cage is ridiculous, true, but it’s also a very moving moment.
And there is his famed descriptions of the Wessex landscape. Spending time in one of his novels is like spending time in the English countryside, at least Hardy’s version of it.
And I must admit, I am still thinking about this man Michael Henchard, who always tried to do the right thing immediately after he had done the wrong thing. How often do we all do that? Often enough, I think, to feel some sympathy for this man who gained everything only to lose it all with no one to blame but himself.