Thomas Hardy’s Masterpiece, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”

Writers have radically different views on Thomas Hardy.  D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the best novelist of the 19th century; Stella Gibbons criticized Hardy’s (and Lawrence’s) “loam-and-lovechild” novels and satirized them in Cold Comfort Farm.  Hardy’s fans have their differences:  some prefer his reputed masterpieces,  Tess of the d’Urbervilles (one of my favorites) and Jude the Obscure (too melodramatic even for me), while I dally with The Woodlanders and A Laodicean.

My favorite is The Mayor of Casterbridge, an almost- perfect Greek tragedy set in England in the 19th century.  The prose is exquisite, the plot intricate, and the structure a superb ring composition. 

In this masterpiece, Hardy charts the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, who, as a young man, tragically gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor, Newson, for five guineas, along with their daughter Elizabeth-Jane.  When Michael sobers up, he searches for them but cannot find them. And so he vows to abstain from alcohol for 20 years, and moves to Casterbridge, where he succeeds as a grain merchant – and becomes the mayor.Years later, Susan and Elizabeth Jane return to the scene of the fair, where Susan tries to find word of Michael, because her other “husband,” Newson, has died.   They find Michael in Casterbridge, and he makes amends by marrying Susan, who is awed by his beautiful house and riches; but he had planned to marry his long-time mistress, Lucetta.  Eventually, Lucetta moves to Casterbridge. 

Ironically, Michael’s marriage to Susan, which raises both Susan and Elizabeth Jane up several classes, is the beginning of Michael’s downfall.  There are many twists:  there is a mystery about the identity of his daughter, not revealed until after Susan’s death.  

But mostly this is a novel about jealousy.  Hot-headed Henchard  becomes jealous of the popularity of a  brilliant young Scotsman, Farfrae, a scientist, whom he once liked, and hired as the manager of his business; he fires him, but then cannot compete with Farfrae as a rival businessman.Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane are interterested in each other, but Henchard forbids him to see her.   Farfrae gradually obtains everything Henchard has or had, including Lucetta.  Henchard thinks Farfrae is deliberately setting out to wreck his life  – and one can see why he thinks it, but Farfrae regrets the loss of their friendship.

 And then there are triangles within triangles within triangles.  We have Michael, Susan, and Newson; Michael, Susan, and Lucetta;  Michael, Farfrae and Lucetta; and Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta…

I love nothing more than a good wallow in a Hardy novel:  an uncritical enjoyment of his lyrical if occasionally heavy-handed prose (but the style is uniformly elegant in The Mayor), the characters’ tragic love affairs, the descriptions of Wessex (the fictional county where his novels and stories are set),  and the complicated structures of his novels.

However, J. I. M. Stewart (a Hardy scholar, novelist, and  writer of mysteries under the pseudonym Michael Innes) is not as partial to The Mayor of Casterbridge as I am.  In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, he cannot resist applying a certain dry mockery to his criticism. He thinks Hardy’s novel benefited from being written as a weekly serial: “Above all, the quick manipulation of event and character required by his crowded fable keeps Hardy’s hands fully occupied so that he has leisure for but few of those large cosmic gestures which have threatened to become routine with him.”  

And there are more observations in this caustic vein.  He writes, “[The characters] seem resigned to parting or coming together, to dying or bobbing up from the dead, with a precision and punctuality in terms of the proposed exhibition suggestive of a factory in which an advanced state of automation has been achieved.” 

 Very witty, but…   I do at least agree with Stewart when he says that Michael Henchard is one of Hardy’s most memorable male characters – and one of the best in English literature.  

J.I.M. Stewart is a  scholar and the author of Thomas Hardy:  A Critical Biography. I have enjoyed J. I. M. Stewart’s novels, but found his critique of The Mayor of Casterbridge a bit depressing.  It is a mistake for Hardy fans to get mixed up with the critics, I always say.  And I have read this novel so many times –  why did I bother with the introduction?

7 thoughts on “Thomas Hardy’s Masterpiece, “The Mayor of Casterbridge””

  1. I agree with your remarks on Hardy a d critics. Here in the UK recent critics harp on about howvnon-pc his world is and how downtrodden the poor, especially the women were as if he was responsible. The melancholy is always emphasised, yet they miss the humour of some scenes. I now want to reread all of his works, including his poetry, but it will have to wait until I have finished reading all the Greek dramatists. My grandma’s family were farmers in a small way in Devon at this time, so I feel like some of Hardy’s lesser characters could be my relations. Thanks for a great post.

    1. J.I.M. Stewart’s intro is copyrighted 1971, and I was surprised by the voice. At one point, I did check out a collection of critical essays – each by a different writer – and found them much softer in tone. Oh, dear, I would love to see Devon. The very name is so pretty.

  2. Mayor is one of my favoritee Hardy novels too, but must admit that Far From the Madding Crowd is the one I am fondest of. And Return of the Native has so much atmosphere! Once in the Before Time when I was making my weekly commute (>120 miles each way) and listening to Hardy’s novels on CDs, I was so taken out of myself that I missed my exit! (of course it was Alan Rickman reading Native (sigh)). I too have been unable to finishing Jude the Obscure but maybe I need to be in the right mood to appreciate the darkness.

    1. I must start listening to audiobooks. Alan Rickman??? Great! I also like “Far from” and “Return.” Bit “Far from” is a light comedy compared to “Return of the Native.” I do love the atmosphere of the latter, as you say. And now I know there is a point to long commutes.

  3. “Well, poor soul; she’s helpless to hinder that or anything now,” answered Mother Cuxsom. “And all her shining keys will be took from her, and her cupboards opened; and little things a’ didn’t wish seen, anybody will see; and her wishes and ways will all be as nothing!”

    Hardy’s addition of the voice of Mother Cuxsom makes Susan’s death almost unbearable for me.

    1. Yes, that is a lovely line, and I love these minor characters. I do wish he hadn’t killed off Susan, but he is a genius at bringing all the voices together.

  4. This brings to mind Robert Alter, who wrote, “the supposedly primitive narrative is subjected by scholars to tacit laws like the law of stylistic unity, of noncontradiction, of nondigression, of nonrepetition, and by these dim but purportedly universal lights is found to be composite, deficient, or incoherent. If just these four laws were applied respectively to Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Tristram Shandy, and Jealousy, each of these novels would have to be relegated to the dustbin of shoddily ‘redacted’ literary scraps.” (I had to go find his quote.)

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