Essay: The Mayor of Casterbridge – Analysis

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  • Subject area(s): English literature essays
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  • Published on: January 12, 2020
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  • The Mayor of Casterbridge - Analysis
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Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in Dorset. Hardy’s rural beginnings influenced much of his fictional settings. The Mayor of Casterbridge demonstrates Hardy’s position in the shifting world of the times, containing parts of both Victorian and Modernist literary forms. Throughout the novel Hardy traverses through the effects of economic and cultural growth as witnessed in Weydon-Priors decline and the continually changing moral codes and conduct evidenced in the passionate and reckless character of Lucetta Templeman. Within the novel, Thomas Hardy uses a variety of major and minor themes alongside motif’s and symbols that can be analyzed by looking at plot, character analysis and other literary devices used throughout the novel. This essay will attempt to analyze the themes of fate and chance alongside love.

At first glance, the character itself within the context of Hardy’s novel would appear to play the greater role over fate, with the protagonist Michael Henchard’s misfortunate happenings the result of his own numerous flaws and disreputable past, however it can also be stated that arbitrary fate plays a central role within the context of the novel.

There are many examples of this theme which first becomes apparent at the very beginning of the novel. When Susan and Henchard find the fair during the first act, there are two shops offering the service of food. Susan encourages Henchard to enter the furmity tent which seemingly does not sell alcohol, Henchard agrees but ends up getting intoxicated. It would appear chance and fate helped to gently nudge Henchard into committing the despicable act of selling his wife as consciously he had chosen to avoid the tent which sold alcohol. It can also be seen as fate that a passing sailor who had both the kindness and the money to accept Henchard’s offer and price was in the same tent.

Thomas Hardy has explored the idea of fate and chance within a variety of his poetry and novels, often displaying the theme as the superior over-character within his works, controlling the happenings and lives of his characters. Throughout The mayor of Casterbridge, there is often a conflict between fate and the individual character, with the real conflict not between man and man, but man and the omnipotent fate, with Henchard as much in the hands of fate as Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, this reasoning is why for all of Henchard’s insipid personality traits, the reader struggles to project blame onto the individual. On this same note, it can easily be deferred that Henchard’s own personality is due to fate and chance, his foul temper causes him act without thinking and his rashness leads him to sell his wife.

Henchard illustrates how a person may unbridle fate through a varied range of both immoral and cruel choices. He shows how interfering fate is can be found by choices that are unseeing and unreasoned. Farfrae however illustrates the opposite. He shows how sensible thought process and choices can lead to a positive course in life by pre-empting any opportunity for Fate to intervene.

The narrative voice explains to the reader that “The movements of his mind seemed to tend to the thought that some power was working against him.” (27.4) This demonstrates to the reader that Henchard himself is superstitious and aware of the power of fate and his rare moment in which Henchard looks for something outside of his own being as the cause of his own misfortune, this is further seen later in the novel “”I wonder,” he asked himself with eerie misgiving; “I wonder if it can be that somebody has been roasting a waxen image of me, or stirring an unholy brew to confound me! I don’t believe in such power, and yet what if they should ha’ been doing it!”” (27.5) This further shows Henchard playing with the idea that things might not all be his fault, which is a rare happening as he usually accepts the blame to be on himself.

Another important theme throughout the novel is that of Love, both familial and romantic as well as the lack of both. Evidence of this theme can be found when the reader first meets Susanne and Henchard, the latter had already lost love for his wife and when she reappeared, only married her due to a sense of duty to both her and his believed daughter. “Nobody would have conceived from his outward demeanor that there was no amatory fire or pulse of romance acting as stimulant to the bustle going on in his gaunt, great house; nothing but three large resolves: one to make amends to his neglected Susan, another to provide a comfortable home for Elizabeth-Jane under his paternal eye; and a third to castigate himself with the thorns which these restitutory acts brought in their train.” (13.8)

There is also no love left between Lucetta and Henchard, as displayed through her love letters now providing only shame and embarrassment. “This young creature was staying at the boarding-house where I happened to have my lodging; and when I was pulled down she took upon herself to nurse me. From that she got to have a foolish liking for me. Heaven knows why, for I didn’t encourage any such thing. But, being together in the same house, and her feelings warm, there arose a terrible scandal, which did me no harm, but was of course ruin to her.” (12.23) Henchard once again proposes engagement out of duty with little love shared between the characters.

Hardy covertly explores the theme of love through familial love. Elizabeth-Jane’s relationship with Henchard is a whirlwind of emotion, and a source of eventual suffering for both parties. Henchard believes blood to be the main source of love and after discovering the truth about her parental heritage loses love for her, finding her negative traits over-power the positive ones.

There is however some forgiveness for Henchard from Elizabeth-Jane after the event of the formers death at the near end of the novel. “Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” (45.32) Elizabeth Jane honors Henchard’s wishes and neither mourns him or tends his grave, however she reflects in the above quote the dispensation of happiness and Henchard’s own obsessions with reputation. It can be assumed that to Elizabeth Jane, Henchard is one of the people that deserved more from life in regards to happiness and love.

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