Thomas Hardy was an English poet and novelist writing during the late 19th century. Yes, we said "poet" first for a reason: Hardy always thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, even though nowadays he's remembered most for his novels. He started and ended his writing career as a poet, writing all those novels in the middle.
Part of what makes his novels so famous today is that they were ahead of their time in the late 1800s when he was writing. Even though he was writing during what we call the "Victorian" period (i.e., during the reign of Queen Victoria in Britain, 1837 to 1901), critics often consider Hardy's writing to have more in common with the modernist writers of the early 1900s, like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot. Hardy's novels weren't always well received when he was writing, and two of his last novels, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, were actually criticized so harshly for being "immoral" that Hardy stopped writing novels altogether and switched back poetry.
Hardy set many of his novels, including The Mayor of Casterbridge, in a fictional county of southern England that he called "Wessex." The fictional towns, farms, rivers, and forests in Wessex are common to all the "Wessex novels." You can actually find maps that critics and readers have drawn up of Hardy's imaginary county (see the "Best of the Web" section for an example), just like Lord of the Rings fans do for Middle-earth.
The novel follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of a man named Michael Henchard, who becomes a grain merchant and the mayor of a town called Casterbridge. Unfortunately for Henchard, he made some bad decisions as a young man that come back to haunt him just as things really seem to be looking up for him.
Like most of Hardy's novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy – no matter what the main characters try to accomplish, the fates (or their own flaws) seem to get in the way. The subtitle of the novel, "The Life and Death of a Man of Character," already tells us that Henchard will die at the end. And since this is a Thomas Hardy novel, we're betting that it won't be a happy death.
Have you ever asked yourself why bad things happen in the world? Why people get divorced, good workers lose jobs, poor people get poorer, and gossip ruins innocent people's reputations? Well, you're not alone. Over a hundred years ago, our main man Thomas Hardy was asking these big questions too. In fact, The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy's attempt at finding some answers.
Hardy doesn't take the simple way out and just say, "Hey, it was fate!" No way. Hardy doesn't shy away from saying that the bad things that happen to Michael Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, are a result of Henchard's own mistakes. But Hardy seems to suggest that Henchard only made those mistakes because of his character flaws, which he had absolutely no control over.
In the world of The Mayor of Casterbridge, your actions are the unavoidable consequence of your personality, and your personality is something you're born with. You're either born with the ability to exercise self control or you're not. You're either born with a gloomy personality or a happy one.
Think of it this way. Your personality and your actions are like a card game: you're dealt a certain hand of cards, and your actions are limited by that hand. Sure, you can change your hand slightly by drawing from the deck – but only slightly – and then you can still only play the cards in your hand. You can't act in a way that is out of character.
This isn't a very optimistic view of the world. But, hey, no one has ever accused Hardy of being an optimistic guy! Just look at the last sentence of the novel: Elizabeth-Jane's "youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." Man, what a downer.
So, do you buy all this? How much control do people really have over their actions? Do people ever change? Is there truly more pain than happiness in the world? Is life really "a general drama of pain"? Whether you think of yourself as an optimist or pessimist, The Mayor of Casterbridge provides lots of juicy food for thought.