The narrator maintains a level of detachment throughout the novel, describing landscapes, objects, and people with the same general tone. The narrator does occasionally seem to feel sympathy for the main characters, especially in moments of weakness or when they're about to make a mistake, but the narrator's sympathy doesn't really lessen the level of detachment.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is, as we're sure you've realized, a novel. But what exactly is a novel? It's one of the loosest categories out there, and yet it's one of the most popular genres of literature.
A novel is a work of fiction, usually written in prose, as opposed to poetry. It's usually pretty darn long, and it's generally divided up into chapters or volumes. OK, sounds like a decent description of The Mayor of Casterbridge.
To be more specific, The Mayor of Casterbridge is an example of we call "Literary Fiction." The narrator is very interested in plumbing the psychological depths of the characters and in portraying human emotions and motivations as realistically as possible. The actual plot of the novel is less important than the way the characters develop.
The title of this novel seems generic, at first – "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Sure, OK. It's going to be about a guy from a town called "Casterbridge" who becomes the Mayor. But the subtitle gives away something pretty major: it's about "The Life and Death of a Man of Character," so we're told that this guy has a reputation for good principles.
We know, just from the title page of the novel, that our friend the Mayor is going to die. Sure, everyone dies eventually. But usually a novel ends with the main character "living happily ever after." Not in this book, though! Does knowing from the get-go that the Mayor is going to die detract from the suspense or make us lose interest in the novel? Not really – what's important is finding out how he spends his life and what happens to him before he dies.
With The Mayor of Casterbridge, we should ask, "What's up with the endings," because there is more than one version of it! Hardy first published the novel in serial form (small installments, like episodes of a HBO series) in a magazine called The Graphic. Later it was released in traditional book form, but with significant changes. And just like with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, there were differences between the American and British versions. Magazine editors changed the serial versions slightly (mostly because of space constraints), but Hardy himself had a hand in editing and changing later book editions.
So today, editors of The Mayor of Casterbridge have a big question to ask themselves: which version of the ending should they use? You should check out the editor's "Note on the Text" at the beginning of your book to see what version you're looking at – you don't want to miss out on any important scenes that may not be included in your edition!
The biggest difference among the various versions of the novel is the ending. But before you get too excited, you should know that in all versions, Elizabeth-Jane marries Donald Farfrae and Michael Henchard exiles himself from Casterbridge, eventually dying in the cottage of a former employee just before Donald and Elizabeth-Jane find him. (Yep, it's depressing, but that's typical of a Thomas Hardy novel.) The main difference between the versions is the reasons Michael Henchard gives for leaving Casterbridge and whether or not he returns to see Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day.
In later editions of the novel, Thomas Hardy includes a longer ending: Michael Henchard leaves Casterbridge because he's afraid that Captain Newson, Elizabeth-Jane's real father, is coming back to Casterbridge and will reveal to Elizabeth that Henchard lied to her about her parentage. Henchard goes away and works as a farm laborer until he hears that Elizabeth-Jane is going to be married to Donald Farfrae. He decides that Elizabeth-Jane will surely be able to forgive him now, so he travels to Casterbridge for the wedding with a caged goldfinch as a wedding present. When he arrives, he leaves the birdcage under a bush because he's afraid it would be a little awkward to show up at a wedding reception with a birdcage under his arm (yeah, he's probably right).
When Elizabeth-Jane sees Henchard, she tells him off. She says she can't forgive him for having lied to her about who her real father was and for lying to Captain Newson to keep them apart. Henchard leaves in despair, forgetting the bird. When the housekeeper finds the bird several days later, it's dead. Elizabeth-Jane feels sorry for rejecting her stepfather and sets out to find him, but it's too late – she arrives just after Henchard dies.
In the version we use for our "Summary" (the Penguin Classic edition from 1997), the editor, Keith Wilson, uses the first English book version. This is the shorter of the two endings. In this version, Henchard leaves Casterbridge because he feels irrelevant now that his step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, is going to be married to his long-time rival, Donald Farfrae. He wanders around the general vicinity of Casterbridge for a while, eventually dying before Elizabeth-Jane and her new husband can find him.
Both endings are sad, but the longer one is probably the sadder of the two. Most modern copies of the book will include the alternate ending in an appendix at the back. It's fun to read both versions so you can compare them. Which ending do you prefer? Why do you think Hardy had a hard time making up his mind about which version to use? How does each ending help shape your impressions of the novel, and of Michael Henchard's character?
The novel takes place mostly in the town of Casterbridge, a fictional town in the fictional county of Wessex in England. Many of Hardy's novels take place in "Wessex," and certain place names appear in more than one novel. These novels are referred to as his "Wessex novels," for obvious reasons. Wessex is based loosely on the real-life county of Dorset, where Hardy grew up. Take a look at the maps of Hardy's Wessex in the "Best of the Web" section to get a sense of where Casterbridge is supposed to be relative to London and other places in Great Britain.
Now that you have a sense of where Casterbridge is supposed to be, what is it like? Well, the narrator describes Casterbridge as follows:
Casterbridge was in most respects but the pole, focus, or nerve-knot of the surrounding country life; differing from the many manufacturing towns which are as foreign bodies set down, like boulders on a plain, in a green world with which they have nothing in common. Casterbridge lived by agriculture at one remove further from the fountain-head than the adjoining villagers – no more. (9.26)
In other words, Casterbridge is not very far removed from the natural cycles and rhythms that are so important to agriculture. The people who live here understand nature and are more connected to the land than, say, the residents of a town like Manchester, famous for its industry and mills. The townspeople of Casterbridge might live in a town, but they understand the country.
As Victorian novels go, The Mayor of Casterbridge is pretty readable. It's "only" 320 pages in our edition. (That may sound like a lot, but take a look at Middlemarch by George Eliot or Bleak House by Charles Dickens. They're over 800 pages!) That said, there are still a lot of difficult and complex ideas in this novel, and because it was written over a hundred years ago, some of the vocabulary might be difficult for modern readers.
The reader knows from the title of the novel that Michael Henchard is going to die (the subtitle is "The Life and Death of a Man of Character"). But even if you missed the subtitle, you could be in little doubt that things are not going to end well for Henchard. The narrator doesn't miss many opportunities to brood over the way Henchard's nature causes him to behave.
Michael Henchard's face is often described as a combination of red and black. Weird as that sounds, we're probably not supposed to imagine that he looks like Darth Maul from Star Wars. Although Henchard is racially white, he's very tan, and his work in the outdoors has turned his skin ruddy and red. Folks used to describe being very suntanned as being almost "blackened" by the sun.
Henchard also can't hide his emotions, and his blood is always rushing to his face when he's angry or upset ("Henchard looked at him with a face stern and red" [15.34]). This also helps account for the "redness" of his face.
What else could the red and black coloring suggest? Let's check out another example:
Elizabeth-Jane now entered, and stood before the master of the premises. His dark pupils – which always seemed to have a red spark of light in them, though this could hardly be a physical fact – turned indifferently round under his dark brows until they rested on her figure. (10.10)
This description of Henchard makes him sound pretty scary. Dark eyes with a "red spark" in them sounds almost demonic. Is the narrator suggesting that Henchard should be associated with the devil? Not in any literal way, but perhaps this description is meant to imply that Henchard has very little control over his own metaphorical inner demons – his bad temper and his pride.
Bridges often have symbolic weight when they appear in literature. There are two bridges in The Mayor of Casterbridge, one brick and one stone. Both bridges attract people who feel like "failures" (32.4). Sometimes these people try to throw themselves into the water below, but mostly they just like to lean against the rail, stare down at the water, and feel dejected.
Why would a bridge be an appropriate place for people who feel like "failures" to congregate? What might the bridge symbolize?
Bridges represent connection. They literally connect different places, and metaphorically they suggest the connection of ideas. So standing on a bridge might suggest that a person is stuck at some "in-between" stage – between jobs, between relationships, or unable to make a decision. Lingering on a bridge could symbolize stagnation: the person is standing still while the water below and the passersby on the bridge keep moving.
This is the amount of money Henchard received from the sailor in exchange for his wife, Susan. A guinea is a unit of British currency (now no longer used) equal to one British pound plus one shilling. It was a lot of money back in the late 19th century. So five guineas was a whole lot of money for a poor man back in the day.
Michael Henchard is very into symbols. We're told in the second chapter that there is "something fetichistic in this man's beliefs" (2.7). So he actually turns the five guineas into a symbol himself by making a big show of giving Susan five guineas when they're reunited. He is symbolically "buying her back." ("The amount was significant; it may tacitly have told her that he bought her back again" [10.43].)
The "Ring" is an old Roman amphitheater (like a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome) just outside Casterbridge. The narrator tells us something about the history of the place: during Roman times, it was used for public entertainment. In later years, it was used for public executions. More recently, it had been used as a place to meet for private duels. The circular seating screens the interior from the road, so no one passing by can see what's going on inside.
The Ring is an important setting in the novel for two important scenes: Henchard's first reunion with Susan and his meeting with Lucetta. During the second, the narrator even remarks on the similarity between the two scenes. The Ring's ancient history and the fact that scenes tend to repeat themselves there suggest that the Ring might be an emblem for the way the past comes back to haunt the present. Characters cannot escape their history.
The narrator of The Mayor of Casterbridge focuses mainly on the four central characters: Michael Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane, Donald Farfrae, and Lucetta. The narrator moves in and out of these characters' minds, explaining their motivations, plans, and disappointments to the reader.
The narrator understands the characters better than they understand themselves. Even when a character makes a mistake (which happens a lot), the narrator seems to understand where the character is coming from. As a result, the reader often finds him or herself feeling sympathy for the characters even when they're screwing up big-time.
Henchard has committed the unpardonable crime of auctioning off his wife and daughter. But he tries to make up for it: he swears not to drink alcohol for twenty years and he works hard to become an upright citizen. He gets rich and powerful, but he isn't happy – he's lonely and often gloomy. He falls into a fit of despair while traveling in Jersey, and a young woman named Lucetta nurses him back to health. Everyone assumes they are lovers (they aren't!), and her reputation is ruined. She wants him to marry her to save her reputation, but he can't; what if his first wife comes back?
Henchard's wife, Susan, shows up with her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. He remarries her and everything seems great. Henchard hires a new manager, Donald Farfrae, who whips his business into shape. Henchard and Farfrae become close friends, and Elizabeth-Jane develops a crush on the new manager.
Henchard becomes jealous of his friend and manager, Farfrae. He finds an excuse to dismiss him, and Farfrae moves across town and opens his own business. He's careful not to steal any of Henchard's customers, but Henchard becomes even more angry and jealous.
Susan dies, leaving Henchard free to get married to Lucetta, the young woman from Jersey. She falls in love with Farfrae, though, and wants to back out of her promise to marry Henchard. She marries Farfrae on the sly. Henchard's business has been going sour and he finally has to declare bankruptcy. Farfrae buys his business and hires Henchard to work for him. Henchard threatens to kill Farfrae, but can't follow through. Lucetta is terrified that Farfrae will find out about her past relationship with Henchard.
The past relationship between Henchard and Lucetta becomes common knowledge in the town. Lucetta is so afraid Farfrae will stop loving her that she falls into hysterics and dies. Farfrae realizes Elizabeth-Jane would make a better wife, and after a decent amount of time they get engaged. Henchard decides he should just leave Casterbridge rather than wait around for Elizabeth-Jane to find out that he's been deceiving her all this time. He leaves town just before Newson, her real father, shows up to tell her the truth. She marries Farfrae, then they set off to find Henchard. They find him just after he dies.
This is the famous opening scene of the novel: Michael Henchard (who hasn't been named yet at this point) gets drunk at a county fair and auctions off his wife and baby daughter for five guineas. His wife, Susan, thinks the sale is legal and binding and leaves with the sailor who bought her. Henchard wakes up sober and sorry the next morning but can't find his family. He swears a solemn oath not to touch alcohol again for twenty years. Time passes, and he becomes a wealthy grain and hay merchant in the town of Casterbridge.
Susan's sailor husband Newson dies (she thinks), so she and her daughter try to find Henchard again. They're surprised to find that he's now wealthy and powerful. Henchard, meanwhile, has accidentally ruined the reputation of a young lady from Jersey. They spent a lot of alone time together while he was sick, so everyone is gossiping about her. Henchard is about to marry her when Susan shows up. He has to tell her that his first wife has reappeared so he can't marry her.
Henchard hires Donald Farfrae, a young Scottish man, to manage his business. For a while they're the best of friends, and Henchard's stepdaughter, Elizabeth-Jane, develops a crush on Farfrae. Farfrae is very practical and has a great head for business. In fact, he's so good at his job that Henchard quickly becomes jealous of him. He rashly fires Farfrae and forbids him from seeing or speaking to Elizabeth-Jane again. Farfrae sets up his own business across town.
Henchard is single again and free to rescue Lucetta's reputation by marrying her. The trouble is that she no longer really wants to marry him. She has inherited a lot of money, changed her name, and moved to Casterbridge, hoping to leave her bad reputation behind her in Jersey.
Henchard finds out that Elizabeth-Jane isn't his real daughter; she's the daughter of Newson, the sailor. He sends Elizabeth-Jane away and she goes to live with Lucetta. Lucetta meets Farfrae and falls in love with him. Henchard's jealousy goes through the roof and he tries to blackmail Lucetta into marrying him. Elizabeth-Jane witnesses Lucetta promise to marry Henchard. Henchard is forced to declare bankruptcy, and Farfrae buys his old business.
Farfrae and Lucetta marry, but Lucetta lives in constant fear that Farfrae will find out about her past with Henchard. Henchard makes up with Elizabeth-Jane, and they live together as father and daughter again. He would be happy, but he's afraid Elizabeth-Jane will find out that he's not her real father.
Then Newson, the sailor, shows up. Henchard lies and says that Elizabeth-Jane is dead. Newson leaves, but now Henchard has one more thing to worry about – what if Newson comes back and Elizabeth-Jane finds out he lied?
The secret of Lucetta and Henchard's past relationship leaks out, and the townspeople hold a drunken procession to expose it to the world. Lucetta falls into hysterics. She's so afraid Farfrae will stop loving her that she ends up dying. Henchard is already bankrupt, so he really has nothing to lose. The procession doesn't bother him, although he's sorry Lucetta dies.
Now that Farfrae is free to marry again, he realizes that a better woman has been there all along. He and Elizabeth-Jane pair off. Henchard is still afraid that Newson will come back and tell Elizabeth-Jane the truth, and he can't bear the thought of her rejecting him. When he finds out that she's planning to marry Farfrae, he accepts it and says he's going to leave town. He wanders the countryside in the rain for a few weeks and eventually dies half an hour before Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae find him.
Henchard sells his wife and daughter to a sailor and ruins the reputation of a young woman in Jersey.
More marriage problems. Henchard is reunited with his wife and daughter. When the wife dies, he's free to marry the young woman from Jersey. She doesn't want to marry him anymore and marries his rival instead.
Henchard's past relationship with the young woman is made public and she dies of shame. Henchard's rival remarries Henchard's stepdaughter. Henchard leaves Casterbridge and dies alone.