Study Guide

The Mayor of Casterbridge Themes

By Thomas Hardy

  • Marriage

    In almost all of his novels, Hardy explores and questions the institution of marriage. We see it from the very beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge, when Henchard complains about being unhappy in his marriage. Since divorce wasn't an option in those days, he actually auctions his wife off to the highest bidder. After that first scene, the novel explores the question of what a husband owes a wife, what a wife owes a husband, and how "marriage" can be defined.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why does Henchard think he should marry Lucetta? Later, why does he want to?
    2. What does Henchard think a husband owes a wife? What is the husband's duty? What does Susan think the wife's duty is?
    3. Why do Henchard and Susan not get along at the beginning of their marriage? Be as specific as possible.
    4. In some versions of the novel, Lucetta and Henchard have already gotten married when Susan returns, instead of just being engaged. Would this change the novel's message about marriage? How so?

    Chew on This

    In The Mayor of Casterbridge, "marriage" seems to be less of a traditional, legal contract than an agreement between two people. Susan's relationship to Newson and Lucetta's understanding with Henchard are just as morally binding as a traditional, legal marriage.

    Henchard's proud independence makes him view marriage as a set of duties imposed upon him by his wife, rather than a reciprocal relationship. Because he does not expect anything in return, he comes to see marriage as a financial and emotional drain.

  • Love

    If there are a lot of marriages without love in The Mayor of Casterbridge, there's also a lot of love without marriage. Lucetta falls in love with Henchard, then their marriage is postponed and then canceled altogether. Elizabeth-Jane crushes on Farfrae from afar for most of the novel. Henchard's loathing for his stepdaughter gradually morphs into a kind of hopeless, protective, and jealous love. She might be the only person Henchard ever really learns to love.

    Questions About Love

    1. What does Lucetta originally see in Henchard? Why does she fall in love with him?
    2. Why does Elizabeth-Jane fall in love with Farfrae so quickly? What attracts her to him?
    3. Why does Farfrae fall in love with Lucetta?
    4. After treating Elizabeth-Jane like dirt for most of the novel, Henchard suddenly realizes how awesome she is after Lucetta dies. He then suddenly becomes a doting and affectionate father figure. What makes him change?

    Chew on This

    When Elizabeth-Jane first falls in love with Farfrae, it is in part because "he seemed to feel exactly as she felt about life" (8.33). In a sense, therefore, her love for him is really a narcissistic love of herself.

    Elizabeth-Jane's affection for Farfrae is so pure that she is not willing to cause either him or Lucetta pain by acknowledging her jealousy and disappointment.

  • Friendship

    It's hard to say what first attracts Henchard to Farfrae, but whatever it is, he trusts him immediately – not just with his business, but with his personal life and secrets. The two men are practically inseparable…until Henchard's jealousy drives them apart. Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta are likewise inseparable, despite their contrasting personalities, but Elizabeth-Jane, unlike Henchard, is too good of a person to allow her jealousy of Lucetta and Farfrae to end their friendship.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why do Farfrae and Henchard originally become friends?
    2. Why do Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane become friends?
    3. Compare the two pairs of friends: Farfrae and Henchard and Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane. Both pairs seem unlikely because of major differences in personality. What might The Mayor of Casterbridge be suggesting about friendship? How sincere are the friendships depicted here? Is one person more sincerely attached than the other? What might this suggest?

    Chew on This

    In the two main friendships of the novel, Henchard feels more attached to Farfrae, and Elizabeth-Jane feels more affection for Lucetta. It seems impossible in the world of the novel for the affection in friendships to be balanced and reciprocal.

    Henchard's capacity for both love and hate is stronger than Farfrae's.

  • Gender

    For such a long novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge has relatively few main characters: two men (Henchard and Farfrae) and three women (Susan, Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane). Their great differences of character make it difficult to generalize about gender roles in the novel. The characters themselves, though, often make sexist generalizations.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta are both described as very feminine, but they could hardly be more opposite. How would you define their contrasting versions of femininity?
    2. Farfrae and Henchard also represent two very different ideals of masculinity. How would you define these contrasting ideals?
    3. Why would the novel present such contrasting versions of "masculine" and "feminine"?
    4. We're told in Chapter 20 that Elizabeth-Jane writes in a masculine "round hand" instead of the half-illegible script that was typical of a woman's handwriting in the 19th century. Why is this an important detail? What does it reveal about Elizabeth-Jane, and about gender more generally?

    Chew on This

    The Mayor of Casterbridge presents several contrasting versions of masculinity and femininity to show how difficult it is to define or maintain hard-and-fast gender roles.

    Although Elizabeth-Jane is naturally very feminine, she lacks the more superficial, artificial markers of femininity that are taught by society, such as feminine handwriting, fashionable dress, and accomplishments like dancing and singing.

  • Memory and the Past

    The events of The Mayor of Casterbridge span more than twenty years – most of Henchard's adult life. In a sense, you can read Henchard's downfall as a commentary on the way the past always comes back to haunt you. There's no way to outrun your past actions. Lucetta's death is likewise caused by past events coming to light. In the world of the novel, history always repeats itself, and your past actions will always come back to bite you.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Which characters try to escape the past, and what are the consequences? What are they trying to escape from, exactly?
    2. What is the role of the ancient, distant past in the novel? Look at the scenes that take place at the Casterbridge Ring, for example. Why is a Roman amphitheater an important location in this novel?
    3. In what ways does the past catch up with Michael Henchard and other characters in the novel? Does it haunt them all equally?
    4. Is it ever possible to escape the past in the world of this novel? Is it even desirable?

    Chew on This

    In The Mayor of Casterbridge, the past continually comes back to haunt the present.

    The Casterbridge Ring represents the tendency for history – even ancient history – to repeat itself.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Casterbridge is about as "natural" of a town as you can imagine. It's set in the middle of agricultural fields and doesn't have a lot of the "unnatural" industrial mills and factories that were springing up at the time in towns further north in England. The town's naturalness contrasts sharply with the artifice (fakeness and superficiality) of some of its inhabitants. Lucetta, for example, is always thinking about what she wears and how she carries herself. Elizabeth-Jane, on the other hand, is completely natural – she doesn't think about these things at all.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. The narrator describes Elizabeth-Jane as a "flower of nature" (44.7). What does this suggest about her character?
    2. In contrast to Elizabeth-Jane, the "flower of nature," Lucetta is rather artificial. Is she a sympathetic character in spite of this? Use passages from the novel to support your argument.
    3. Most of The Mayor of Casterbridge takes place in the town, yet natural cycles of harvest and weather play a big role in the plot – for example, when Henchard goes to visit the old man to ask for a weather prediction.
    4. How would you characterize Henchard's relationship with nature? What about Farfrae's? Which of them seems closer to nature? Explain your answer using passages from the novel.

    Chew on This

    Casterbridge, where most of the novel takes place, represents a kind of compromise between city and country life, and between civilization and nature.

    Elizabeth-Jane's natural intelligence and morality form a sharp contrast to Lucetta's artificial, assumed accomplishments and her socially imposed value system.

  • Fate and Free Will

    It's clear that almost all of Henchard's misfortunes are caused by his own mistakes; it's hard to blame "fate" or "destiny" for the bad things that happen to him. But at the same time, how much control does he have over his mistakes? In the world of The Mayor of Casterbridge, it seems that characters have very little control over their own personalities. Henchard is born with a bad temper and very little self-control. If he becomes jealous or angry, he'll act on his jealous rage. If his mistakes are a result of his personality flaws, which he was born with and cannot control, how much "free will" can we say that Henchard really has?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How much control does Henchard have over his fate? In what ways is it determined by forces (either internal or external) that are outside his conscious control? Why is this an important question in this novel?
    2. Does Henchard ever blame other people for what happens to him? Does he ever blame an impersonal "Fate"?
    3. What about other characters? Farfrae, for example, seems to be in complete control over his destiny. Is this only an illusion? If he does control his own fate, what gives him that control? What sets him apart?
    4. Does Henchard deserve what happens to him? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Henchard never blames outside forces for what happens to him, because the forces that bring about his downfall are all internal.

    Although readers might feel pity for Henchard's misfortunes, they are all caused, either directly or indirectly, by his own actions.

  • Dissatisfaction

    There are a lot of broken dreams in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Elizabeth-Jane is hopelessly in love with Farfrae for most of the novel and is forced to watch him marry her best friend. Henchard has big plans and watches them fall apart because of his own mistakes. Farfrae is the only character whose cheerful nature seems to leave him immune to the pervading dissatisfaction in this novel, and even he has to deal with some disappointments.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Even before Henchard loses his fortune, family, friends, and business, he seems unhappy. Was there ever any way for Henchard to avoid dissatisfaction? Why or why not?
    2. Elizabeth-Jane has as much reason as Henchard to be unhappy, but she manages to avoid despair even when things look terrible. Why is this?
    3. Even at the end of the novel, when Elizabeth-Jane marries Farfrae and things are looking peachy for her, the narrator describes her as feeling "nervous pleasure" rather than "gaiety" (44.14). Why is this? Is she incapable of feeling really cheerful? Explain your answer.
    4. Farfrae is almost always cheerful. Why is this? Is he immune to dissatisfaction?

    Chew on This

    In the world of The Mayor of Casterbridge, it's impossible to live down the mistakes made in one's youth. Any attempt to escape past errors leads to broken dreams and dissatisfaction with life.

    Henchard and Lucetta both have unrealistic dreams and ambitions and very little control over their passions. It is not surprising, then, that they are the two characters most susceptible to bitter disappointment.