The Mayor of Casterbridge  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) is a tragic novel by British author Thomas Hardy, subtitled "The Life and Death of a Man of Character". It is set in the fictional town of Casterbridge (based on the town of Dorchester in Dorset). The book is one of Hardy's Wessex novels, all set in a fictional rustic England.

Contents

Plot summary

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At a country fair near Casterbridge, Wessex, a young hay–trusser named Michael Henchard overindulges in rum–laced furmity and quarrels with his wife, Susan. Spurred by alcohol, he decides to auction off his wife and baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor, Mr. Newson, for five guineas. Once sober the next day, he is too late to recover his family, particularly since his reluctance to reveal his own bad conduct keeps him from conducting an effective search. When he realizes that his wife and daughter are gone, probably for good, he swears not to touch liquor again for as many years as he has lived so far (twenty–one).

Nineteen years later, Henchard, now a successful grain merchant, is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, known for his staunch sobriety. He is well respected for his financial acumen and his work ethic, but he is not well liked. Impulsive, selfish behavior and a violent temper are still part of his character, as is dishonesty and secretive activity.

All these years, Henchard has kept the details surrounding the "loss" of his wife a secret. The people in Casterbridge believe he is a widower, although he never explicitly says that his first wife died. He lies by omission instead, allowing other people to believe something false. Over time he finds it convenient to believe Susan probably is dead. While traveling to the island of Jersey on business, Henchard falls in love with a young woman named Lucette de Sueur, who nurses him back to health after an illness. The book implies that Lucette (Lucetta, in English) and Henchard have a sexual relationship, and Lucetta's reputation is ruined by her association with Henchard. When Henchard returns to Casterbridge he leaves Lucetta to face the social consequences of their fling. In order to rejoin polite society she must marry him, but there is a problem: Henchard is already technically married. Although Henchard never told Lucetta exactly how he "lost" his wife to begin with, he does tell her he has a wife who "is probably dead, but who may return". Besotted, Lucetta develops a relationship with him despite the risk. Yet just as Henchard is about to send for Lucetta, Susan unexpectedly appears in Casterbridge with her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, who is now fully grown. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are both very poor. Newson appears to have been lost at sea, and without means to earn an income Susan is looking for Henchard again. Susan, who is not a very intelligent woman, believed for a long time that her "marriage" to Newson was perfectly legitimate. Only recently, just before Newson's disappearance, had Susan begun to question whether or not she was still legally married to Henchard.

Just as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in town, a tidy Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, is passing through on his way to America. The energetic, amiable Farfrae happens to be in Henchard's line of work. He has experience as a grain and corn merchant, and is on the cutting edge of agricultural science. He befriends Henchard and helps him out of a bad financial situation by giving him some timely advice. Henchard persuades him to stay and offers him a job as his corn factor, rudely dismissing a man named Jopp to whom he had already offered the job. Hiring Farfrae is a stroke of business genius for Henchard, who although hard-working is not well educated. Henchard also makes Farfrae a close friend and confides in him about his past history and personal life.

Henchard is also reunited with Susan and the fully grown Elizabeth-Jane. To preserve appearances, Henchard sets Susan and Elizabeth-Jane up in a nearby house. He pretends to court Susan, and marries her. Both Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane's mother keep their past history from their daughter. Henchard also keeps Lucetta a secret. He writes to her, informing her that their marriage is off. Lucetta is devastated and asks for the return of her letters. Henchard attempts to return them, but Lucetta misses the appointment due to a family emergency that is not explained until later in the book.

The return of his wife and daughter sets in motion a decline in Henchard's fortunes. Yet Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are not the root cause of Henchard's fall. Henchard alone makes the decisions that bring him down, and much of his bad luck is the delayed and cumulative consequence of how Henchard treats other people. His relationship with Farfrae deteriorates gradually as Farfrae becomes more popular than Henchard. In addition to being more friendly and amiable, Farfrae is better informed, better educated, and in short everything Henchard himself wants to be. Henchard feels threatened by Farfrae, particularly when Elizabeth-Jane starts to fall in love with him.

The competition between Donald Farfrae and Henchard grows. Eventually they part company and Farfrae sets himself up as an independent hay and corn merchant. The rivalry and resentment for the most part is one-sided, and Farfrae conducts himself with scrupulous honesty and fair dealing. Henchard meanwhile makes increasingly aggressive, risky business decisions that put him in financial danger. The business rivalry leads to Henchard standing in the way of a marriage between Donald and Elizabeth-Jane, until after Susan's death at which point Henchard learns he is not Elizabeth-Jane's father, and realizes that if she marries Farfrae, he will be rid of her. This Elizabeth-Jane is Newson's daughter. He learns this secret, however, after Susan's death when he reads a letter which Susan, on her deathbed, marked to be opened only after Elizabeth-Jane's marriage. Feeling ashamed and hard done by, Henchard conceals the secret from Elizabeth-Jane, but grows cold and cruel towards her.


In the meantime, Henchard's former mistress, Lucetta, arrives from Jersey and purchases a house in Casterbridge. She has inheritied money from a wealthy relative who died: in fact it was this relative's death that kept her from picking up her letters from Henchard. Initially she wants to pick up her relationship with him where it left off, but propriety requires that they wait a while. She takes Elizabeth-Jane into her household as a companion thinking it will give Henchard an excuse to come visit, but the plan backfires because of Henchard's hatred of Elizabeth-Jane. She also learns a little bit more about Henchard. Specifically, the details of how he sold his first wife become public knowledge when the furmity-vendor who witnessed the sale makes the story public. Henchard does not deny the story, but when Lucetta hears a little bit more about what kind of man Henchard really is she stops rationalizing his conduct in terms of what she wants to believe. For the first time, she starts to see him more clearly, and she no longer particularly likes what she sees.

Donald Farfrae, who visits Lucetta's house to see Elizabeth-Jane and who becomes completely distracted by Lucetta, has no idea that Lucetta is the mysterious woman who was informally engaged to Henchard. Since Henchard is such a reluctant and secretive suitor who in no way reveals his attachment to Lucetta to anybody, Lucetta starts to question whether her engagement to Henchard is valid. She too is lying about her past: she claims to be from Bath, not Jersey, and she has taken the surname of her wealthy relative. Yet she came to Casterbridge seeking Henchard, and sent him letters after Susan's death indicating that she wanted to resume and legitimize the relationship. Although he was initially reluctant he gradually realizes that he wants to marry Lucetta, particularly since he's having financial trouble due to some speculations having gone bad. Lenders are unwilling to extend credit to him, and he believes that they would extend credit if they at least believed he was about to be married to a wealthy woman. Frustrated by her stalling, Henchard bullies Lucetta into agreeing to marry him. But by this point she is in love with Farfrae. The two run away one weekend and get married, and Lucetta doesn't have the nerve to tell Henchard until well after the fact. Henchard's credit collapses, he becomes bankrupt, and he sells all his personal possessions to pay creditors.

As Henchard's fortunes decline, Farfrae's rise. He buys Henchard's old business and employs Henchard as a journeyman day-laborer. Farfrae is always trying to help the man who helped him get started, whom he still regards as a friend and a former mentor. He does not realize Henchard is his enemy even though the town council and Elizabeth-Jane both warn him.

Lucetta, feeling safe and comfortable in her marriage with Farfrae, keeps her former relationship with Henchard a secret. This secret is revealed when Henchard foolishly lets his enemy Jopp deliver Lucetta's old love letters. Jopp makes the secret public and the townspeople publicly shame Henchard and Lucetta. Lucetta, who by this point is pregnant, dies of an epileptic seizure.

When Newson, Elizabeth-Jane's biological father, returns, Henchard is afraid of losing her companionship and tells Newson she is dead. Henchard is once again impoverished, and, as soon as the twenty-first year of his oath is up, he starts drinking again. By the time Elizabeth-Jane, who months later is married to Donald Farfrae and reunited with Newson, goes looking for Henchard to forgive him, he has died and left a will requesting no funeral or fanfare:

"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. "& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground. "& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. "& that nobody is wished to see my dead body. "& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. "& that no flours be planted on my grave, "& that no man remember me. "To this I put my name.

Characters

Michael Henchard

The first of the two Mayors of Casterbridge discussed in this book, Michael Henchard starts his life as a poor journeyman hay-trusser. He rises above his humble beginnings to become a successful businessman, until his secrets catch up with him and combine with his inherent character flaws to bring him down. He belongs to what at the time was the working class, but aspires to genteel status. He is poorly educated and although he can read (the book shows him reading a ballad-sheet) he is not good at math and is not up to date in the scientific or record-keeping aspect of his business.

Henchard is very physically strong and stands more than six feet tall. He is twenty-one years old at the start of the story and forty-two to forty-three at the end. The book describes him as being dark-haired, as well as making repeated references to his dark eyes.

In terms of temperament, Henchard is very impulsive although he also has a tendency to depression. He tends to take a sudden liking, or a sudden dislike, to other people and can be verbally abusive and aggressive even when sober. He is respected in Casterbridge, having built up a strong business almost literally from nothing, but he is not well liked. When he drinks, he can be vicious. In fact, one of the reasons he does so well in business is because, after he sells his wife and child, he swears off alcohol for twenty-one years. He can be short-sighted and selfish, and does not think much of consequences of action. When he decides Farfrae is his enemy, he wages an economic war that, at first, is extremely one-sided.

A risk-taker, Henchard eventually lets his personal grudge against Farfrae get in the way of his reasoning abilities. He takes too many risks, gambles too aggressively, and loses his credit, his business, and most of his fortune.

Henchard always has a way to rationalize his impulsive decision making. He also has no problem leaving other people to pay for the consequences of his bad decision making. His guilt about his past leads him to reunite with Susan even though he does not love her. When Lucetta marries Farfrae, Henchard initially wants to seek retaliation but eventually relents and gives back Lucetta her letters.

Donald Farfrae

A Scotsman named Donald Farfrae is the second character in the novel who becomes a mayor in Casterbridge. He is Michael Henchard's opposite in nearly every way. They are physical opposites. Whereas Henchard is tall, strong, and somewhat clumsy Farfrae is short, lithe, and well coordinated. Whereas Henchard is not well educated, Farfrae is intelligent and very well informed about the scientific and business aspects of the grain and corn industry. Henchard is aggressive and brutal, but Farfrae is gentle and likeable. Henchard is a laborer, but Farfrae is a well educated member of the merchant class. In short, Farfrae is everything Henchard would love to be, and loves to pretend that he is. This initially causes Henchard to admire and like Farfrae, but it eventually leads to jealousy and resentment.

Donald Farfrae arrives in town by chance and passes along a valuable technique for improving wheat, which saves Henchard a great deal of money and embarrassment. Henchard prevails upon him to stay in town, hiring him as his manager over the head of another man named Jopp to whom he had already made a job offer. He immediately brings Henchard's business up to date in terms of technology and business discipline, and he is charismatic enough to be a far better manager and leader than Henchard himself.

Farfrae takes an interest in Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard's stepdaughter. Both Mr. and Mrs. Henchard approve of the match, until Henchard's growing jealousy and resentment of Farfrae cause him to feel threatened. Yet Farfrae is too naïve to realize Henchard is competing with him. He shows Henchard up quite unintentionally by throwing a better party than Henchard himself, and Henchard fires him. Afterwards, Farfrae considers leaving town but stays for Elizabeth-Jane's sake until Henchard tells him to keep away from her. Henchard revokes that order later, after he reads Susan's deathbed confession and realizes Elizabeth-Jane is not really his daughter, at which point Farfrae attempts to start courting Elizabeth-Jane again and is distracted by Lucetta.

Farfrae does not realize he is competing with Henchard for Lucetta's attention, or that Lucetta is the woman his former boss wooed, abandoned, and is trying to reclaim. Farfrae marries her and does not learn of her association with Henchard until after Lucetta's first seizure. After Lucetta's death and Henchard's return to the bottle, followed by the return of Captain Newson, Farfrae marries Elizabeth-Jane.

Susan Henchard (Newson)

Susan is an honest but simple-minded woman who, as a young woman, is married to Michael Henchard but sold (along with her baby girl Elizabeth-Jane) at a drunken auction to a sailor by the name of Newson. She believes there is something legally binding about the sale, and goes to live with Newson as his wife. The baby Elizabeth-Jane dies three months later, and Susan has a daughter with Newson whom she names Elizabeth-Jane. It is this second Elizabeth-Jane whom she later passes off as Henchard's daughter.

After living for years with Newson in Canada, the family of three returns to England. One spring, Newson (who believes his wife is having second thoughts about the validity of their marriage) is lost at sea. The impoverished widow "Newson" returns with Elizabeth-Jane, who is now about eighteen years old. A reader who cares to do the math will realize immediately that there's something fishy about Elizabeth-Jane's age. In any case, Susan has never told Elizabeth-Jane about Henchard or her first marriage, and certainly never told her about the auction incident.

Because she has no way to earn a living, Susan approaches Henchard for help. She does not correct his assumption that he is Elizabeth-Jane's father, nor does she tell anyone about the auction incident. Henchard sends her a gift of five guineas (the amount for which he sold her to Newson, and which is no doubt substantially less than what he sent his mistress Lucetta when breaking off the affair) and sets her up as a genteel new arrival to town. He courts her and remarries her. She does not tell him the truth about Elizabeth-Jane until her death a year or two later, when she writes a deathbed confession and seals it in an envelope to be opened only on Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day.

Elizabeth-Jane Newson

About eighteen years old when she and her mother arrive in Casterbridge, Elizabeth-Jane is the daughter of Newson. She is a sweet, innocent young woman who is ignorant of the social graces required of a mayor's stepdaughter. She strives to improve herself, reading constantly and studying Latin and geography. Gradually she transforms herself into the kind of sophisticated young lady Henchard believes he ought to have as a daughter. When Henchard alternates between doting on her and verbally abusing her, she never understands why, especially when Henchard (mistakenly) reveals the "truth" about who her father was. She never really lives up to Henchard's expectations of her and is often unhappy.

Elizabeth-Jane is a fairly passive person who does not let sudden wealth (or the loss of it) affect her much. After her mother's death she accepts Lucetta's invitation to live with her as a companion or chaperone. She develops feelings for Donald Farfrae until Lucetta attracts him away from her, and is disappointed for a while but is ultimately happy when she is reunited with her father Newson (who turns out not to be lost at all) and marries Farfrae also.

Lucetta Templeman (Lucette Le Sueur)

A native of the island of Jersey, the Francophone Lucette Le Sueur is the daughter of a military officer. She lives a nomadic life, and after the death of her parents takes lodging in a boarding-house in Jersey. There she meets Michael Henchard, who is traveling on business and who is taken sick with a bout of severe depression. She becomes infatuated with him, and he indulges her affection for him without too much regard for appearances.

Lucetta is a few years older than Elizabeth-Jane and far more refined. She speaks fluent French as well as English, but conceals her knowledge of the language because she does not want her history in Jersey to become well known. She's impulsive, like Henchard, but not spiteful or mean although she lets money and status go to her head. After she marries, she slights Henchard and puts on airs, alienating Henchard and refusing to help Jopp (an old acquaintance of hers) obtain employment.

Exactly how far the affair between Lucetta and Henchard went is unclear. The book strongly suggests that the two of them have had sexual relations, but is ambiguous enough to not offend the sensibilities of 19th century readers. Whatever happened was enough for Lucetta's reputation to be so irreparably tarnished that the only solution for her is to leave Jersey and change her name. She takes the last name of her deceased relative, Templeman, and alters her first name to make it sound more English.

It is important to notice that scandal would not have broken out if all Lucetta and Henchard did was walk, talk, or dine together in a boarding house. They would have had to have spent a considerable amount of time alone together, or they would have to have been caught in a very compromising situation. In any case Henchard does propose marriage, stating that there was a risk his first wife would return. Lucetta accepts the proposal, so the two are engaged. Henchard returns to Casterbridge leaving Lucetta to bear the full brunt of the scandal until he is ready to bring her to town, and she writes him passionate letters on a daily basis. Of course, it is at this inopportune time that Susan arrives. Henchard cancels the engagement and sends Lucetta a substantial gift of money.

Lucetta is scheduled to stop and pick up her love letters to Henchard, but a family emergency (specifically, the death of her only living relative who was quite wealthy) intervenes. Lucetta is left with substantial means. When she learns of Susan's death, she moves to Casterbridge to determine whether she should pick up her association with Henchard where she left off. She's agreeable to the match at first, but as she learns more about Henchard she likes him less and her rosy outlook and tendency to rationalize away his cruel treatment of others decreases over time. Besides, she's attracted to Donald Farfrae instead.

Given that Henchard married somebody else, their original engagement to each other is null and void. Yet Henchard, who finds himself very interested in Lucetta particularly since she has come into money, bullies Lucetta into accepting his proposal again. Lucetta elopes with Farfrae, and incurs Henchard's wrath. He retrieves her love letters, toys with the idea of exposing her secret to her new husband, and eventually sends her love letters by way of Jopp, who has reason to hate both Henchard and Lucetta. The love affair becomes public, and the scandal eventually contributes to Lucetta's death.

Jopp

A relatively minor character, Jopp lived in Jersey until Henchard invited him to Casterbridge to work as his new manager and corn-factor. He was effectively hired by Henchard, subject to an interview that never happened because Henchard impulsively hired Farfrae instead, leaving Jopp without employment.

After being brushed off by Henchard, Jopp is unable to find regular employment and gradually sinks into poverty. Henchard hires him after he dismisses Farfrae, thinking to use him for his dirty work. But Jopp is not the manager Farfrae was and the business collapses, leaving Jopp out of work and Henchard bankrupt.

When Lucetta marries Donald Farfrae, Jopp (who knew her in Jersey) asks her, as an old acquaintance, to put in a good word for him with Farfrae so as to help him find work. Lucetta refuses for reasons that are not clear, but that could be read as reluctance to keep a potential blackmailer close by or a high-and-mighty refusal to help anybody. Henchard by this time is using Jopp to run errands, and charges him with the important task of returning Lucetta's love letters, which Jopp decides to publicly read first. He is instrumental in putting together the skimmington ride, which is a public procession designed to mock and humiliate people, in order to publicize the affair between Henchard and Lucetta so as to hurt both. It is during the skimmington ride that the pregnant Lucetta suffers her first seizure and becomes fatally ill.

Richard Newson

Newson starts out as a sailor of indeterminate rank. He does have ready money which he uses to buy Susan and Elizabeth-Jane at the beginning of the book, so he has clearly not been pressed into service and has money from some source. However he is not a gentleman from a family of independent means: when he is supposedly lost at sea after his return from Canada, he leaves Susan and Elizabeth-Jane nearly penniless. However, he finishes the story as a sea-captain. To do this in private enterprise (much less in the English Navy) he would have had to have been a man of great personal initiative.

Newson is described as having light-colored hair, a trait which Elizabeth-Jane shares and which initially causes some confusion for Henchard since his infant daughter had dark hair like Henchard's own. He appears to have been kind to Elizabeth-Jane, who loves him dearly. He also seems to be somewhat gullible, believing at first that his marriage to Susan is legally binding. When he returns after Susan's death looking for Elizabeth-Jane, he believes Henchard who tells him that Elizabeth-Jane died too. He doesn't even look for his daughter's grave, but leaves town quickly only to return, hopefully, once more. He is eventually reunited with Elizabeth-Jane. Newson must have had a gentle and forgiving temperament, because he bears no grudge against Henchard for trying to steal his daughter.

Adaptations

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been adapted for TV three times:

The 1978 version was broadcast in the U.S. by PBS as part of Masterpiece Theatre. In 2008 Helen Edmundson adapted it into a three-episode radio play for BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial slot.<ref>"The Mayor of Casterbridge" BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial "listen again" website</ref>

A version of the story was also filmed in 2000 as The Claim, with the setting changed to a town (called Kingdom Come) in the American West of the 19th Century. The film was directed by Michael Winterbottom from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

In 1951 the novel was adapted as an opera by the British composer Peter Tranchell.



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