The Mayor of Casterbridge

Happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”

This quote from the book perfectly describes the story. Moments of true happiness are few and far between the alcoholism, business failure, loss of rank and brutal heartbreak. But what else can you expect from the blunt Victorian realist whose books sometimes were so controversial that they had to be sold in brown paper bags, and who once wrote to a grieving parent that “..the death of a child is never really to be regretted when one reflects on what he has escaped.

What is considered honorable in a man? Surely not going under the influence of alcohol and selling his own wife and child for five shillings. What he does afterwards in repentance, does it absolve him of his sin? Our protagonist and the guilty in the aforementioned crime, Michael Henchard, is extraordinarily lucky with regards to the women in his life, may it be his wife, his mistress, or his daughter. They stand by him, honor him and never even consider being cross with or unfaithful to him. Given this, he does a real good job of immensely wronging all three of the women. One of his crimes was committed under the influence of alcohol, but all the rest were committed when he was sober. In many instances he tried to be honorable and act the right way, but the emotional turmoil he was in in each of these situations makes him act in ways that he himself knows is questionable. The women in the story, on the other hand, go through much trauma but continue to take the high road and never budge from their irreproachable character.

Unlike women in cliché Victorian novels who faint at the drop of a hat, Susan. Elizabeth-Jane, and Lucetta are strong enough to handle the adversities that befall them through no fault of their own. The men, on the other hand, are easily swayed by emotions and act without contemplating the consequences. This is exemplified by Henchard’s character which wavers throughout the book and repeatedly does something to degrade his character in the eyes of the reader as soon as the reader starts sympathizing. Donald Farfrae, the villain as perceived by Henchard, remains a gentleman of impeccable character through all the ups and downs that life throws at him. Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane grow and evolve as the story proceeds while Susan remains the noble, gentle, sensible and loving woman.

This book is an interesting read for anyone interested in English Literature. Published in 1886, it gives a good insight into rural Victorian society. Many times the main factor that deters people from picking up an old timey book is the slow pace with which the main plot advances and the excessive descriptions of people and surroundings. This book handles the descriptions very well while making sure that the plot advances at a rate to keep one hooked to the book. An interesting example of this balance between plot and portraiture in the description of ‘The Ring’ where the Mayor arranges a clandestine meeting  with his wife. The author takes a detour from the story to talk about the Ring, its history, the history of the village connected to ancient romans, and also with examples justifies the selection of the spot for the meeting by the Mayor. This small break from the main storyline gives the reader a glimpse of the village and its people and a glimpse into the character of the Mayor without affecting the pace of the novel.

There is more to Victorian society than ladies with parasols, dainty tea parties and mothers wanting to marry off their daughters to the richest man. Thomas Hardy’s books are one of the best ways to get to know the other side of the coin and The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good place to start. This novel has the capacity to render the reader emotionally exhausted by the time he/she is through with it.

 

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