In one of his "Jeeves and Wooster" stories, humorist P. G. Wodehouse lightheartedly lists some top examples of men with a lot of brains. The four men he names are Napoleon, Darwin, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy. Even accounting for the silliness of the context, that is a testament to the seriousness of Hardy's reputation. And this ever-so-serious book is widely taken to be one of Hardy's greatest masterpieces. As it is only the third book by Hardy that I have read, I cannot speak to that. I can only bear witness that it is a fascinating book depicting (as its subtitle says) "the life and death of a man of character"—and as to what sort of character the man has, that is what will keep your eyeballs glued to the book from first page to last.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy bound by most of the classical unities. Though the story spans nearly thirty years, most of it takes place within six or seven years of the final act. Scenes are spread out across the width of the fictional English county of Wessex, approximately where Dorset lies in reality; but most of it takes place within the city limits of Casterbridge, a commercial and agricultural center with emphasis on the latter. The action revolves around a handful of characters, and unfolds with a dreadful sense of inevitability. The "man of character" named in the title rises in station from a farm laborer, specializing in trussing hay, to become a prosperous corn merchant and mayor of the town—only to descend back to the state where he began, and perhaps lower still. He owes his ascent primarily to a vow he took at the age of 21 years to touch no liquor for as many years again. And he owes his downfall to the secrets, lies, and flaws in his character (such as jealousy and impulsiveness) which are revealed one by one, until everything he values is either destroyed or taken from him.
The man in question is named Michael Henchard, and his history (as far as this book is concerned) begins when, as a very poor, low-spirited, down-and-out farm laborer, he goes on a drunk and impulsively sells his wife and infant daughter to the highest bidder. When he wakes up the next morning, he repentantly tries to track down his family, only to find they have emigrated somewhere with a sailor named Newson. After this discovery, Henchard makes his oath of sobriety, moves to Casterbridge, and begins his climb. Fast-forward nineteen years, and we find Susan Newson, presumed a widow since her husband's ship foundered at sea, arriving at Casterbridge with her sweet-natured daughter Elizabeth-Jane to find the husband who sold her at the top of his career. When Henchard realizes who they are, he tries to put the family back together without revealing the exact circumstances that separated them (even Elizabeth-Jane doesn't know, at first). But Susan isn't the only woman Henchard has done wrong, and meanwhile she has secrets of her own, and Henchard's young Scottish protegé Donald Farfrae begins to excite the mayor's jealousy, and the other woman (a flighty number named Lucetta) arrives in town to set the wheels of destiny spinning at an even more dangerous level, and a rival of Farfrae's tosses his own bit of vengeful monkey-business into the works, and what with scandal and alienation and financial ruin and death flying about in all directions, things soon get quite out of control.
Least of all can Henchard control himself, continuing even after his downfall to invent new lies and secrets, driven by his insecurity and almost paranoid jealousy, sometimes not even knowing himself what he is doing. Sensations of despair and loneliness, even an impulse toward self-destruction, gather about him as each attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of those he cares about sinks him deeper in disgrace. When you think he has sunk as low as he can, there are still chapters to go. By this time you have learned what to expect, and face it with a peculiar kind of suspense in which you know pretty well what is going to happen, and dread it, but cannot look away.
Getting back together with Susan proves to be the easy part. The downward rush of the tragedy begins when, the very day he acknowledges Elizabeth-Jane "Newson" as his own daughter, he learns by the dead hand of Susan that she is actually Newson's daughter, succeeding to the name after the death of Henchard's own Elizabeth-Jane. At the very moment when Elizabeth-Jane is beginning to accept the lie that Henchard is her real father, Henchard's love toward her seems inexplicably to die. She does not even learn the truth when Newson shows up, alive and well, to claim his daughter—thanks to another lie, the most audacious in Henchard's long career. But one by one, Henchard's deceptions and concealments come home to roost. His recklessness, spurred by bitter jealousy, ruins him. His stepdaughter, spurred by Henchard's strangeness toward her, accepts Lucetta's invitation to be her lady companion, only to get caught up in yet another web of seduction and deceit. The resentments of a blackmailing betrayer named Jopp come together with a lowlife local hazing custom to sow death and destruction among the main characters, made even more tragic by the distrust of Henchard that Farfrae feels after the two men wrestle almost to the death.
So, like The Princess Bride, it has romance, and vendettas, and sports, and even a miracle (or rather, a macabre coincidence that somehow saves Henchard from suicide). And, of interest to Harry Potter fans, it explains the meanings of the words "dumbledore" and "hagrid" within the same paragraph, and later alludes to "alastor" besides. Could this be a clue to where J. K. Rowling found the names for her well-known characters? I'm sure this is no news to the crowd that has memorized every public interview J. K. R. has ever given. That she should have read Hardy's work is unsurprising, but probably doesn't bear significantly on her own work. For the magic of this story consists in the way Hardy's beautiful prose, concentration of thought, and instinct for dramatic shape carry the reader relentlessly beyond, far beyond, and still farther beyond, the point where the inexorable unwinding of the skein of tragedy becomes uncomfortable to witness, drawing you at last to the novel's bleak ending where it philosophically concludes that "happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." It's a melancholy thought at the end of a book that sometimes gives real pain. And yet reading it has been a great pleasure: a fact that explains what I meant when I called this "a fascinating book," and that lends the ring of truth to Wodehouse's tribute to the genius of Thomas Hardy.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 13+
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