Thomas Hardy: Character is Fate in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’

‘Character is fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not be inaptly described as Faust has been described – as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.’

Thomas Hardy,

The Mayor of Casterbridge,

P. 131

While reading The Mayor of Casterbridge this morning, I saw something that I did not like: myself.

I think this may be one of the strongest attractions of reading character-driven fiction. Story is like an intellectual version of Narcissus’ mirror; you can see yourself in the private quietude of your own mind.

I can’t assert it as anything more than a hunch, but I find reading a character-driven novel a really good way to become acquainted with my shitty side. Sitting down to read Dickens, more often than not, involves much harsher lines; you’re either watching someone like David Copperfield or Philip Pirrip, who make for an attractive comparison, or some horrible creep like Miss Havisham, for whom you can, at most, feel pity after being revolted by her outward appearance and objectionable behaviour for hundreds of pages.

The struggle with Hardy is that he does understand how to make someone who is largely unattractive into an empathetic figure.

Michael Henchard, the eventual Mayor of Casterbridge, is introduced in the first chapter of the novel in an unforgettable scene; after drinking too much rum, he auctions off his wife and child to the highest bidder.

Awakening the next day full of regret, he makes his way into the closest church to swear a vow against drinking alcohol for the next twenty years of his life.

Close to that time later, we rejoin the wife and grown child as they return to Wessex, the place where they were sold. Fortunately for them, they were purchased by a kindly Canadian sailor but, after he was drowned at sea, the wife is forced to return in search of Henchard in the hope he can at least provide for their child. 

She finds him living in Casterbridge as a successful businessman, now appointed to the position of mayor. And after some wrangling, she manages to ingratiate herself back into his life and eventual care.  

The progress of the novel traces Henchard’s decline and eventual fall. The qualities of his character are progressively revealed to us as he reacts to the events that come to lay him low.

I’m not exactly sure if the book is a morality tale. I was motivated to read Casterbridge because Hardy’s novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is as good as the very best novels I have read. Tess is much better, however, because Hardy is first and foremost on Tess’ side. Every scene pulsates with some kind of urgent event, taking us deeper into the tragedy of her predicament.

Casterbridge feels a lot like a creative writing exercise written to satisfy a commercial imperative. The story is packed with twists and turns, but over the duration of the novel, dislocates the reader’s credulity and emotional investment.

I got the impression that things turned out so badly for Henchard mainly because Hardy doesn’t like him. This problem is made worse by Donald Farfrae, a young Scotsman who enters the novel as Henchard’s employee and becomes his eventual rival, absorbing the fruits of Henchard’s life as fate takes them from him.

Bottom line is, Farfrae is really pretty annoying. He’s very smart, charming, good looking and innocent of his talents. And he’s a straight shooter. I think because of this, the reader ends up being even more uncomfortable with the hand fate has dealt to Henchard. Especially when it’s a fiction and you know that Hardy is stacking the deck.

Surely, a character as complex as Michael Henchard deserves much better treatment.    

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: