Fiction: “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy

Oh, my God.  I can’t believe I spent SO LONG reading THAT.

A) of all, I did not think it would take me nearly a month to read The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Of course, having said that, I did not take into account the craziness that would explode at work, what with writing reviews and staying late and all the other … well, craziness.  And B) of all, dudes — the next time I have a dream wherein I’m reading a book I’ve never read before, and I decide that I want to read that book to see if there are any parallels between the novel and the dream or whatever else is going on in my life?  I want y’all to point to this moment in my life, say “Mayor of Casterbridge,” and then smack me in the face, because there are never ANY parallels between what I dream and what I read.

And here’s a difficulty for me and this book: I liked Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I thought I would like any Hardy equally.  I WAS WRONG.

The titular Mayor of Casterbridge is Michael Henchard.  You may think the narrative focuses on his tenure as Mayor — you would be wrong.  The novel begins when Michael, his wife, Susan, and their infant daughter Elizabeth-Jane enter the fair at Weydon Priors.  They have been traveling, and they are hungry.  So they buy something called furmity (which sounds like porridge to me), and Michael spikes his with rum (as I would do, given porridge as my only option).  He gets progressively drunker, rants against his poverty, and in his supreme moment of drunkenness, proclaims to sell his wife for five pounds.  A passing sailor, Newsom, takes him at his deal, and voila – Mrs. Henchard now becomes Mrs. Newsom.  The next day, Michael is appropriately chastised, but decides it’s for the best for both himself and Susan.  He vows to abstain from alcohol for twenty-one years, which is his current age.

Flash-foward about nineteen years or so, and Susan and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, are entering Casterbridge, looking for an ‘old relative,’ Henchard.  They are astounded to find him in good health, good spirits, a wealthy corn-and-hay-broker, as well as one of the Mayors of the town.  They spend the night in an inn, rather than claim kin right away.  While there, they meet Donald Farfrae, a Scotsman who’s passing through the town towards the coast, hoping to set sail for the Americas.  Henchard meets up with him, and is impressed with his solution for saving blighted corn, and offers him the job of manager of his corn processing plant (or whatever).  Farfrae and Elizabeth meet in the inn, but neither say anything to each other.

The next day, Elizabeth goes to Henchard and claims kin in a roundabout way.  Henchard goes to meet Susan that night, and they agree that the best idea for both of them (due to Henchard’s claim that he’s a widower) is to have the Newsoms move into a house in town, have Henchard ‘court’ Susan, and then remarry later.    Meanwhile, Farfrae is gaining in the business, and Henchard is starting to feel slightly unnerved by the quiet, stoic Scotsman.  When Susan dies, Henchard is afraid that Elizabeth will leave him alone, and so he tells her that he is actually her father, not the sea captain Newsom she had believed all of her life.  But then, right after he tells her this, he goes looking for something in Susan’s bureau and finds a letter addressed to Henchard, to not be opened until Elizabeth’s wedding-day.  Henchard, being a curious bugger, opens it, and finds that — gasp! — his Elizabeth-Jane died shortly after being sold to Newsom, and Elizabeth-Jane in the parlor is actually Newsom’s Elizabeth-Jane!  [Did you see the math I did up there, where Elizabeth-Jane was 18 only 19 years after being sold?  Huh?  Did you see that?]

But he doesn’t tell her that, because a) of all, he doesn’t want to lose her, and b) of all, it would look really stupid of him to say “Hey, uh, remember five seconds ago when I said I was your dad?  Apparently your mom lied to me and you’re not my daughter after all.  Sorry.”

And then, there’s Lucetta.  Lucetta comes to town shortly after or shortly before Susan’s death (I can’t remember, and even though the book is right next to the keyboard, I’m not going to look it up).  She wants to marry Henchard, because they had an affair years ago, in which he proposed marriage, but then rescinded because his wife wasn’t really dead.  Now that she’s dead, Lucetta can marry Henchard!  But then she meets Farfrae and falls in love with him even more, and so she rebuffs Henchard and marries Farfrae on the sly.

Meanwhile, Henchard has forecasted poorly in that year’s harvest, and he has lost everything.  So he has lost his actual wife; the woman he was going to marry; his daughter; his business; and his friendship with Farfrae.  He continues on his downward slide; Lucetta asks him to return her love letters to him.  He gives them to his new manager, Jopp, to deliver, because he doesn’t want to see her again.  Instead, Jopp goes to a shady tavern and reads them out loud, which leads the bad side of town to discern that Henchard and Lucetta were adulterers years ago, and they plan something called a “skimmington ride,” which used to happen when adultery was discovered.  One night, after a Royal Personage goes through town (and Henchard embarrasses himself by trying to shake the Prince’s hand in front of everyone, apparently that’s something that’s frowned upon in mid-19th-Century Rural Britain), and the shady people send Farfrae out on a stupid mission to get him out of town (because if there were a sitcom based on this book back then, it would be Everybody Loves Farfrae), and the shady people make up some dummies of Henchard and Lucetta, tie them to a donkey, and set the donkey marching through town.  Lucetta sees the donkey, is able to add two and two, and has a seizure from the shock.  She’s also pregnant, not that it matters, because both die.  Thanks, donkey.

Henchard ostracizes himself from society, but when Elizabeth sees how lonely he is, she goes to him and offers to stay with him to keep him company and take care of him.  But then!  Sea Captain Newsom returns from the dead!  And he wants to see Elizabeth!  And Henchard lies and tells him that she died.  So Newsom leaves town, but then Henchard regrets doing that, but he’s too greedy to let Elizabeth know her real father is alive.

Eventually, Farfrae proposes marriage to Elizabeth-Jane, she accepts, then Newsom returns again and she is made aware of Henchard’s deception.  Henchard returns to Casterbridge on this, the day of his ‘daughter’s’ wedding (I’m sorry), and they have a big fight and he leaves again.  He dies like, four days later, not wanting a proper burial or recognition, because he feels he doesn’t deserve it.

Er, thus endeth the Cliffs Notes edition of The Mayor of Casterbridge.  And look, if I wasn’t so tired all the time (no, seriously, I fell asleep at 4 a.m., slept until 1 p.m., then woke up from an hour-long nap on the couch at 6 after trying to finish this book, what the hell), I may have enjoyed it more.  Hardy really enjoys playing with happenstance and random events that aren’t under any character’s control, which is different from any other novelist writing during that time period (I direct your attention to Charles Dickens and any of his books).  There’s a lot about making decisions based on selfish needs and the dichotomy between Farfrae and Henchard is interesting — I just found it a chore to get through.

So I rate it with 1.5 stars (because classic literature automatically gets half a star if I can finish it), and move on to trashier things: the second Nikki Heat mystery, for one; the third Sookie Stackhouse mystery for another.

Grade for The Mayor of Casterbridge: 1.5 stars


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