Discussion Post: The Mayor of Casterbridge
It feels crazy, but our next book will be our last for the LT Summer 2010 Classics Challenge. Can’t believe the end is already nigh? Make sure you partake of this week’s discussion of the Mayor of Casterbridge or stop by next week for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Either way, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic as a way to remember this magical summer (or something…).
Before I get all teary about the impending end of our summer reading good times, let’s get Thomas Hardy! (Yeah, that’ll no doubt cheer me up…) Since my questions all tie into Henchard, more or less, I’m going to tackle them all together:
This is a story that, for me, invites thinking about fate vs. free will and a good deal of pondering on comeuppance! How much of what happens to Michael Henchard is fated to tragically play out and how much does he bring upon himself? Let’s also look at his motives for acting as he does: half the time he is driven by a desire to do good and the other half by a burning desire for comeuppance or revenge. Do these conflicting desires affect the outcome of his actions? Also, does Henchard deserve all that comes his way? He is an interesting character to me in his very ordinariness: he is no hero, but neither is he a villain. Not to spoil the story for you, but a lot of bad stuff happens to him and, at the end, I’m left unsure if he really deserved it.
Although Henchard undeniably moves the action in The Mayor of Casterbridge, something about the story really made me feel like the moment he sold his wife and daughter, he was fated for a poor run of things. That one indiscretion ruined him, even if he had almost twenty-one years of good luck before it all came back to him (comeuppance!).
I’m a pretty big proponent of the evil getting their just desserts, but there was something inherently not evil about Henchard that made me a bit leery of the way his story played out. When I finished the story and looked back on Henchard the character, I saw a flawed, but hardly malignant, man who certainly had anger issues but was also capable of great trust, love, and a sense of honor and duty. At base, I believe he was a good man who was too often overcome by his rage or jealousy. Does this really mean he is to be condemned as he was? Everything he had or could have was ripped from him as penance for a moment of drunken stupidity (a moment which he recognized as such and spent twenty years atoning for by going completely dry!).
In terms of his motivations, no matter what motivated him (anger, attempted goodness, love, or otherwise), it seemed to play out generally poorly. The best example of this I can think of is when, towards the end of the story, Elizabeth-Jane’s true father comes looking for her and Henchard, having come to love her as his own child and wishing to spend more time with her, lies to the father and tells him that his daughter is dead. The father goes sorrowfully away but eventually returns and Henchard, despite being motivated by his love for Elizabeth-Jane, is ostracized. He had a good motive, but he still ends up alone and dead in a hovel thinking Elizabeth-Jane hates him. Is that really deserved or fair?
I suppose I am needlessly returning to idea of fairness when looking at this book. Life is inherently unfair in so may ways that perhaps Hardy is right to play that fact up a little in this particular life story. All the same, fairness is often pleasantly left by the wayside in novels in favor of happy endings so I was just looking for a little bit of that fictional fairness in this book.
Favorite Part: Hardy’s descriptions! My favorite had to be when Henchard tries to renew his suit to Lucetta and her house itself is described as being against him as if on behalf of its mistress!
Least Favorite Part: Lucetta I think takes the cake here. I just found nothing remotely likable about her.
What were your thoughts? And please feel free to discuss things from the book aside from Henchard, fate, and the fairness of novels! Those were just the things that struck me most.