The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy: Introduction

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a pathetic story of a highly tragic figure, Michael Henchard, whose rise to a position of prosperity and eminence by dint of hard labor and firm determination is followed by an equally astonishing fall from that position because of certain flaws in his character and some mistake committed by him as well as the cruel workings of fate.

Thomas Hardy

In a moment of despair and under the effect of drink, he sells his wife Susan and his small daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor Richard Newson, and later he repents for what he has done. He settles down at Casterbridge, prospers in grain-business, and becomes the Mayor of the town. He has an affair with Lucetta Le Sueur during the absence of his wife, but abandons her when the wife comes back, eighteen years later, with a daughter born by Newson. Rivalry with his own employee, Donald Farfrae, brings about his ruin. Susan, whom he has remarried, dies, and Henchard tries to renew his affair with Lucetta who is won by Farfrae. Hurt by scandals about her former affair with Henchard, Lucetta dies too. Henchard is left alone and sick, and is nursed and taken care of by his stepdaughter, Elizabeth-Jane, and allows her to marry Farfrae. He comes to attend their wedding, and is scolded by Elizabeth-Jane for not having told her that Newson, and not he, is her real father. He leaves Casterbridge and goes to work in another town where he dies.

The Mayor of Casterbridge contains some fine descriptions of rural surroundings, depiction of touching scenes and situations, and, above all, a skillful portrayal of a clearly conceived and competently delineated character of the central figure, Henchard. Henchard is probably the greatest example of masculine character in Hardy’s fiction. He compels admiration chiefly through the tremendous force and energy of his character. Beside Henchard’s great strength and dignity, shot through with its dark streak of erratic harshness, Farfrae appears glib and mean. In spite of Henchard’s stubbornness and folly, we cannot help liking him for his bravery and his innate sense of justice. These are the greatness in him. His courage is no mere brute force. He challenges fate heroically, and misery can teach him nothing more than the defiant endurance of it.

Henchard, in short, fulfills Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero as “a man not eminently good or just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice, but by some error or frailty.” Miss Diana Neill regards The Mayor of Casterbridge as 'the finest of Hardy's novels', and praises it for its convincing description of "the grim, relentless march of ill-fortune through the life of the chief character", and its freedom from 'overstrained emotionality' and 'unnatural dramatic psychology'.