At the end of The Mayor of Casterbridge, the ruined Michael Henchard wills that no one remember his name after his death. This request is profoundly startling and tragic, especially when one considers how important Henchard’s name has been to him during his lifetime. After committing the abominable deed of selling his wife and child, Henchard wakes from a drunken stupor and wonders, first and foremost, if he told any of the fair-goers his name. Eighteen years pass between that scene on the heath of Weydon-Priors and Henchard’s reunion with Susan in Casterbridge, but we immediately realize the value that Henchard places on a good name and reputation. Not only has he climbed from hay-trusser to mayor of a small agricultural town, but he labors to protect the esteem this higher position affords him. When Susan and Elizabeth-Jane come upon the mayor hosting a banquet for the town’s most prominent citizens, they witness a man struggling to convince the masses that, despite a mismanaged harvest, he is an honest person with a worthy name.
As he stares out at an unhappy audience made up of grain merchants who have lost money and common citizens who, without wheat, are going hungry, Henchard laments that he cannot undo the past. He relates grown wheat metaphorically to the mistakes of the past—neither can be taken back. Although Henchard learns this lesson at the end of Chapter IV, he fails to internalize it. If there is, indeed, a key to his undoing, it is his inability to let go of his past mistakes. Guilt acts like a fuel that keeps Henchard moving toward his own demise. Unable to forget the events that took place in the furmity-woman’s tent, he sets out to punish himself again and again. While he might have found happiness by marrying Lucetta, for instance, Henchard determines to make amends for the past by remarrying a woman he never loved in the first place. Possessed of a “restless and self-accusing soul,” Henchard seems to seek out situations that promise further debasement. Although Donald Farfrae eventually appropriates Henchard’s job, business, and even his loved ones, it is Henchard who insists on creating the competition that he eventually loses. Although Henchard loses even the ability to explain himself—“he did not sufficiently value himself to lessen his sufferings by strenuous appeal or elaborate argument”—he never relinquishes his talent of endurance. Whatever the pain, Henchard bears it. It is this resilience that elevates him to the level of a hero—a man, ironically, whose name deserves to be remembered.
Farfrae, the young Scotchman, serves as a foil (a character whose actions or emotions contrast with and thereby accentuate those of another character) for Henchard. Whereas will and intuition determine the course of Henchard’s life, Farfrae is a man of intellect. He brings to Casterbridge a method for salvaging damaged grain, a system for reorganizing and revolutionizing the mayor’s business, and a blend of curiosity and ambition that enables him to take interest in—and advantage of—the agricultural advancements of the day (such as the seed-sowing machine).
Although Henchard soon comes to view Farfrae as his adversary, the Scotchman’s victories are won more in the name of progress than personal satisfaction. His primary motive in taking over Casterbridge’s grain trade is to make it more prosperous and prepare the village for the advancing agricultural economy of the later nineteenth century. He does not intend to dishonor Henchard. Indeed, even when Henchard is at his most adversarial—during his fight with Farfrae in the barn, for instance—the Scotchman reminds himself of the fallen mayor’s circumstances, taking pains to understand and excuse Henchard’s behavior. In his calm, measured thinking, Farfrae is a model man of science, and Hardy depicts him with the stereotypical strengths and weaknesses of such people. He possesses an intellectual competence so unrivaled that it passes for charisma, but throughout the novel he remains emotionally distant. Although he wins the favor of the townspeople with his highly successful day of celebration, Farfrae fails to feel any emotion too deeply, whether it is happiness inspired by his carnival or sorrow at the death of his wife. In this respect as well he stands in bold contrast to Henchard, whose depth of feeling is so profound that it ultimately dooms him.
Elizabeth-Jane undergoes a drastic transformation over the course of the novel, even though the narrative does not focus on her as much as it does on other characters. As she follows her mother across the English countryside in search of a relative she does not know, Elizabeth-Jane proves a kind, simple, and uneducated girl. Once in Casterbridge, however, she undertakes intellectual and social improvement: she begins to dress like a lady, reads voraciously, and does her best to expunge rustic country dialect from her speech. This self-education comes at a painful time, for not long after she arrives in Casterbridge, her mother dies, leaving her in the custody of a man who has learned that she is not his biological daughter and therefore wants little to do with her.
In terms of misery, one could easily argue that Elizabeth-Jane has a share equal to that of Henchard or Lucetta. Unlike these characters, however, Elizabeth-Jane suffers in the same way she lives—with a quiet kind of self-possession and resolve. She lacks Lucetta’s sense of drama and lacks her stepfather’s desire to bend the will of others to her own. Thus, when Henchard cruelly dismisses her or Lucetta supplants her place in Farfrae’s heart, Elizabeth-Jane accepts these circumstances and moves on with life. This approach to living stands as a bold counterpoint to Henchard’s, for Henchard cannot bring himself to let go of the past and relinquish his failures and unfulfilled desires. If Henchard’s determination to cling to the past is partly responsible for his ruin, then Elizabeth-Jane’s talent for “making limited opportunities endurable” accounts for her triumphal realization—unspectacular as it might be—that “happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.”
Like Michael Henchard, Lucetta Templeman lives recklessly according to her passions and suffers for it. Before arriving in Casterbridge, Lucetta becomes involved in a scandalously indiscreet affair with Henchard that makes her the pariah of Jersey. After settling in High-Place Hall, Lucetta quickly becomes enamored with Henchard’s archrival, Farfrae. Their relationship is peaceful until the town learns of Lucetta’s past relationship with Henchard, whereupon they make her the subject of a shameful “skimmity-ride.” Although warned of these likely consequences, Lucetta proceeds to love whomever she wants however she pleases. Still, her character lacks the boldness and certainty of purpose that would elevate her to the level of “the isolated, damned, and self-destructive individualist” that critic Albert Guerard describes as “the great nineteenth-century myth.” Lucetta emerges not as heroic but as childish and imprudent. Her love for Farfrae, for example, hinges on her refusal to accept Henchard’s visits for several days, a refusal that makes her seem more petty than resolute. Similarly, her rapidly shifting affections—Farfrae eclipses Henchard as the object of her desire with amazing, almost ridiculous speed—brand her as an emotionally volatile Victorian female, one whose sentiments are strong enough to cause the most melodramatic of deaths.
All of the characters (besides the troubled Henchard) are almost completely shallow and almost petty. Isn't it odd how Frafaer had no difficulty getting back together with Elizabeth-Jane after he hurt her so terribly by going for Lucetta? And how Lucetta practically refuses to own up to her own actions by claiming it was a misfortune she fell into? Although it is almost annoying how Henchard never learns from his mistakes, he truly does seem like the only "deep" character in this book.
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I didn't like most of the characters, but that does not imply that I disliked the book. The book was fantastic and the story was gripping. I was initially fond of Farfrae, but then I grew to dislike him. I despised Lucetta since the first time she was described, and my hatred kept increasing as the story progressed. Elizabeth-Jane was the only character I liked; whereas, my feelings towards Michael Henchard were those of confusion. I disliked him at times. Other times, I felt pangs of sympathy towards him, and anger towards how others treate
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