The difference between the peacefulness of interior nature and the wilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.
In Chapter I, after selling his wife and daughter to a sailor for five guineas, Michael Henchard steps out of the furmity-merchant’s tent and considers the world described above. Here, Hardy employs his talent for description that serves to make the physical world of the characters real and accessible, while carrying a symbolic meaning that resonates with the larger themes of the work as a whole. First, he evokes beautifully the natural world of Weydon-Priors: the horses, the surrounding woods, the “rosy cloud[s]” at sunset. With the patient horses that rub their necks lovingly and stand as a counterpoint to Henchard’s patently unloving treatment of his wife, the passage departs from strict realism and veers toward symbolism. By contrasting the human and natural worlds in this way and determining that “all terrestrial conditions were intermittent,” that love and hate, kindness and cruelty are in constant flux, Hardy effectively sets the stage for his drama.
He advertised about the town, in long posters of a pink colour, that games of all sorts would take place here; and set to work a little battalion of men under his own eye. They erected greasy-poles for climbing, with smoked hams and local cheeses at the top. They placed hurdles in rows for jumping over; across the river they laid a slippery pole, with a live pig of the neighborhood tied at the other end, to become the property of the man who could walk over and get it. There were also provided wheelbarrows for racing, donkeys for the same, a stage for boxing, wrestling, and drawing blood generally; sacks for jumping in.
Several times throughout the novel, Hardy evokes details of a kind of life that was becoming extinct even as he described it. Casterbridge is a town situated between two times: the age of simple, agricultural England and the epoch of modern, industrialized England. The drama enacted between Henchard and Farfrae is, in part, the conflict between tradition and innovation, between the past and the future. Given enough time, the strongest traditions will fade as surely as memories of the past. Thus, Hardy plays the part of the amateur anthropologist, recalling rather fondly the details of rural living that were eclipsed by the advent of modern technologies. In Chapter XVI, he colorfully describes the day of celebration that Henchard plans. It is a world of simple pleasures—smoked hams and local cheeses—a world in which neighbors have not yet succumbed to the brutal competitiveness of industrial capitalism but instead share ownership of livestock. It is essentially a romantic and nostalgic view of a world that, even during Hardy’s time, no longer existed. Nevertheless, Hardy cannot resist including details that confirm his understanding of the brutality of the universe, as in the cruelty inherent in such pastimes as “boxing, wrestling, and drawing blood generally.”
Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not inaptly be 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.
This passage from Chapter XVII relates to Farfrae’s enormous business success after Henchard requests that he leave his employment and stop courting Elizabeth-Jane. The phrase “Character is Fate,” from Novalis, an eighteenth-century German novelist and poet, offers us a context for understanding much of Henchard’s ensuing struggle. Henchard blames much of the suffering he endures on cruel forces that are bent on human destruction. In Chapter XVII, however, Hardy reminds the reader that Henchard has much to do with his own downfall. In the same chapter, we read that “there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.” This “volcanic stuff” refers to Henchard’s passionate disposition. Whatever he feels—be it love, hate, desire, or contempt—he feels it overpoweringly. The same holds true for his guilt over selling Susan, which tracks him from Weydon-Priors to Casterbridge, where it overshadows his life for twenty years. His desire to right these past wrongs and his conviction that he deserves to suffer for them account for his suffering as much as any malignant force of the universe.
MICHAEL HENCHARD’S WILL
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground.
& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
& that no flours be planted on my grave.
& that no man remember me.
To this I put my name.
In his introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Harold Bloom cites the above passage, taken from the novel’s final chapter, as the most powerful and eloquent of all of Hardy’s writing. Indeed, there is a remarkable power and beauty in the simplicity of these lines. Henchard’s will is the tragic last statement of a tragic man whose unremitting doubts regarding his life’s worth not only lead to his death but also follow him there. From the moment Henchard sells his wife at the Weydon fair, he feels a keen anxiety over the value of his name. He pledges a twenty-one-year reprieve from alcohol and sets himself on a course that delivers him to the most honored business and social offices of a small country town. Unsatisfied with this seeming reformation of himself, however, he continues to let his guilt eat away at him and eventually relinquishes the name and reputation he has built for himself. His last wish, to be allowed to die anonymously and to go unremembered, is the ultimate gesture of a man who craves good repute but doubts his own worth.
Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.
These lines make up the final passage of the novel and provide a thoughtful, balanced summary of its proceedings. Elizabeth-Jane decides to honor Henchard’s last wishes as best she can. She does not mourn him or plant flowers on his grave. She does, however, come close to honoring him inwardly, when she reflects here on the unfair distribution of happiness, which she considers the most valuable human currency. Her reflection mitigates Henchard’s obsession with the worth of his name and reputation, for in the face of such a “sorry world,” all honor seems “doubtful.” But it also grants the fallen mayor a quiet, unassuming kind of forgiveness. She certainly has Henchard in mind when she thinks of the many people who “deserved much more” out of life. Indeed, given that the world emerges as “a general drama of pain,” both we and Elizabeth-Jane begin to understand better Henchard’s disastrous mistakes and missteps. Even his lie regarding Newson becomes less grievous when we consider that he meant only to secure a happiness that had, for so many years, eluded him. In such a bleak world, the course of Henchard’s life seems not to merit punishment so much as it does pity.
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