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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Character

As a “Story of a Man of Character,” The Mayor of Casterbridge focuses on how its protagonist’s qualities enable him to endure. One tends to think of character, especially in terms of a “Man of Character,” as the product of such values as honor and moral righteousness. Certainly Michael Henchard does not fit neatly into such categories. Throughout the novel, his volatile temper forces him into ruthless competition with Farfrae that strips him of his pride and property, while his insecurities lead him to deceive the one person he learns to truly care about, Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard dies an unremarkable death, slinking off to a humble cottage in the woods, and he stipulates in his will that no one mourn or remember him. There will be no statues in the Casterbridge square, as one might imagine, to mark his life and work. Yet Hardy insists that his hero is a worthy man. Henchard’s worth, then—that which makes him a “Man of Character”—lies in his determination to suffer and in his ability to endure great pain. He shoulders the burden of his own mistakes as he sells his family, mismanages his business, and bears the storm of an unlucky fate, especially when the furmity-woman confesses and Newson reappears. In a world that seems guided by the “scheme[s] of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing” human beings, there can be no more honorable and more righteous characteristic than Henchard’s brand of “defiant endurance.”

The Value of a Good Name

The value of a good name is abundantly clear within the first few chapters of the novel: as Henchard wakes to find that the sale of his wife was not a dream or a drunken hallucination, his first concern is to remember whether he divulged his name to anyone during the course of the previous evening. All the while, Susan warns Elizabeth-Jane of the need for discretion at the Three Mariners Inn—their respectability (and, more important, that of the mayor) could be jeopardized if anyone discovered that Henchard’s family performed chores as payment for lodging.

The importance of a solid reputation and character is rather obvious given Henchard’s situation, for Henchard has little else besides his name. He arrives in Casterbridge with nothing more than the implements of the hay-trusser’s trade, and though we never learn the circumstances of his ascent to civic leader, such a climb presumably depends upon the worth of one’s name. Throughout the course of the novel, Henchard attempts to earn, or to believe that he has earned, his position. He is, however, plagued by a conviction of his own worthlessness, and he places himself in situations that can only result in failure. For instance, he indulges in petty jealousy of Farfrae, which leads to a drawn-out competition in which Henchard loses his position as mayor, his business, and the women he loves. More crucial, Henchard’s actions result in the loss of his name and his reputation as a worthy and honorable citizen. Once he has lost these essentials, he follows the same course toward death as Lucetta, whose demise is seemingly precipitated by the irretrievable loss of respectability brought about by the “skimmity-ride.”

The Indelibility of the Past

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a novel haunted by the past. Henchard’s fateful decision to sell his wife and child at Weydon-Priors continues to shape his life eighteen years later, while the town itself rests upon its former incarnation: every farmer who tills a field turns up the remains of long-dead Roman soldiers. The Ring, the ancient Roman amphitheater that dominates Casterbridge and provides a forum for the secret meetings of its citizens, stands as a potent symbol of the indeli-bility of a past that cannot be escaped. The terrible events that once occurred here as entertainment for the citizens of Casterbridge have, in a certain sense, determined the town’s present state. The brutality of public executions has given way to the miseries of thwarted lovers.

Henchard’s past proves no less indomitable. Indeed, he spends the entirety of the novel attempting to right the wrongs of long ago. He succeeds only in making more grievous mistakes, but he never fails to acknowledge that the past cannot be buried or denied. Only Lucetta is guilty of such folly. She dismisses her history with Henchard and the promises that she made to him in order to pursue Farfrae, a decision for which she pays with her reputation and, eventually, her life.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Even the most cursory reading of The Mayor of Casterbridge reveals a structural pattern that relies heavily on coincidence. Indeed, the story would hardly progress were it not for the chance occurrences that push Henchard closer and closer to failure. For example, the reappearance of just one long-lost character would test our willingness to believe, but here we witness the return of Susan, the furmity-woman, and Newson, each of whom brings a dark secret that contributes to Henchard’s doom. Although we, as modern readers, are unlikely to excuse such overdetermined plotting, we should attempt to understand it. Hardy’s reliance on coincidence relates directly to his philosophy of the world. As a determinist, Hardy believed that human life was shaped not by free will but by such powerful, uncontrollable forces as heredity and God. Henchard rails against such forces throughout the novel, lamenting that the world seems designed to bring about his demise. In such an environment, coincidence seems less like a product of poor plot structure than an inevitable consequence of malicious universal forces.

The Tension between Tradition and Innovation

Casterbridge is, at first, a town untouched by modernism. Henchard’s government runs the town according to quaintly traditional customs: business is conducted by word of mouth and weather-prophets are consulted regarding crop yields. When Farfrae arrives, he brings with him new and efficient systems for managing the town’s grain markets and increasing agricultural production. In this way, Henchard and Farfrae come to represent tradition and innovation, respectively. As such, their struggle can be seen not merely as a competition between a grain merchant and his former protégé but rather as the tension between the desire for and the reluctance to change as one age replaces another.

Hardy reports this succession as though it were inevitable, and the novel, for all its sympathies toward Henchard, is never hostile toward progress. Indeed, we witness and even enjoy the efficacy of Farfrae’s accomplishments. Undoubtedly, his day of celebration, his new method for organizing the granary’s business, and his determination to introduce modern technologies to Casterbridge are good things. Nevertheless, Hardy reports the passing from one era to the next with a quiet kind of nostalgia. Throughout the novel are traces of a world that once was and will never be again. In the opening pages, as Henchard seeks shelter for his tired family, a peasant laments the loss of the quaint cottages that once characterized the English countryside.

The Tension between Public Life and Private Life

Henchard’s fall can be understood in terms of a movement from the public arena into the private one. When Susan and Elizabeth-Jane discover Henchard at the Three Mariners Inn, he is the mayor of Casterbridge and its most successful grain merchant, two positions that place him in the center of public life and civic duty. As his good fortune shifts when his reputation and finances fail, he is forced to relinquish these posts. He becomes increasingly less involved with public life—his ridiculous greeting of the visiting Royal Personage demonstrates how completely he has abandoned this realm—and lives wholly with his private thoughts and obsessions. He moves from “the commercial [to] the romantic,” concentrating his energies on his personal and domestic relationships with Farfrae, Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Caged Goldfinch

In an act of contrition, Henchard visits Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day, carrying the gift of a caged goldfinch. He leaves the bird in a corner while he speaks to his stepdaughter and forgets it when she coolly dismisses him. Days later, a maid discovers the starved bird, which prompts Elizabeth-Jane to search for Henchard, whom she finds dead in Abel Whittle’s cottage. When Whittle reports that Henchard “didn’t gain strength, for you see, ma’am, he couldn’t eat,” he unwittingly ties Henchard’s fate to the bird’s: both lived and died in a prison. The finch’s prison was literal, while Henchard’s was the inescapable prison of his personality and his past.

The Bull

The bull that chases down Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane stands as a symbol of the brute forces that threaten human life. Malignant, deadly, and bent on destruction, it seems to incarnate the unnamed forces that Henchard often bemoans. The bull’s rampage provides Henchard with an opportunity to display his strength and courage, thus making him more sympathetic in our eyes.

The Collision of the Wagons

When a wagon owned by Henchard collides with a wagon owned by Farfrae on the street outside of High-Place Hall, the interaction bears more significance than a simple traffic accident. The violent collision dramatically symbolizes the tension in the relationship between the two men. It also symbolizes the clash between tradition, which Henchard embodies, and the new modern era, which Farfrae personifies.

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What opposing forces do Henchard and Farfrae represent, respectively?
Rural and urban
Capitalism and socialism
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

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by atleastimnotaprincess, March 23, 2013

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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by aimalfarooq, September 02, 2013

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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Henchard's sin

by Greenpearls, March 08, 2017

The shadow of that one horrible sin committed at the fair chases Henchard all his life. Even after so much repentance, he knows there is no penance.