The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the story of one man’s fall and another’s rise. Indeed, Henchard’s fortune seems inversely proportional to Farfrae’s: whatever Henchard loses, Farfrae gains. Is this a believable exchange? If not, is there something more important than realism suggested by Henchard’s relationship with Farfrae?
In terms of realism, the relationship between Henchard and Farfrae seems too finely plotted to be wholly credible. Given Farfrae’s charisma, we might believe that he succeeds in winning the heart of Elizabeth-Jane and even in detracting from Henchard’s business by winning the hearts of the citizens of Casterbridge. But his successful seduction of Lucetta, his succession to the seat of mayor, his purchase of Henchard’s house, and his acquisition of Henchard’s furniture convey the feeling that the characters are puppets being conveniently manipulated by the author. The predetermined nature of main characters’ reversals of fortunes suggests that realism was not Hardy’s first priority. Indeed, the relationship between Henchard and Farfrae carries symbolic weight. When they clash, their disagreement represents a conflict between age and youth, tradition and innovation, and emotion and reason. Henchard, for example, is the mayor of a town that has remained untouched by the scientific, philosophical, or technological advances of the age. Cas-terbridge exists in a sort of bubble, and Henchard rules it accordingly. He manages his books in his head, conducts business by word of mouth, and employs weather-prophets—already obsolete in many parts of the country—to determine the success of a harvest. When Farfrae arrives, he brings a new system of organization that revolutionizes Casterbridge’s grain business, making it more efficient and dependent on developing agricultural technologies. In his proud display of the automatic seeder to a disdainful Henchard, there is clearly more at stake than the friendship between two men.
Discuss the role of coincidence in the novel. Many critics of Hardy have argued that the astonishing coincidences throughout The Mayor of Casterbridge make the story improbable and unbelievable. Do you think this is the case?
By Chapter III, in which Susan Henchard learns her husband’s whereabouts from the same furmity-woman who witnessed their shameful parting eighteen years earlier, unlikely coincidences already play an important role in the novel. Such strange occurrences accumulate rapidly: Farfrae, who has a secret for salvaging grown wheat, passes by the Three Mariners Inn just as Henchard cries out for a solution to his damaged crop; Henchard finds the letter revealing that he is not Elizabeth-Jane’s father only moments after he pledges his paternal devotion to her; Elizabeth-Jane meets Lucetta Templeman because she strolls past Susan’s grave when Lucetta is studying Susan’s headstone. These incidents do detract from the realism of Henchard’s story: no one, not even the most generous reader, could deny Hardy’s reliance on outlandish coincidences to propel the narrative. Because many novels were published in serial form, Victorian novelists depended upon such effects in order to hook their readers and boost future sales. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy’s plotting relates directly to the plight of his main character: the coincidences that often serve to push the mayor closer to destruction form the machinery of a world bent, as Henchard observes time and again, on human suffering.
Discuss the role of the peasants of Casterbridge, such as Christopher Coney, Solomon Longways, Nance Mockridge, and Mother Cuxsom.
The peasants, or rustics, serve two important functions in The Mayor of Casterbridge. First, they provide commentary on the actions of the principal characters. In this respect, they act like the chorus in ancient Greek drama, in which bands of actors appeared onstage to comment on the play’s events. The rustics congregate after Susan’s death and, later, in Mixen Lane where they learn of Lucetta’s affair with Michael Henchard. In both scenes, the peasants’ commentary provides context for understanding the world of the novel. Christopher Coney’s insistence that he is justified in stealing the pennies out of Susan’s casket not only testifies to the hardships of the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Casterbridge but also confirms Hardy’s measure of the depth of human suffering.
Disturbing as Coney’s admission is, however, the scene is a rather comic one. With their colorful dialect and untraditional manners, the rustics lend a bit of welcome comic relief to the novel, even though their second function is serious. Unlike a Greek chorus, which comments on the main action without participating in it, Hardy’s rustics play a vital role in the unfolding drama. Nance Mockridge suggests that Lucetta Templeman be publicly chastised for her relationship with Henchard, and soon a “skimmity-ride” sweeps through the town streets, which causes Lucetta enough shame to bring about her death. In this way, the rustics act as one of the uncontrollable (and often malignant) forces that bring about human suffering.