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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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!