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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

Chapters XV–XVIII

Summary Chapters XV–XVIII

Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described. . . .

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Analysis: Chapters XV–XVIII

If there is a main argument in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy states it implicitly in Chapter XVII, where he suggests that “[c]haracter is Fate.” These chapters do much to support the notion that one’s personality determines the course of one’s life—they contain a turning point that hinges upon Henchard’s disposition. It is clear that Henchard’s emotions dominate his life and tend to determine his actions. When he enters into his friendship with Farfrae, for instance, he does so wholeheartedly. It is not until their relationship begins to sour—first as a result of their disagreement over Abel Whittle and later as a result of Henchard’s failed celebration—that Henchard’s emotional involvement with and dedication to a man he hardly knows seems reckless. This characteristic extremity of emotion shapes the course of Henchard’s life. Just as his exceptional guilt over mistreating Susan leads him to marry for the second time a woman he does not love, his jealousy of Farfrae forces him into a competition that he cannot win.

In terms of their emotional vulnerability, both Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae stand as counterpoints to Henchard. Their reactions to Henchard’s request that they no longer see one another mark them as beings ruled by something other than feeling. Given their mutual affection, their willingness to agree to Henchard’s demand without so much as a word of protest seems odd. Of course, it is possible that Farfrae’s respect for Henchard’s wishes makes him noble (later, while remembering Henchard’s initial kindness toward him, Farfrae refers to his loyalty to Henchard). But Farfrae’s behavior also reveals his distance from passionate emotion. Similarly, Elizabeth-Jane emerges as a study in emotional moderation. Like Farfrae, she bows to Henchard’s wish without objection. Hardy encapsulates her character brilliantly in the opening passage of Chapter XV, in which she carefully constructs an outfit so as not to appear too artful or excessive. Her behavior here serves as an important contrast to that of Lucetta, whose eventual ostentatious appearance matches the excess of her emotions.

The closing scene of Chapter XVIII makes use of a secondary cast of characters that appears throughout the novel. These characters resemble and serve a function similar to that of Shakespeare’s rustics in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—the band of crude, uneducated peasants charged with the responsibility of providing comic relief. With their colorful dialect, the crew of Nance Mockridge and Christopher Coney certainly do lighten the tone of Hardy’s tragedy, but the peasants also serve as a Greek chorus, in that they appear on the scene to judge the action of the primary characters and comment on the world at large. Although Christopher Coney’s insistence that death should not rob life of four pennies is comical, it also points to the vast and profound nature of human suffering as reflected in these minor characters’ poverty and drive to steal.