The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy


Summary Chapters XXXI–XXXIV

At home, Farfrae laments to Lucetta that Henchard dislikes him. Afraid that he will learn of her former involvement with Henchard, she urges him to move away from Casterbridge. As they discuss this plan, however, one of the town’s aldermen comes to their house to inform them that the newly elected mayor has just died. He asks Farfrae if he will accept the position; Farfrae agrees to do so.

Lucetta asks Henchard once again to return her letters. Realizing that the letters are locked in the safe of his old house, Henchard calls on Farfrae one evening to retrieve them and, while there, reads several letters to Farfrae. Farfrae still does not know that Lucetta wrote the letters, and so he listens to Henchard politely but with little interest. Tempted as he is to reveal the author of the corres-pondence, Henchard cannot bring himself to ruin Farfrae and Lucetta’s marriage.

Analysis: Chapters XXXI–XXXIV

After word spreads of the furmity-woman’s accusation, it is remarkable how quickly and completely Henchard “passe[s] the ridge of prosperity and honour and [begins] to descend on the other side.” Whereas he earlier enjoys a position of prominence as the mayor of the town, he now stands on a bridge where thwarted lovers and other desperate figures contemplate suicide. Henchard’s desperation has much to do with Farfrae and his successes, which seem like some sort of betrayal to Henchard, who helped Farfrae establish himself in Casterbridge. Since Farfrae’s introduction, he and Henchard have moved steadily in opposite directions, the former toward prosperity and achievement, the latter toward failure and obscurity. In these chapters, where Farfrae purchases the debt--ridden Henchard’s home and business, the transition is complete. Whatever bright eminence the former mayor enjoyed is now eclipsed by his protégé’s development, as the refurbished sign outside the grain market makes clear: “A smear of decisive lead-coloured paint had been laid on to obliterate Henchard’s name, though its letters dimly loomed through like ships in a fog. Over these, in fresh white, spread the name of Farfrae.”

We can understand why Henchard would wish not to live with the man he considers his archrival, let alone with his ex-lover, but his refusal of Farfrae’s charity is, as these chapters illustrate, more a function of his character than an aspect of his relationship with Farfrae. Henchard does everything to an extreme: he cannot merely be dissatisfied with married life but, instead, must feel the need to sell his wife; he cannot drink responsibly but, instead, must swear off liquor for twenty-one years, only to return to it with an alcoholic’s vengeance. Similarly, just as his emotions for Farfrae run hot or cold, his extreme contempt for Elizabeth-Jane becomes a boundless and needy love. The extremity of Henchard’s passions is, in large part, responsible for the severity of his fall. Hardy, appropriating the words of the eighteenth-century German writer Novalis, stresses that “[c]haracter is Fate.” Henchard’s response to his bankruptcy hearing validates such a hypothesis. His extreme emotions and inability to compromise or show restraint lead him to sell his last valuable possession, his gold watch. Thus, an honorable act launches him further into poverty and despair.

Henchard’s behavior remains consistent throughout the novel. He does not undergo a significant change, nor does he learn from his past mistakes and alter his ways. Farfrae’s plan to purchase a small seed store for Henchard to manage shows that Farfrae does believe that such change is possible. Ultimately, though, the novel adheres to a philosophy of determinism, which suggests that human beings are never free enough to exert their own will on the universe. Instead, there are forces that determine the course of every human life, regardless of human desire. As Henchard observes: “See now how it’s ourselves that are ruled by the Powers above us! We plan this, but we do that.”