When Professor Lesley Goodman left St. Paul to undertake her new responsibilities in the English Department at Union College, she left a long reading list of Victorian novels and modernist literature for me to continue my pursuits. I am slowly following up, though I greatly miss her helping hand. She is an inspired teacher of literature.
In her course on the Victorian novel at Macalester College I reveled in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (made it to the end!) and Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (oh, Tess!). First on Professor Goodman’s list for me was The Mayor of Casterbridge. Having just completed it, I want to offer a few cursory notes on the novel for the common reader — “the common reader” whom Virginia Woolf found in Samuel Johnson’s “Life of Gray” — looking for a break from the news of the day
I am afraid that serious commenters on the novel do not necessarily agree with what I have to say. I think John Hinderaker originally recommended the novel to me several years ago; I doubt that he agrees with what I have to say. In my own notes here I will slight all characters but Henchard. I urge interested readers to explore the novel on their own. It is worth your time.
One of my favorite movies is One-Eyed Jacks (video at bottom of this post). The only movie Marlon Brando directed, it stars Brando and Karl Malden in ferocious performances. An emotionally involving Western, the story features betrayal, revenge and love. Set in Mexico and coastal California, the film draws beautifully on the power of the medium. Running over two hours, it luxuriates in the story. Watching it the first time in a comfortable college auditorium as I did in 1969, I didn’t want it to end.
The film tells the story of Rio (Brando) and Dad (Malden). In Mexico, Rio and Dad were partners in crime. On the run from Mexican authorities after a bank robbery, Dad leaves Rio behind to be captured while Dad saves his own skin. After rotting in a Mexican prison for years, Rio escapes and makes his way north to California. There he finds his former partner in crime to have turned a new leaf. The former bank robber is now the sheriff of the town. He’s a man with a past. Rio has several memorable lines but none better than this one to Dad: “You may be a one eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face.”
Reading The Mayor of Casterbridge, I was struck by its resemblance in broad outline to One-Eyed Jacks, though the polarity is reversed. In One-Eyed Jacks, the unreformed Rio is the center of gravity; in The Mayor of Casterbridge, it’s the reformed man with a secret past. That man is Michael Henchard.
Henchard is an unhappily married laborer with a wife and child. The novel opens with Henchard falling into a drunken rage in which he sells his wife for five guineas; the child was thrown in for free.
Henchard is consumed with remorse. He vows to abstain from drink for twenty-one years.
Fast forward 20 years. Henchard has become a successful businessman and the mayor of Casterbridge (Dorchester) in the heart of Wessex (Dorset), Hardy’s “realistic dream country.”
The novel is full of incident and coincidence, betraying its publication in serial form prior to its appearance as a book. Hardy subtitles it “The Life and Death of a Man of Character.” It is more a study in character. Henchard is a victim of his own compulsive anger. He suffers from moods in which he is possessed by his anger.
Alcohol seems to me not to be the root of this problem; drinking exacerbates his anger. Hardy proves himself to be a profound psychologist as he reveals the mind of his doomed protagonist. Henchard can’t help himself.
At one point Henchard shows remarkable self-awareness. He observes with understatement less than halfway through the novel: “I am to suffer, I perceive.”
In music Henchard finds a power to soothe his troubled soul: “With Henchard music was of regal power. The merest trumpet or organ tone was enough to move him, and high harmonies transubstantiated him. But fate had ordained that he should be unable to call up this Divine spirit in his need.”
Henchard is not only the protagonist of the novel, he is the novel’s only rounded character. Hardy remorselessly traces Henchard’s path to self-annihilation. It is a path that culminates in Henchard’s will. Referring to his “daughter” Elizabeth Jane, Henchard provides:
That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground.
&that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
&that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
&that no murners [sic] walk behind me at my funeral.
&that no flours [sic] be planted on my grave.
& that no man remember me.
To this I put my name.
But for the immortality with which Hardy endows him here, the extinction is absolute.
I find Hardy to be an awkward writer of great power. At times it seems to me that he writes like English is his second language. Nevertheless, Hardy’s power prevails. Henchard is an unforgettable character.
It helps to read Hardy in an edition with good notes. I used the Penguin Classics edition, which draws on the first published edition of the novel in book form with notes providing textual variants as well as explanations of difficult passages. I found the notes annoying in their mixture of textual variants with explanatory material. I want them separated. Hardy fiddled with the text over the years. I also wish I had read the book in a later edition more clearly reflecting Hardy’s true conception of the story.
The novel got me thinking again about the one-eyed jacks in the realm of current politics. It returned me slightly more aware, and more self-aware, to the real world.
JOHN adds: It has been some years now since I read The Mayor of Casterbridge, but I loved the book. There are actually, as I recall, two mayors of Casterbridge, Henchard and Farfrae, a man who is in some ways Henchard’s opposite. As I read the book, I thought that of the thousands of books I have read in my life, in Henchard I encountered, for the first time, a character with whom I really identified. No doubt that observation would surprise my friends, as there is not a lot of superficial resemblance. But it testifies to the power of Hardy’s portrayal.