Thomas Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge

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The Mayor of Casterbridge Summary

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The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character (1886) is a novel by Thomas Hardy, an English novelist and poet. Taking place in a fictional rural England sometime in the 1840s, the story follows the exploits of a young hay trucker Michael Henchard as he traverses English social life and struggles to improve his standing. The novel is known for its rich characterization of the pursuit of social and economic mobility in the mid-nineteenth century and its portrait of how personal vices can damage one’s fate.

The novel begins at a country fair in Wessex, a fictional English county. Drunk on rum, twenty-one-year-old Michael Henchard, feuding with his wife, Susan, impulsively auctions her and their baby daughter off for five guineas. The buyer is Richard Newson, a sailor passing through town. Regaining his sobriety the next day, he can no longer retract the sale because they have all departed. He vows to not drink again for the next twenty-one years.

The novel shifts to eighteen years after the tragic sale. Henchard, now a successful merchant of grain, as well as the Mayor of Casterbridge, is well known for his adamance about the virtues of sobriety. Despite this reputation, he has never revealed the event of losing his wife and child; people conclude that he must be a widower.

One day, feeling sick on a business trip to Jersey, Henchard meets Lucetta Le Sueur who gives him medical aid. He falls in love with her, but still never reveals the circumstances of his past marriage, deciding, instead, to claim that Susan had run away and is probably dead. Though Lucetta is wary, she is too infatuated to reject him. He goes back to Casterbridge, leaving Lucetta behind, for the time being, anxious about his past marriage and the fact that he is already technically married.

Lucetta, aware that she should marry Henchard to get back into polite society, is concerned that people will look down on them for negating his existing marriage. Henchard commits to send for Lucetta and ask for her hand in marriage, but Susan suddenly reappears with their daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard learns that her owner, Newson, became lost at sea, forcing Susan to search for him to regain a livelihood.

Susan, adamant that her marriage to Newson is still valid, questions the legitimacy of her marriage to Henchard, but is willing to pretend that it is valid as well. Also arriving in the town is a Scottish man, Donald Farfrae, who works in agricultural science. He becomes Henchard’s friend and later is hired by him. Henchard puts up Susan in a different house, pretending to have just met her so that their marriage seems new and organic. He doesn’t tell Susan about Lucetta, and he informs Lucetta by post that their marriage is canceled.

Farfrae becomes a very popular individual in the town, stirring the jealousy of Henchard. They have a falling out, mostly the fault of Henchard, the less honest and composed of the two. He makes several bad financial decisions that result in the loss of much of his former status. He speaks out in opposition of the news that Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane are engaged. After Susan dies, Henchard learns from her sealed letter that he is not Elizabeth-Jane’s biological father. His daughter died while an infant, and she named her second daughter after her. Henchard no longer resists the marriage. However, he grows cruel to Elizabeth-Jane, never revealing that he is not her father.

Having inherited a large sum of money from a relative, Lucetta appears in Jersey and buys a house in Casterbridge. She tries to get back with Henchard but he resists because it is improper to remarry so soon. She takes in Elizabeth-Jane, hoping to compel Henchard to visit. Meanwhile, Farfrae meets Lucetta and falls in love with her, oblivious to the fact that she is in town to court Henchard. Lucetta reciprocates his love, and questions Henchard’s integrity when news breaks that he sold his first wife. Henchard finally resolves to marry Lucetta to improve his credit. Because she is now in love with Farfrae, she stalls, frustrating Henchard. She goes out of town to marry Farfrae in secret. Henchard’s credit plummets, forcing him to sell off his possessions. In an attempt to help him, Farfrae buys the old businesses, only later being informed that Henchard is malicious towards him.

Lucetta’s prior relationship with Henchard is exposed by town gossips. Lucetta, pregnant at the time, suffers an epileptic seizure from the stress and dies. At the novel’s end, Newson returns from sea. Henchard tells him that Susan is dead. At the same time, his twenty-one-year period of sobriety comes to a close. At the novel’s end, Elizabeth-Jane searches for him, finding that he has died and written a will that asks simply to have no funeral. The Mayor of Casterbridge thus suggests that human vices are pervasive and cyclical, requiring constant emotional investment to suppress. Henchard’s repetition of his vices is symbolized in his failure to ever connect with his daughters, whether biological or not, harboring dysphoria and resentment about the world.