An Analysis of The Mayor of Casterbridge
The plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy, can often be
confusing and difficult to follow. The pages of this novel are filled with sex,
scandal, and alcohol, but it provides for a very interesting and unique story.
It all begins one day in the large Wessex village of Weydon-Priors. Michael
Henchard, a young hay-trusser looking for work, enters the village with his wife
and infant daughter. What follows next, is certainly a little out of the
ordinary, and this book provides and interesting plot, that is sure to brighten
up any boring day.
Michael Henchard, looking for something to drink, enters into a tent
where an old woman is selling furmity, a liquid pudding made of boiled wheat,
eggs, sugar, and spices. Henchard consumes too many bowls of furmity spiked with
rum. Feeling trapped by his marriage and under the influence, Henchard threatens
to auction his family. The auction begins as a kind of cruel joke, but Susan
Henchard in anger retaliates by leaving with a sailor who makes the highest bid.
Henchard regrets his decision the next day, but he is unable to find his family.
Exactly eighteen years pass. Susan and her daughter Elizabeth-Jane come
back to the fair, seeking news about Henchard. The sailor has been lost at sea,
and Susan is returning to her "rightful" husband. At the infamous furmity tent,
they learn Henchard has moved to Casterbridge, where he has become a prosperous
grain merchant and even mayor. When Henchard learns that his family has returned,
he is determined to right his old wrong. He devises a plan for courting and
marrying Susan again, and for adopting her daughter.
A young Scotsman named Donald Farfrae enters Casterbridge on the same
day as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard takes an instant liking to the total
stranger and convinces Farfrae to stay on in Casterbridge as his right-hand man.
Henchard even tells Farfrae the two greatest secrets of his life: the sale of
his wife and the affair he has had with a Jersey woman, Lucetta. Henchard is
confused as to how to make good on his bad acts.
Henchard remarries Susan, who dies soon afterward, leaving behind a
letter to be opened on Elizabeth-Jane's wedding day. Henchard reads the letter
and learns that his real daughter died in infancy and that the present
Elizabeth-Jane is actually Susan and the sailor's daughter. Henchard also grows
jealous of Farfrae's rising influence in both Henchard's business and in
Casterbridge. The two men quarrel and Henchard fires Farfrae, who then sets up a
successful competing grain business. Henchard is rapidly going bankrupt, after
several bad business deals.
Soon after Susan's death, Lucetta Templeman, Henchard's former lover,
comes to Casterbridge to marry Henchard. In order to provide Henchard with a
respectable reason for visiting her, Lucetta suggests that Elizabeth-Jane move
in with her. Henchard tries to force Lucetta to marry him, but she is unwilling.
She has fallen in love with Farfrae and soon marries him. Henchard's business
and love life are failing; his social position in Casterbridge is also eroding.
The final blow comes when the woman who ran the furmity tent in Weydon-Priors is
arrested in Casterbridge. When she spitefully reveals Henchard's infamous
auctioning of his wife and child, Henchard surprisingly admits his guilt. The
news, which is harmful to Henchard's reputation, rapidly travels through the
town. Henchard is soon bankrupt and forced by his poverty to become Farfrae's
employee. He moves to the poorest section of town.
Farfrae and Lucetta buy Henchard's old house and furniture. The Scotsman
then completes his embarrassment of Henchard by becoming mayor of Casterbridge.
Later, Henchard challenges Farfrae to a fight to the death. Henchard is on the
verge of winning when he comes to his senses and gives up. As the mayor's wife,
Lucetta becomes the stylish and important woman she has longed to be. But she
fears her secret affair with Henchard, if revealed, might destroy her marriage
to Farfrae. She begs Henchard to return the damning letters she had written him
years before. Henchard finds the letters in his old house and reads some of them
to Farfrae. He intends to reveal their author as well but relents at the last
minute. Later, he asks Jopp, a former employee, to deliver the letters to
Lucetta. Henchard doesn't realize Jopp hates both him and Lucetta. Jopp shares
the letters with some of the lowlife of the town. Lucetta sees herself paraded
in mimicry, and the shock kills her.
Henchard reconciles with Elizabeth-Jane, who continues to believe
Henchard is her father. He sees his final chance for happiness crumbling,
however, when Elizabeth-Jane's real father, the sailor Newson, comes to
Casterbridge to find his daughter. Henchard lies to the sailor, telling him
Elizabeth-Jane died soon after her mother's death. Newson leaves, but Henchard
worries that the sailor might return to reclaim Elizabeth-Jane. During the
following year, Henchard's life becomes fairly settled. He lives with Elizabeth-
Jane and runs a small seed store. Farfrae begins flirting with Elizabeth-Jane,
and the two plan to marry. Then the sailor returns, and Henchard flees
Henchard appears at Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae's wedding to deliver a
present. Elizabeth-Jane spurns him, and Henchard sees that Newson has taken over
as father of the bride--a role Henchard can never play. He leaves Casterbridge
broken-hearted. A few days later, Elizabeth-Jane discovers Henchard's present, a
bird in a cage. The unattended bird has died of starvation. Touched, she and
Farfrae go in search of Henchard. Too late, they learn he has just died in the
hovel where he had been living with the humblest of his former employees. The
young couple read Henchard's pitiful will, in which Henchard asks that no one
As one can see, to often scandal can end in tragedy, as in the case of
poor Michael Henchard. He lived a risky life, and paid for his mistakes in the
end. The Mayor of Casterbridge proves to be an interesting novel, that
provides everything modern day critics hope to keep out of the hands of children.
The book proved to be at times, quite exegesis, but the plot is presented well,
and the settings described beautifully. Thomas Hardy creates a masterpiece in
describing the rise and fall of one Michael Henchard.