One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reach one third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot.
That the man and woman were husband and wife, and the parents of the girl in arms, there could be little doubt. No other than such relationship would have accounted for the atmosphere of domesticity which the trio carried along with them like a nimbus as they moved down the road.
And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.
The Mayor of Casterbridge
A Hardy roller-coaster
I don't know if it's still being taught to teenagers but The Mayor of Casterbridge turned me off Thomas Hardy for many years after studying it in high school. It was just too melodramatic, too full of ridiculous coincidences and twists of fate, like a soap opera, I thought. And way too old-fashioned. What did I care about some British townspeople, like i another century, getting all hot and bothered over some persona intrigues?
But the films Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess brought me back to Hardy years later to give him another chance and, after reading the book the first film was based on, I went on to other Hardy, finding it all surprisingly absorbing. I still put off the dreaded Mayor of Casterbridge though, until it was almost all I had left to reread of Hardy.
And then to my great puzzlement I found it the best of all. What had I been reading in school? How could it be so different now?
Each year that I've grow older since then, I've found myself appreciating Hardy more. I realize my saying this is not going to endear him to young readers—quite the opposite. But somehow Hardy seems more realistic when one has more life experience to catch up to his enduring insights into the human condition.
That's a mouthful. But as an aging adult, I am no longer concerned about the unlikelihood of the coincidences and the artificiality of the cruel fortunes that affect his characters. These are just unimportant narrative devices to make possible the real drama—be it physical battle or psychological conflict.
And what a roller-coaster of conflict and mental anguish The Mayor of Casterbridge provides.
It starts when the country labourer Michael Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife and young daughter to a sailor at a village fair for five guineas. When he sobers up and realizes what a horrendous thing he's done, he goes looking for them, but he learns the wife, daughter and sailor have left the country. Repentant, he swears off alcohol. Over the years he works hard, becomes rich and eventually is elected the mayor of Casterbridge. But then his wife and her grown-up daughter show up, his reputation is threatened and....
Well, all that just barely sets the scene. There are plenty more characters, more scandal, business and political intrigue, ill-fated love affairs, and at least two surprising revelations that I bet you won't see coming.
But, as seemingly unsympathetic as the main character Henchard is, we feel conflicted about him throughout, as he passes through remorse, pride, obstinacy, vengefulness, resentment, jealousy and humiliation. He'd be a great Shakespearean tragic character, a King Lear perhaps, except like many of Hardy's characters he seldom verbalizes his emotions—no howling against the elements for him. No other character in Casterbridge either, except perhaps the daughter, is depicted with completely pure motives—purely good, purely self-serving or otherwise. The reader's empathy is tossed back and forth, trampled on and then redeemed when least expected.
After all this blathering I feel I still have not explained very well why I long ago gave up my old idea of The Mayor of Casterbridge as an unbelievable and boring soap opera. Read it to see for yourself.
And if you don't get it, wait a few more years, give yourself time to grow wiser about the world, and try it again.
— Eric McMillan