on 22 August 2009
Loved this book - what a great story showing all the various elements of the human character - greed, love, hate, struggles for power..... I could go on.
It is also a human tragedy, explained at its best by the inimitable Hardy and although it was written many years ago, it does show that human nature remains very much the same as it always was and you could almost put it into a modern setting and alter the scenery a little and it would be up-to-date, so to speak.
All of Hardy's books are great (I was first introduced to them whilst studing for 'O' Levels in the 1950's and have continued to read them again and again since)and although the grammar and syntax are quite dissimilar to that of today they are easy to read and the stories are great.
When I began this book I have to admit that I didn't think the three words I'd be using to describe it would be drama, excitement and intrigue . In fact, I really had no intention of reading this book at all any time soon as a friend of mine had to study it in school as a teenager and told me it's the worst book she's ever read and that had stayed with me and filed into the "don't bother" part of my brain. So then, just before Christmas I saw or heard something about this book and that it was about a man who sells his wife and baby daughter at a fayre and immediately I thought that sounds intriguing and off I popped to pick up a copy. How glad I am that I did - The Mayor of Casterbridge has turned out to be one of my favourite books! I loved it!
Michael Henchard is a young man of twenty-one and walking the countryside of Dorset with his wife, Susan, and their baby girl, Elizabeth-Jane, looking for work. They decide to rest a while in a small village where there is a fayre and several drinks later, Michael starts loudly asking for bidders to buy his wife. After accepting 5 guineas from a sailor he wakes later to realise that they have actually gone and when he realises what he has done he swears not to drink a drop more of alcohol for another 21 years (as long as he has so far lived). He starts to make enquiries about where the sailor and his family may have gone but nobody knows who he is and Michael is too ashamed of his conduct to search too effectively and he sets off on the road once more, alone.
The story then fast-forwards eighteen years and Michael is now the Mayor of Casterbridge (modelled on Dorchester in Dorset). It's difficult to say more about what happens next as I really don't want to give it away - this book is much better read if you know nothing about the characters and what is to come yet as there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. The fuller title for The Mayor of Casterbridge is The Life and Death of a Man of Character, and that is really what this book is based around - Michael Henchard and his fall and rise (and fall again). The main cast of characters is small enough that we really get to know them well and care about them: Susan and Elizabeth-Jane become part of the story again as does a Scottish traveller looking for work, Donald Farfrae and a young lady, Lucetta Templeman, who gets caught up in something that will come back to haunt her in a big way later in the book.
Henchard really is a man of character, as the title suggests, and he is prone to jealousy, impulsiveness and malice but in turn he can be caring, warm and reflective meaning that the reader never hates him, but actually feels for him as he is his own harshest critic. What astounded me was Hardy's understanding of human nature: time and time again I was amazed that he had managed to get it so spot on; to really make me feel as the characters did and understand why they behaved the way they did.
What I really loved about this book, though, was the drama. This is why I love all the Victorian books I have read so far - they're like watching a soap-opera. The Mayor of Casterbridge has it all - love, hate, greed, jealousy, deceit and repentence. And watch out for a scene involving a skimmington-ride (what the Victorians - and those before them - used to do to humiliate people, particularly adulterous women or women who beat their husbands which involved a very rowdy and public parade with effigies of the persons concerned being ridden through town on the back of donkeys) which has extremely tragic consequences.
Verdict: I heart Thomas Hardy! This is the second book of his that I have read (the first being Tess) and I now fully intend to gorge myself on the rest this year. Forget your pre-conceptions about dry and dull Victorian literature - this book has it all! A firm favourite now and one I will definitely read again at some point.
on 6 April 2000
I received this book as a Christmas present along with various other books. I left this one to last because I thought it might be hard going. It turned out to be one of the best books I've ever read, The characters are brilliant, my interest was held the whole way through, and it most definately wasn't a hard read. Now forTess of the D'urbervilles!
on 29 September 2009
Beginning a Hardy novel is always something of a bittersweet experience. The characters are slowly and carefully introduced, the scene beautifully and evocatively set and quickly you find yourself deeply immersed in nineteenth-century Wessex. And yet, even as you begin to feel yourself almost a part of the story you are filled with a sense of imminent doom. That a protagonist, possibly several, will die, is an absolute given. Hardy's fascination with predestination, whether or not it exists and whether or not, if it does exist, we humans have any agency to influence it, is starkly revealed here. In Michael Henchard he creates a man full of `character', displaying, by turns, impetuosity, reflection , malice, regret, hate and love. If some of these appear contradictory then this is because they are, because such contradictions lie in all people, particularly warm-blooded, instinctive people like Henchard. Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of it he is unable to prevent himself tumbling inexorably towards tragedy.
No clear conclusions about the nature of fate are reached. It is not clear, at least not to me, what Hardy really thought about it, but it is very apparent that he meditated deeply on the subject.
There is much more to this novel besides, the town of Casterbridge, with its Roman ruins, agrarian economy and civic machinations, is brought beautifully to life. Moreover, in addition to Henchard, Hardy introduces us to several other very memorable characters, not least Elizabeth-Jane who is arguably the novel's true hero or heroine. Quietly, solidly she observes, reads and grows until finally she achieves a degree of happiness that is forever denied to most of those around her, including of course Henchard, her unfortunate `father'. Not an easy read by any standards, but the characters and themes in this book are sure to linger with you long after you close the final page
on 18 June 2016
Hardy was a talented writer and his evocation of nature and country life is usually quite brilliantly done. This novel does again bring his nostalgic countryside world to life; however, the twists and turns of the story make this seem like an oddly well-written soap opera, rather than a great novel. Often the plotting and coincidence lack credibility, with the net effect that you lose any real interest in the characters as they are pushed this way and that for the purposes of the author. Well written, but overall, an empty kind of story.
on 31 August 2015
I can't deny that the novel is a page-turner. Unlike many Victorian novels which were more slices of life, Hardy always created a strong dramatic core for his novels. Drunkard Michael Henchard sells his wife Susan and infant daughter Elizabeth-Jane at a fair; fast-forward many years and his wife returns with the daughter, who is now a young woman. Henchard has improved his social position considerably as the mayor of Casterbridge but this past action reveals many secrets and causes many twists of fate that will ultimately cause his downfall.
For me, Hardy is at his best when in a romantic mode; even though romance is confined to a subplot, moments such as when Henchard's Scottish protegee Donald Farfrae blows hay off Elizabeth-Jane's shoulder show that Hardy is still the master at subtle eroticism. Romance is far from Henchard's mind; his greatest and most tempestuous love is his patriarchal feelings for Elizabeth-Jane. He is though not too dissimilar to Jude Fawley in that his noble nature is undone by baser actions. I think that Henchard is a much better version of this Hardy archetype; his weaknesses are more human, despite the initial action.
As for female characters, Hardy's speciality, Elizabeth-Jane is a great creation- one of the strongest and sweetest women that Hardy wrote. Lucetta Templeman, whilst she is pitiable in some respects, is irritating in others; Donald Farfrae, Henchard's friend and rival, is ultimately a bit bland. The characters of Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane go some way in compensating for this but I prefer novels like Far From The Madding Crowd, where there is a plethora of interesting multi-layered characters.
I have the Oxford World's Classics edition. The introduction is interesting and raises some interesting objections to standard beliefs about the novel, such as how much fate has to play in Henchard's downfall. Whilst circumstances certainly act agaist him, Henchard's jealousies and temper are ultimately to blame. We see him repeat the same pattern of love, altered by temper but never fully obliterated by it, with multiple characters. This is an interesting change in Hardy's writing; his other characters relate to different characters in different ways but Henchard's relations with people are largely consistent. Psychologically he feels one of the most plausible of Hardy's creations; those who believe Hardy's characters are too much the victims of fate and their own misery/naivety will enjoy the novel. It's easy to forget that a Hardy novel, even if it's not your favourite, is still one of the greatest and most modern pieces of Victorian literature.
on 4 July 2008
This for me is Hardy's greatest novel, written at the peak of his career. The character of Henchard, although deeply flawed, nonetheless captures the reader's attention both during and after reading the novel. His journey from young and despondent husband and father, through to his time as the mayor and his eventual demise, prove most gripping. This novel along with Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native make up Hardy's tragic Wessex novels, and although all of them are rather sad and to an extent depressing, The Mayor of Casterbridge really does stand out as the most satisfying read that chronicles the shift away from older models of masculinity towards the beginnings of modernity that Hardy himself lived through during his long life. Don't forget about the genius of this man's writing!
on 4 July 2016
There is a chunk of the book missing so I had to try and work out what had happened. Hardy's writing is brilliant as expected but the plot is rather odd and it is hard in 2016 to work out what all the fuss is about which causes a scandal. I personally would not bother to read this ever again. It is OK but nothing to get excited about. It is about a man who sells his wife and child and then regrets it. He becomes Mayor of Casterbridge and is doing well until he persuades another man to stop and work for him.
on 19 April 2001
Henchard, the Colossus that dominates the town of Casterbridge is a titan with feet of clay.The 'respectable', feared Mayor and magistrate who judges his peers and minnions with a rough arcadian justice cannot escape the harpy that is fate pursuing him. Though he may try to make amends and regret the heartless, brutal recklessness of his youth, fate is slowly bringing the pieces of his denouncement together. He may pose as a modern man but beneath this veneer, the superstitious,unschooled rural yeoman remains - resorting to soothsayers in a moment of weakness,unable to muster the diplomatic skills of his rivals and tempted by grog and violence. The humulity and honesty with which he bears his final fate and his herculean attempts to discipline himself bear witness to a tortured soul, driven finally usunder by his contrary urges of passion and dimly observed Christianity ethics. In the end he is as a pathetic figure, pathetic as his wedding gift, a man who is unable to rise beyond his nature and doomed by fate to bitter regret.
on 15 September 2016
When I was at school I hated Thomas Hardy and didn't understand a word. I was in my early teens then and now in my fifties I thought it was time to take another look. I love this book - the story line was so compelling I couldn't put it down. A little dated now in the dialogue but I found it be a page turner even though it was written quite some time ago.
I now love the work of Thomas Hardy and will read all the others. Interesting how our tastes change over time....