Hardy’s Greatest Tragedy: Isolation, Hope and Rejection in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”
The Mayor of Casterbridge is considered by many critics, including Bert Hornback, who called it “the finest of Hardy’s achievements” and said that “more than any other of Hardy’s works The Mayor of Casterbridge belongs on that short list of masterpieces in the history of English literature” (106), to be Thomas Hardy’s greatest tragedy — not, perhaps, his greatest literary work, but rather his most thematically tragic. Part of that triumph of tragedy is based in the novel’s structure, a departure from previous works such as Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, which focused on multiple characters instead of a single protagonist. “He decided to write for the first time a novel that was not, in any important respect, a love story but one in which he would centre the drama in one person. … Henchard is a full-length portrait, and Hardy truthfully subtitled the novel ‘A Story of a Man of Character.’” (Weber, Hardy of Wessex 146-7). The primary focus of this novel on a single person is apparent from the title itself. The Mayor of Casterbridge is structured to center around isolation; despite the setting in a large town — quite the opposite of Hardy’s normally pastoral settings — Henchard’s rough persona consistently works to generate negative consequences that lead him to tragic isolation. Of course, Henchard’s isolation is not physical, as he lives and works in a crowded urban area, but rather moral and psychological. Henchard continues to isolate himself over and over throughout the novel, but The Mayor of Casterbridge is Hardy’s greatest tragedy not because of the recurring failures to connect with human beings but rather because, at the end of the novel, Henchard finally does reach out and seek a real connection, with Elizabeth-Jane, a relationship she promptly rejects. “Henchard undergoes rebuffs that appear in excess of what his original crime demands, and his punishment appears more than what a basically decent man deserves” (Karl 97). It is in the final chapter — removed, interestingly, by Hardy from the first English edition of the novel before he was convinced to replace it — that the ultimate tragedy in The Mayor of Casterbridge is cemented. An examination of individual tragedies throughout the novel reveals the complementary nature of the final chapter to the overarching tragic theme of isolation. Without those poignant final pages, Henchard would not have suffered his greatest tragedy, and Mayor would have been a typical tragedy at best, rather than arguably Hardy’s, as well as Victorian literature’s, most tragic tale.
The isolationistic tragedy begins in the very first scene, one of the more memorable openings among Hardy’s works. Henchard, with his wife Susan and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane, are trraveling in Wessex, searching for work and shelter. “They walk along the road together, yet alone, and their isolation here foreshadows their inability to connect personally” (Karl 87). They come across a fair near the town of Weydon-Priors and, succumbing to the vice of drunkenness, Henchard wantonly sells his wife for five guineas. This shocking scene in the furmity tent is meant to arouse “such forces of retribution as will not be satisfied with less than the total humiliation of the offender and the ultimate restoration of the order offended” (Paterson 153). The character flaws which lead to this tragedy are many. Foremost is Henchard’s drunkenness, which enables the entire transaction. As often happens in Hardy’s novels, local laborers — the rustic chorus — comment on his drunkenness. “‘Serves the husband well be-right,’ said the staylace vendor. ‘A comely respectable body like her – what can a man want more? I glory in the woman’s sperrit. I’d ha’ done it myself – od send if I wouldn’t, if a husband had behaved so to me!” (44). The tragedies, however, do not conclude with Henchard’s behavior. The situation could certainly have been remedied if either Henchard or Susan had wished; however, shyness, and likely shame over his actions, prevents Henchard from seeking out Susan immediately after the event, when she could more easily be found. “The social, moral and spiritual isolation of Henchard are revealed to be the consequences of his own actions, and even more of his own nature” (Southerington 97). Of course, Susan herself could have returned to him, as she was in no way legally bound to Newson; unfortunately, she is simple and seems unaware of her true status. Besides these multiple failures to remedy the situation that create personal isolation, this shocking incident is temporally isolated from the novel’s main action, set some twenty years later. Ultimately this scene of isolation from his family will recur in the final chapter, but with key thematic differences so that, instead of merely mirroring the opening, the final scene instead builds upon it to offer a more powerful form of isolationistic tragedy.
Henchard’s sabotaged relationships with Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane are further commanding sources of isolation. Henchard and Farfrae became fast friends, but their relationship being almost homoerotic at first — “I am the most distant fellow in the world when I don’t care for a man,” Henchard says. “But when a man takes my fancy he takes it strong” (97) — brings questions about Henchard’s sexuality and whether it were even possible for him to love a woman. Of course, no real evidence exists that Henchard was homosexual — although such a conclusion would not be without merit and would add substantial dimensions to Henchard’s social isolation. Nevertheless, his relationship with Farfrae provides plenty of actions for Henchard’s isolationistic fate. Although at first he welcomed Farfrae to Casterbridge — which the Scotsman had simply been passing through before he was drawn into the grain business and decided to stay — Henchard passive-aggressively sabotages their friendship after Farfrae’s holiday celebration is much better attended by the town and he embarks on a romantic interest in Elizabeth-Jane. “Mr. Farfrae’s time as my manager is drawing to a close — isn’t it, Farfrae?” (141). Farfrae essentially betrays Henchard, which the mayor feels deeply and uses as the basis to transform their friendship into an adversity, and Henchard’s seemingly cold dismissal of his former friend belies a deeper wounding that he cannot, as a gruff person, show publicly. Soon, however, Henchard becomes straightforwardly aggressive in his jabs at Farfrae, leading to a fistfight brought on by his intense jealousy over Farfrae’s popularity with the town and with Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard’s actions toward Farfrae are designed to damage the friendship and create isolation. Elizabeth-Jane was treated much the same way; Henchard’s actions toward her were amicable until he was disappointed by discovering she was not his biological daughter — horrifyingly, immediately after convincing her he is her true father, not Newson. She further hurts Henchard by becoming an attaché to Lucetta, who figures greatly into his feud with Farfrae as she chose him romantically after her relationship with Henchard. As seen previously, the Elizabeth-Jane tragedy is rooted in isolation. No sooner does Henchard reach out to form a real connection with Elizabeth-Jane than he learns that she is not who he thought, not his daughter. This ironic event further drives the theme of isolationistic tragedy.
Hardy’s eventual social isolation, in which he leaves Casterbridge altogether, is centered around his relationship with Elizabeth-Jane. After he lied to her real father, Newson, saying that Elizabeth-Jane was dead, Henchard began feeling a sense of guilt that also made him feel closer to Elizabeth-Jane. Although he was distressed by her desire to marry Farfrae, Henchard was finally driven to depart the town when Elizabeth-Jane shows him a letter, the author unknown to her but correctly assumed to be Newson to Henchard, and asks if she should meet the stranger. Henchard chooses isolation, urges her to meet him and announces his departure. He tells Elizabeth-Jane, “‘I would rather get into the country by myself, out of sight, and follow my own ways, and leave you to yours’” (346). Leaving Casterbridge is Henchard’s final tragic act of isolation, and Hardy almost concluded the novel there, with Henchard walking off into the wilderness. However, the final scene, in which Henchard visits Elizabeth-Jane on her wedding day to seek forgiveness and is rejected, adds a new dimension of isolationistic tragedy to The Mayor of Casterbridge, a dimension that was almost cut by Hardy, a move that would have weakened the novel’s tragic forcefulness.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was first published as a serial, and upon bound publication in England Hardy ended the novel with Henchard’s initial departure from Casterbridge. No longer did he return for Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding to Farfrae; no longer did a caged goldfinch die, forgotten; no longer did Elizabeth-Jane search out Henchard only to find he had died in a pitiful state. The American version of Mayor, however, did contain those final chapters. In the early 1890s, two socialite sisters, Rebekah and Catharine Owen — perhaps best described as devoted Hardy fans — visited England and were startled to find the truncated dénouement in the English edition. Rebekah was particularly saddened at the loss of the goldfinch scene, “‘that saddest incident in fiction, the slow starvation of the little bird which he [Henchard] brought to give her’” (Weber, Hardy in America, 120). Having already shoehorned their way into the Hardy’s social sphere, the sisters set about to convince Hardy to restore the ending. Hardy said he thought the structure weakened by Henchard’s two departures, but Rebekah convinced him otherwise, and the goldfinch and environs were restored in 1895 [Ironically, Hardy thanked Rebekah for convincing him to revoke his alteration by renaming a character after her in the new 1895 edition of his 1884 short story, “Interlopers at the Knap.”].
That final passage proves key to making Mayor the all-consuming tragedy it is widely considered to be. One of the passage’s most obvious features is its structural and symbolic reflection of the opening chapter’s wife-selling scene. In both, Hardy is made isolated, and in both birds play important symbolic roles. As Southerington points out, the swallow which temporarily distracted bystanders from Henchard’s attempts to sell his wife strengthened that isolationistic tragedy because it provided Henchard a chance to not make the mistake of selling his wife.
Here at least Henchard is afforded an opportunity to avoid an action whose consequences will later enmesh him. At the end of the novel he brings Elizabeth-Jane a caged bird, which like him dies. We have here a symbolic link, and it is not difficult to see Henchard as a creature, initially free, but now caged by the consequences of his own deeds, a pattern of consequence which appears (unusually for Hardy’s novels) to possess its own necessary justice. The caged bird, dying, is like Henchard a sacrifice to Elizabeth-Jane’s happiness. (99)
Establishing the happiness of the other characters, and particularly Elizabeth-Jane, is an important role of the final scene because it portrays the tragedy within a reality that contains happiness as well. “The fact that Henchard’s tragedy is presented against a more cheerful background adds to its impressiveness. We are shown a world which is not all sorrow and evil — which contains virtuous people, leading reasonably happy lives. The world Jude lives in is a world without joy” (Cecil 191). Tragedy in a world of tragedy is no longer different or unique, simply the norm. Presented within a more comedic context, however, tragedy becomes all the more lamentable.
The scene in which he prostrates himself before Elizabeth-Jane carries as much emotional weight as any other Hardyan passage. “She flushed up, and gently drew her hand away. ‘I could have loved you always – I would have, gladly,’ she said. ‘But how can I when I know you have deceived me so – so bitterly deceived me!’” (361). Henchard briefly considers making an appeal to her rejection, a protestation that he thought she was his daughter when he told her such, that lying to Newson showed he valued her love more than his honor. Instead, displaying his new sense of complete isolation and tragic loss bordering on despair, he relents, and Hardy utilizes his sacrifice to delve into the depths of Henchard’s feelings of inferiority and sorrow. “Among the many hindrances to such a pleading not the least was this, that he did not sufficiently value himself to lessen his sufferings by strenuous appeal or elaborate argument” (361). This passage is enormously important as it removes any impetus for Henchard to be viewed pitifully; Henchard does not pity himself but rather truly believes himself to be unworthy of Elizabeth-Jane’s, or in reality anyone’s, love. These feelings of true despair are more strongly represented later in Henchard’s isolationistic will. In reacting to Elizabeth-Jane’s rejection Henchard also foreshadows his later death. “‘I have done wrong in coming to ‘ee – I see my error. But it is only for once, so forgive it. I’ll never trouble ‘ee again, Elizabeth-Jane – no, not to my dying day! Good-night. Good-bye!’” (361).
Henchard’s return adds a new dimension of isolation to his tragedy, making it the most tragic of all Hardy’s works. Returning to ask forgiveness and seek companionship among the one person he feels close to shows an intense change in Henchard’s character which allows for the reintroduction of tragedy’s greatest enemy: hope. It could have been entirely in character for Henchard to simply walk into the wilderness and never return, but by returning to Casterbridge he seeks to overcome the isolation that has defined his life. Elizabeth-Jane’s rejection, then, seals his tragic, isolationistic perspective of life, and Henchard “is made to appear more sinned against than sinning” (Draper 144). Furthermore, his rejection removes any possible way to view Henchard with either pity or contempt; this rejection confirms Henchard’s status as a tragic figure.
The man who cast out love now pines for love. Elizabeth-Jane is too unimaginative and unforgiving to understand the situation when this penitent man, guilty of having deceived her from love of her companionship, arrives to congratulate her and Farfrae on their marriage. A shorn Samson, saddened by experience, he leaves, feeling rejected and making no effort at self-extenuation. His gift, a caged goldfinch, is later found starved to death, like all his hopes. Only then does she begin to understand. (Pinion 228-9)
The final chapters emphasize Henchard’s isolation more strongly than a subdued departure, instead portraying his isolation as created by intentional rejection. Ian Gregor argues that the final chapters also serve to contrast Henchard’s gruesomeness with Elizabeth-Jane’s happiness. “And so we find the chapter reaching out towards that balance of contraries so characteristic of the novel as a whole. And reaching out in a way that quite naturally will employ the rhetoric which conveys a classical ending to an archetypal story — the marriage and wedding feast on the one hand, the exclusion of the disruptive force on the other” (126). This dichotomy reflects Cecil’s assertion that The Mayor of Casterbridge is made more intensely tragic by the contrast provided by Hardy between the tragedy of Henchard’s life and the general aura of happiness surrounding him. The period focusing on Henchard and his hopes to reconcile with Elizabeth-Jane sees him step away from isolation into the nebulous grey area between tragedy and comedy. “If throughout the opening portion of The Mayor of Casterbridge both nature and the course of events seem joined in support of the reassuring belief that the good shall prosper and the wicked fail, the remainder of the novel seems designed to reveal with progressively greater clarity that the fable is false” (Draper 144). The falseness of the tragic fable only strengthens the conclusion, which has been made all the more darker by the introduction of hope and the possibility of reconciliation.
Of course, Henchard’s rejection requires proof that it truly breaks him; otherwise, the entire scene with Elizabeth-Jane is left unfulfilled. Henchard’s will serves as post-mortem proof of his sincere feelings of inferiority and isolation. It lists final requests, including: “Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae not be told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me,” “that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground,” “that no murners walk behind me at my funeral,” “that no flours be planted on my grave,” and, finally, “that no man remember me” (367). The final line is one that “only a writer who had known the depths of hopelessness could have conceived” (Pinion 229). Henchard’s wish that no man remember him alludes to Elizabeth-Jane’s words shortly after learning the truth from Newson: “I said I would never forget him. But O! I think I ought to forget him now!” (351). Although the will and its morbid demands is seemingly melodramatic and self-pitying, presented in the context of The Mayor of Casterbridge’s overwhelming tragedies it transforms into a new understanding of Henchard’s complete pain.
With Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy has presented his most tragic character in his most tragic novel. The novel itself is solidly built; Dale Kramer argues that Mayor’s form is the tightest in all of Hardy’s literature. “In this novel, to a greater degree than in Hardy’s other works, every expression — not just Elizabeth-Jane’s concluding remarks — circles back to the fundamental meaning of the story” (91). The tragedy of Hardy’s well-formed novel concentrates around isolation, which for Henchard is often brought about by various character flaws. “Henchard… is a pathetic figure, born with an unfortunate disposition but genuinely longing to do right, tortured by remorse when he does wrong, and always defeated by some unlucky stroke of Fate” (Cecil 39). To be sure, Henchard is not Hardy’s most likeable or identifiable character — an honor which likely falls to Tess or Jude. Henchard is vindictive, prone to violence and unstable, among other massive character flaws, but ultimately he is portrayed sympathetically, not pathetically.
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