There is no story more formally structured than a legal narrative; there is an audience, narrators, characters, a plot, rules about who can say what when — and, typically, wide room for interpretation. Jerome Bruner writes that, like all tales, a legal narrative reflects Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic Pentad: agent, action, goal, setting and means — but there is some disagreement between the five elements, creating trouble. In fiction, of course, that trouble creates the plot; in everyday life, trouble is grounds for a story recounted later, to friends or family, sometimes again and again. But trouble is a different thing altogether when it is created in a legal setting. “It is the conversion of private Trouble (in Burke’s sense) into public plight that makes well-wrought narrative so powerful, so comforting, so dangerous, so culturally essential” (Bruner 2002:35). Fortunately for lawyers, the trouble created for legal narratives is inherently adversarial; in almost every case, both sides make different claims, and it is up to the audience — sometimes a jury, other times one or more judges — to decide how the story ends.
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. Continue reading “Hardy’s Greatest Tragedy: Isolation, Hope and Rejection in “The Mayor of Casterbridge””