Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

I read this as a part of the Back to Classics Challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much. This is a "classic set in a place you're unlikely to visit" : Wessex, England, because it's fictional :)

Summary: Earlier: Michael Henchard, a common hay-trusser, gets drunk at a country fair and sells his wife and daughter to another man for five guineas. Susan, believing the sale to be binding and legal, goes off with the sailor, whom she considers to be her new husband. The next morning, realizing his mistake, Henchard swears off drinking for the next twenty one years.
At Present: Susan, after the seeming death of her husband (the sailor) sets off to find Henchard. She is accompanied by her eighteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who still believes the sailor to be her real father. Reaching the town of Casterbridge, the mother and daughter find out that Henchard is now a wealthy merchant, and also, the Mayor of the town. The story progresses as Susan and her old husband plan to get together, without letting their daughter know their little secret.

My Thoughts: About a month ago we were having a discussion in drama class about Macbeth, and how it was his choices that led to his destruction and that he chose his destiny. Someone mentioned deus ex machina and that led to a conversation about Thomas Hardy. I read this book because we were supposed to compare Shakespearean tragedies with the tragic novels written by Hardy. I do believe in fate; rather, our inability to change it. But I also think that life gives us this illusion of control, the right to make choices. Whether these do affect/shape our fate is another point entirely, but I believe in accepting and exercising that right and making the correct choices. I don't think our life is a haphazard network of incidents over which we have no command. I genuinely don't believe our lives are like any of Hardy's poor old characters.

Throughout the novel, any major plot change occurs only due to some supposed accident or a convenient death or disappearance. I think a plot should work itself out, develop from the inside. After a certain number of pages, the writer shouldn't have to introduce any major events that aren't controlled by his characters. I don't agree with that very basic thing that the book tries to reinforce: that nothing, including redemption, is really in our hands - that "happiness (is) but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain." (Say it were true, which I don't think it is, even then - I would like my books to provide me with an inkling of that happiness rather than a 300-page-long description of that pain that I apparently suffer all the time.) The idea is depressing and so is the novel.

None of the characters stood out or made any strong impression on me. Michael Henchard is a petty coward and there's nothing pleasing about him whatsoever (though that was how he was supposed to be.) I was particularly annoyed by all female characters in the novel and the only words used to describe them: weak, plain, simple, dull. At one point, Henchard actually tells his wife that he doesn't blame her for not understanding, that he knows that she can't help being so simple - or something of the sort. I know I ought to put such things in context, relate them to the time when the book was written, but it is just too condescending and irritating to ignore. Ever Donald Farfrae, one of the better characters, was ultimately just a flimsy author's puppet used to keep the story in motion.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was not too long and it was also easy to read. I actually loved the style of writing. But does that really even matter? I finally read Hamlet, and I do think that tragedy as a result of bad choices works much better than tragedy as a result of just plain bad luck. What do you think?

2 comments:

Bookworm Belle said...

Hardy has written many books I've loved, mostly because they were literary soap operas, saturated with drama. But I agree that with him, tragic events are often the driving force of the story. Emily Dickinson was like that, and I'd even go so far as to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald was, too. It isn't something I like in a book, because it's so hopeless. I prefer the flawed protagonist that makes bad choices, it seems that the author's message is so much more powerful that way. When it comes to plots like that of The Mayor Of Casterbridge (mind you, I haven't read that one yet), I feel like it's too passive, a sort of cop-out on the author's part. I'm interested to know what you think of (or would think of) Sophocles' Oepdipus The King. The play sparked some discussion amongst family members of mine about fate vs. choice and whatnot. Have you read it? Great review, thanks for posting!

Priya -Tabula Rasa said...

Hopeless is the right word for it. I still haven't quite understood Dickinson's poems, even after having studied a few of them.
You are not the first person, though, to say they love Hardy's writing. I didn't like this book, but I'm going to make it a point to read a few other Hardy novels: I am hoping to be surprised.
And, no, I haven't read Oedipus the King, unfortunately; but now I will.
Glad you stopped by :)

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