The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

The setting for the novel's opening scene is southwestern England in the 1820s. On an afternoon in late summer, a young hay-trusser—someone who composes hay into bundles or bales, also called trusses—approaches the town of Weydon-Priors, accompanied by his wife and their infant daughter. From their silence and body language, it is easy to surmise the spouses are estranged to some degree.

Weydon-Priors is celebrating Fair Day. The young family enters a tent in which an older woman dispenses furmity, a type of local porridge. The hay-trusser consumes increasing amounts of this drink, laced with rum, and grows argumentative. The spiel of an auctioneer selling old horses outside suggests a plan to the hay-trusser: he will put his wife on the block for sale. Their two years of marriage have brought him nothing but trouble, he declares.

At first the locals chortle at what they assume is a joke, but soon they realize the young husband, named Michael, is not jesting. As tension mounts between the husband and his wife, a buyer steps forward, offering five guineas for both wife and child. Before she leaves, the young wife flings her wedding ring in the husband's face. The tent clears out, and the young husband drifts into a drunken slumber.

Chapter 2

The next morning the young man, whose full name is Michael Henchard, awakens in a haze of dim memories. Slowly he pieces together the previous afternoon's events. Full of contrition and shame, he makes his way to a church and swears a solemn oath not to touch strong liquor for the next 21 years—one year for each year of his current age. Then he begins a months-long search for his wife and child.

Analysis

In 1886, when Hardy first published The Mayor of Casterbridge, the novel's opening chapter must have struck readers as revolutionary. Hardy's treatment of the theme of marriage was highly unconventional throughout most of his career as a novelist. The portraits of marriage in The Return of the Native, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure, for example, grow steadily more dark and pessimistic. Chapter 1 of The Mayor of Casterbridge encapsulates Hardy's view of marriage as a far-from-blissful union. This view was in stark contrast to Victorian orthodoxy.

In these opening chapters Hardy establishes his protagonist's character traits, which will alter very little throughout the novel. Michael Henchard is impulsive, headstrong, and combative. His inebriation is his downfall; by the same token, his shame and repentance are also outsized. Hardy's subtitle for the novel was "A Story of a Man of Character." It is doubtful if anyone meeting Henchard would soon forget him. This supposition is later borne out in Chapter 28 when, many years later, the furmity-woman steps forward to disclose Henchard's past actions, bringing an abrupt end to his burnished reputation in Casterbridge.

Scholars have found a historical basis for both Henchard's wife-selling and his solemn oath of abstinence from liquor. Hardy seems to have gleaned these details from the Dorset County Chronicle (1826–1829).
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