The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 11–12 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11

This chapter begins with a brief history of the Ring at Casterbridge, which is the local name for an ancient Roman amphitheater. This impressive ruin is the site for Henchard's meeting with Susan. Its history is forbidding, since in former times it was the location of the town gallows. Henchard has chosen the spot because it is remote from observation.

Henchard begins the meeting by reassuring Susan he does not drink any more. When he asks Susan why she has not sought him out before now, she says she felt a marital obligation to Newson, the man who bought and paid for her. Henchard tells her the two of them must join forces to keep Elizabeth-Jane in the dark about the truth of her history, and Susan meekly agrees. He suggests they conduct a courtship for public show and then remarry. When he asks Susan if she forgives him, she evades his question.

Chapter 12

Arriving home after his meeting with Susan, Henchard finds the assiduous Farfrae still at work, tending to the grain business accounts. Henchard again calls himself a "lonely man" and embarks on another confessional account of his past, but this time he offers Farfrae a fuller narrative. He reveals he used to be a drinking man and says he became involved with a woman on one of his business trips to the island of Jersey—one of the Channel Isles, located off England's southwest coast. This woman was careless of appearances, and her reputation suffered because of her relationship with Henchard.

Now Susan has come to Casterbridge. To which woman does Henchard owe his primary loyalty? He asks Farfrae's advice. With characteristic good sense, Farfrae counsels him to write to the woman in Jersey, Lucetta, and tell her she cannot be his wife because Susan has arrived in Casterbridge. Henchard entreats Farfrae to draft the letter. He then asks Farfrae to advise him on another matter: should he tell Elizabeth-Jane the whole truth about the past? Farfrae thinks Henchard should run the risk, but Henchard rejects this advice, saying he doesn't want Elizabeth-Jane to lose respect for him or for Susan.

Analysis

These chapters contribute substantially to the psychologically complex portrayal of the novel's protagonist, Michael Henchard. At the end of Chapter 10 Henchard had enclosed the sum of five guineas in his note to Susan inviting her to meet him. On the surface, he dispatched the money to aid a poor widow left in reduced circumstances by the presumed death of her husband, the sea captain Richard Newson. The gift's precise amount, however, suggests a commercial action: a "repurchase" of Susan for the exact sum Henchard received for her sale 18 years before.

Now, in Chapter 11, Susan and Henchard hold their reunion in a dark, forbidding setting: the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, which used to serve, in more recent times, as the execution ground of Casterbridge. The sinister atmospheric suggestions are unmistakable. Although Henchard candidly admits to Susan he is no longer a drinking man, the theme of deception is prominent in the chapter. Henchard needs to repair the damage in his life without sacrificing either Elizabeth-Jane's respect or the community's admiration. Thus, he persuades Susan to agree to a plan of staged courtship and remarriage, and he opposes revealing the truth to Elizabeth-Jane. Susan, meek as always, replies, "I am in your hands, Michael." Readers may recall Henchard earlier blamed Susan's meekness and "idiotic simplicity" for his decision to auction her off. Now Susan is not so meek as to forgive Michael explicitly. She evades answering his question about forgiveness.

Chapter 12 delves further into what makes Henchard tick. His loneliness impels him to spill out his life story to Farfrae—this time more fully than in Chapter 7, when he first offered Farfrae the job of manager. Why, though, does Henchard ask for Farfrae's advice, when he has already formed a detailed plan for a reconciliation with Susan and a remarriage?

This question has no clear answer. The most probable explanation seems to involve Henchard's loneliness and insecurity. Especially in his relationships with women, it is as if he needs some sort of external ratification or approval. He tells Farfrae "philandering with womankind has neither been my vice nor my virtue." This statement, however, sidesteps the issue of honest and fair treatment. Henchard's contrition and consideration are so shaky he must ask Farfrae to write the letter to Lucetta. Furthermore, on no account will he consent to tell Elizabeth-Jane what he thinks to be the truth about her paternity. This psychological tangle is perhaps summed up when Henchard tells Farfrae, toward the end of Chapter 12, "The mayor of Casterbridge is not so thriving in his mind as it seems he might be from the state of his pocket."

Throughout these chapters Hardy suggests Henchard's reclaiming of Susan and his treatment of Lucetta are essentially "management" problems, not authentic issues of human relations or intimacy. This perspective explains Henchard's quest for advice from Farfrae, his manager. It also explains Henchard's curious remarks at the end of Chapter 12: "Can it be that it will go off so easily? ... Now, then, to make amends to Susan!"

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