The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Chapters 39–40 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 39

This chapter focuses on the skimmity-ride (also called the skimmington). As is suggested at the end of Chapter 37, some of Farfrae's employees send him a note indicating his presence is required in Weatherbury. They want to spare him the embarrassment of witnessing the skimmity-ride, but there is no such consideration for Lucetta.

The ride is described in considerable detail. Two stuffed figures, or images of Henchard and Lucetta, are tied to a donkey back to back, their elbows bound together. Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane witness the procession from Lucetta's windows. The parade includes a raucous, drunken crowd. Lucetta is at first horrified; then she becomes hysterical. Elizabeth-Jane's efforts to block the view by closing the shutters prove futile, and Lucetta frantically predicts Farfrae will see the procession.

Lucetta drops to the floor, suffering an epileptic seizure, and a doctor is summoned. He pronounces her condition serious and says someone must send for Farfrae. Meanwhile, the town authorities bestir themselves to investigate the skimmity-ride, but they find no proof of any misdoing and abandon the effort.

Chapter 40

Henchard makes futile efforts to help find Farfrae; he claims Farfrae has gone to Weatherbury, not Budmouth, but no one believes him. When Henchard finally finds Farfrae and says he is urgently needed in Casterbridge, Farfrae mistrusts Henchard's motives, suspecting a ruse.

Henchard returns to Casterbridge, where Elizabeth-Jane tells him Lucetta's condition is life-threatening. Henchard is suddenly struck by his stepdaughter's humane sympathy and feels he may yet renew his fondness for her. When Henchard returns home, Jopp tells him a sea-captain has called to see him, but he pays this news little attention.

Lucetta, near death, speaks to Farfrae about her prior relationship with Henchard, but how much she tells Farfrae is uncertain. Near dawn Henchard calls at Farfrae's house—formerly Henchard's own—and a servant tells him Lucetta has died.

Analysis

In his description of the skimmity-ride, Hardy's language vividly evokes the malicious, raucous, terrifying aspects of the event, as well as mass-crowd psychology. The noise is especially unnerving, with "the din of cleavers, tongs, tambourines ... and rams'-horns" resounding through the streets. The procession is described as an "uncanny revel" and a "Demoniac Sabbath." In addition to the charged language, the highly emotional reactions of Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane contribute to the suspense.

Henchard's efforts to locate Farfrae and inform him of the situation's urgency prove futile. The loss of his reputation and his demonstrated hostility to Farfrae result in disbelief and distrust. Poignantly, Henchard exclaims to Farfrae, "I am a wretched man, but my heart is true to you still!"

Hardy deploys a number of allusions in these chapters. For example, in Chapter 39 he refers to a riotous scene in John Milton's masque Comus (1634) in connection with the skimmity-ride. A masque was a 16th- and 17th-century courtly entertainment that involved music, dancing, singing, and acting. Milton wrote Comus to celebrate the virtues of chastity. In Chapter 40 two Biblical allusions pertain to Henchard. The first is to Luke 15:7, emphasizing Henchard does not believe he will be redeemed as a repentant sinner. The second reference is to the Book of Job, implying Henchard is too willing to curse himself (Job 42:6). Finally, at the end of Chapter 40 the name Lucifer refers to the planet Venus, here representing the morning star.
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