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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Context

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Victorian Treatment of Women

The reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) marked the high point of British power and prosperity. The Industrial Revolution (1760–1840), which replaced human labor with machine power in many industries, was at its height. Largely thanks to the power and reach of the British navy, the nation's colonizing efforts spanned the globe. According to a popular adage, the British Empire held "dominions, on which the sun never sets."

British global supremacy in the second half of the 19th century had numerous implications on the home front as well. A rigid social code became even more established in a culture where class divisions had long been ingrained. Families were strongly patriarchal, with women and children relegated to silence and obedience. Institutions such as the monarchy, the nobility, the military, and the church were rarely questioned. Responsibility and respectability were supreme virtues. There were occasional political reforms, however, and science did progress, as with English naturalist Charles Darwin's landmark work On the Origin of Species (1859).

Hardy challenged virtually all the social norms of his era, especially the sanctity of marriage, the rigidity of class distinctions, and the Victorian treatment of women.

In the Victorian era women were commonly stereotyped as physically weaker but also morally superior to men. The sexes were typically entrenched in separate spheres. The women's sphere was the home, and the men's was the workplace—a factory, a shop, or an office. This separation meant husbands and wives could pass the entire day, from breakfast till dinner, without meeting.

Women's education made some advances during this period, and in the latter part of the century the elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge began to admit women. As a woman, though, one had to toe a fine line between self-improving "accomplishments" and appearing to be a "bluestocking"—the term describing women who were overly intellectual. It was also important not to angle too openly for a husband.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy presents three major female characters. They offer an interesting study in contrasts. Lucetta Templeman is the most stubborn in her quest for independence and prestige, while Susan Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane Newson are more equable. Only Elizabeth-Jane ends up achieving happiness.

Placement among Literary Movements

Realism

The literary movement known as realism played an important role in Hardy's fiction. Participation in the realist movement signified a writer's or artist's readiness to present life as it was actually lived by a broad spectrum of society. Serious fiction was not confined to the upper classes, nor was it limited to an idealized portrait of human beings and their behavior.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy's realism is evident in his portrayals of Michael Henchard and Lucetta Templeman. Both are many-sided characters whose traits and actions reveal numerous conflicts. They strike the reader as real people, with both virtues and flaws. Another aspect of Hardy's realism is his detailed description of local places in and around Casterbridge.

Modernism

In modernist works, novelists and poets, as well as composers and artists, displayed a conscious break with traditional styles and forms. Modernist writers were experimental to a significant degree, and some of them reflected the influence of newly developed theories of social and individual behavior, such as the theories of German philosopher Karl Marx and Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy takes an unconventional stance toward marriage, as well as a pessimistic outlook on human destiny and behavior. For example, it is doubtful any 19th-century British novelist before Hardy would have termed life as a "general drama of pain."

Hardy's Wessex

With Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy made an important decision regarding his literary canon. He created a setting that was both real and fictional. For the rest of his career as a novelist, he set his stories in the region of Wessex, a fictionalized landscape closely resembling his native county of Dorset. This literary device afforded him significant advantages:

  • He could infuse his novels and short stories with appealing local color through traditional folkways and dialect.
  • He could critique social prejudice and injustice without unduly offending real-life culprits.
  • He could appeal to familiar character types and landscapes while bathing them in a somewhat unfamiliar and alluring light.

The title of Hardy's novel suggests the town of Casterbridge, located in Wessex County, will share the spotlight, and the author obliges by offering a broad variety of descriptions of streets, inns, nearby roads, and landmarks such as the Ring, an ancient Roman amphitheater.

After Hardy, major novelists who adopted such a strategy for setting included the American writer William Faulkner (1897–1962), who set many of his novels in fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi, and the Indian novelist R.K. Narayan (1906–2001), whose works unfolded in fictional Malgudi, a small town in South India.

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