The Mayor of Casterbridge | Study Guide

Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Symbols


Five Guineas

A guinea consists of 21 shillings, or one pound plus one shilling. This is the price Newson pays when Henchard auctions off his wife, Susan, at the Weydon-Priors fair. At the end of Chapter 10, when Henchard writes Susan a note asking her to meet him at the Ring, he encloses five guineas. Hardy draws explicit attention to the symbolism: "The amount was significant; it may tacitly have said to her that he bought her back again."

Henchard's relationships with women lead to many problems and conflicts for him. For example, he dismisses Susan several times for her "meekness," and he has no idea how to deal with the flighty Lucetta. In Chapter 12 he goes to the extent of asking Farfrae, then his assistant, to frame a letter to Lucetta, even as he deceives Elizabeth-Jane. All too often Henchard's relationships with women seem transactional. As he says at the end of Chapter 12, "Can it be that it will go off so easily! ... Now then, to make amends to Susan!"

The five guineas he sends Susan, then, symbolically suggest Henchard regards an intimate human relationship as a commercial transaction. At the beginning of Chapter 13 the narrator says Henchard pursues his quest for a remarriage to Susan "with businesslike determination."


As the pivotal event in the plot, the skimmity-ride is fraught with symbolic significance. Above all there is the symbolism suggested by the effigies. Seated back to back, the man and woman mocked by the procession are physically and visually inverted, suggesting the illicit nature of their relationship. They are seated on a donkey, a notoriously randy animal, signifying lust motivates their connection. The intensely public nature of the skimmity-ride, advertised by loud clangor and inebriated revelry, signifies shaming and exile from society.

But there is more. On a deeper level the skimmity-ride signifies the immense, potentially lethal, power of public opinion and the ominous menace of mass psychology. Characters like Joshua Jopp, Nance Mockridge, and Mother Cuxsom are motivated by malice, envy, and resentment, not by any authentic concern for social morality. The forces driving these characters are dramatized when they egg each other on and whip up their followers, even to the extent of opposing more moderate views, such as those of Solomon Longways.

The skimmity-ride, then, symbolizes the breakdown rather than the reinforcement of the social order in Casterbridge. It is motivated by petty nastiness and selfish indulgence, and it leads directly to Lucetta's death.


Henchard chooses a goldfinch in a cage as his wedding gift to Elizabeth-Jane. At the beginning of Chapter 45 she finds the bird dead of neglect.

Goldfinches were especially popular as caged birds in 19th-century Britain. They are handsomely colored and very small, seldom exceeding five inches in length, and they have a pleasant, twittering call.

The goldfinch initially suggests Henchard's love for Elizabeth-Jane, but its cage and death foreshadow Henchard's own death, as he is imprisoned by the conflicts and disappointments of his life. The image of a caged bird may also evoke a passage from Shakespeare's King Lear, when the title character addresses his daughter Cordelia in Act 5, Scene 3: see the "Insights" section on Chapter 45.

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