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The Mayor of Casterbridge | Themes

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Marriage as a Transaction

Marriage dominates the plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge. At the book's start Michael Henchard shows his cynical disillusionment with his marriage, which has lasted only two years, by selling his wife. Late in the book Henchard's stepdaughter, Elizabeth-Jane, weds Donald Farfrae. In between, marriage as an institution is subjected to the author's severe scrutiny, with very mixed results.

Throughout the novel Hardy implies marriage all too often involves cynical exploitation or manipulation. Henchard handles his relationship with Susan as a commercial transaction, buying her back for the same price as he sold her many years beforehand: five guineas. Lucetta furnishes another example, as she manipulates her prior link to Henchard and then angles for a marriage with Farfrae instead. Townsfolk such as Joshua Jopp and Nance Mockridge, in their drunken revelry at the skimmity-ride, don't really seem to care about upholding the moral principles of marriage; they're simply indulging their envious and vengeful natures.

Elizabeth-Jane is the only major character to stand apart from the story's intricate marriage webs. For example, she tells Lucetta it would be best to remain single—advice Lucetta ignores. Elizabeth-Jane's marriage to Farfrae, near the novel's conclusion, seems likely to succeed. But then, as Hardy might phrase it, there is always "the persistence of the unforeseen." As in The Return of the Native (1878) and several other of his major works, Hardy projects a decidedly pessimistic view of marriage as an institution.

Fate or Destiny

Fate or destiny is a leading theme in most of Thomas Hardy's novels. Hardy typically views fate as arbitrary but inalterable and often inexplicable. In Chapter 41 of The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example, Henchard exclaims about the skimmity-ride and the effigy he saw in the water: "That performance of theirs killed her [Lucetta], but kept me alive!"

Likewise, what Hardy terms "the persistence of the unforeseen" at the end of the novel intervenes to frustrate Henchard in his attempt to ruin Farfrae. Henchard makes a mistaken bet on the weather, having superstitiously consulted the "weather prophet" Mr. Fall. As a consequence, he suffers huge losses. Farfrae, on the other hand, buys grain when prices are low and makes large profits. On a less dramatic scale, unpredictable weather at Casterbridge results in the failure of Henchard's plans for a festive public entertainment.

Hardy dramatizes the role of fate or destiny in numerous ways in the novel. Long-absent characters such as Joshua Jopp and Richard Newson unexpectedly reappear to play a major part in the action. Situations and conflicts undergo unanticipated reversals: for example, the friendship between Henchard and Farfrae, the shift in Lucetta's affections, and the belief Henchard is Elizabeth-Jane's father. For Hardy, in the end, the role of destiny in human affairs is inscrutable.

Rivalry

Rivalry is a major thematic strand in The Mayor of Casterbridge. This theme is most clearly illustrated by the competition between Henchard and Farfrae, which unfolds in many different spheres of the two men's lives. At first friends and quasi-partners, Henchard and Farfrae contend against each other in the grain business, with Farfrae adopting an ethical approach and Henchard behaving bitterly and obsessively. In politics and society, Farfrae slowly gains influence and prestige and is finally installed as mayor of the town, while Henchard suffers disgrace and humiliation. In romance, Henchard also loses out to Farfrae when Lucetta rejects him and weds Farfrae instead. Finally, Henchard's morbid fear of losing Elizabeth-Jane is borne out when she marries Farfrae and reproaches Henchard for having lied to Richard Newson, her real father.

Although he is absent from most of the novel's pages, Richard Newson is also portrayed as Henchard's rival. This is most apparent in Henchard's morbid anxiety about Newson replacing him in Elizabeth-Jane's affections. In Newson's own account of his marriage to Susan, it is also clear Susan saw the two men, former and present husbands, as rivals.

Deception

Many characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge engage in deception; lies and half-truths come to dominate life in Hardy's fictional world. The results of such behavior are nearly always damaging.

Susan, for example, deceives Henchard into thinking he is Elizabeth-Jane's natural father. She also deceives Elizabeth-Jane, during their initial search for Henchard, telling the young woman they are trying to locate a relative or "connection by marriage." Toward the end of the novel, Henchard lies to Newson, telling him Elizabeth-Jane is dead.

Lucetta also practices deception when she pits Farfrae and Henchard against one another. She conceals her past links with Henchard from Farfrae, and she conceals from Henchard her secret marriage at Port-Bredy.

Henchard is hardly forthright about the most shameful action in his past: the auctioning of his wife to the highest bidder. When the furmity woman discloses Henchard's secret, the former mayor is disgraced.

Finally, the townsfolk who organize and participate in the skimmity-ride are masters of deception, frustrating the "rusty-jointed executors of the law." In Hardy's fictional world, deception is so rife it appears to be an integral part of human nature.

Pride

The theme of pride in the novel is closely related to the themes of rivalry and deception. Pride motivates many of Henchard's actions and conflicts, both external and internal. For example, pride plays a role in his decision to surrender his gold watch at the bankruptcy proceedings. Likewise, pride seems to be the most likely motive in his decision to tie one arm behind his back in the fight with Farfrae. Late in the novel, when he returns to Weydon-Priors, Henchard refers to his "cursed pride."

Like Henchard, Lucetta has a complex past and a deep anxiety about maintaining her pride and dignity. Her love letters to Henchard pose the most serious threat, and this accounts for the importance attached to them in the plot. When the letters' content becomes public knowledge and Lucetta is publicly mocked in the skimmity-ride, her pride is dealt, quite literally, a mortal blow.

On the other side of the coin, three important characters seem immune to the pitfalls posed by pride. First is Elizabeth-Jane, who copes with her displacement by Lucetta in Farfrae's affections with equanimity. Second is Farfrae, whose pragmatism and inherent good nature keep him from succumbing to fits of pride, even when he becomes mayor. Finally, Richard Newson is patient and sympathetic enough to step aside in Susan's life so she can resume her relationship with Henchard.

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