July 12, 2010

Review: "The Mayor of Casterbridge" By Thomas Hardy

I am in the midst of reading all of Thomas Hardy's novels in the order that he wrote them.  Well, at least the more well known novels.  While most of Hardy's 'Novels of Character and Environment' have a fairly pronounced pastoral presence, The Mayor of Casterbridge is distinctly a novel about characters in a relatively urban setting, the fictional Wessex town of Casterbridge.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is a relentless novel.  It is a relentlessly sad story, and a relentlessly painful story to read.  Change the scene, the time, and the garb and this tragedy is worthy of the greatest ancient Greek playright.  This is not a 'coming of age' tale.  No, this is the story of the slow, but largely self-wrought, destruction of one man -- Michael Henchard -- the Mayor of Casterbridge.

The novel opens with a horrifying event, and concludes with another.  In between those two bookends of horror, in typical Hardyan fashion, Fate, Chance, and Irony intermittently intercede impacting the lives of Henchard and those around him.  In some sense, I believe that this novel is Hardy's testament to his views on 'Crime and Punishment.'  The structure of the tale, and the bleakness of the characters, brings home in a powerful way the intended and unintended consequences of our actions upon others in our journey along the path of Life.

In large part, the substance of this novel can summed up by Michael Henchard himself near the end of the book when he says, "When I was rich I didn't need what I could have, and now I be poor I can't have what I need!"  A moral we should all pay very close attention to.  While this is not my favorite Hardy novel, it is an important work within his overall oeuvre, and as bleak as it is I am very glad that I read it.  I would give the novel 4/5 stars.


  1. "Hardy's testament to his views on 'Crime and Punishment.'" That's a fascinating thought. Could "The Mayor of Casterbridge", then, be thought of as a retelling of "Crime and Punishment"? I'm not wholly familiar with the C&P novel (so far, I've only seen the film and read a few chapters), but I think I'd like to read it alongside a rereading of "Mayor". Did Hardy ever write about his thoughts on C&P, do you know?

  2. Entish, I have to think that Hardy would have been at least familiar with Dostoevsky's novel (1865), and that "The Mayor of Casterbridge" does track many of the same themes (especially coping with guilt, and dealing with the consequences of one's actions) as Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." In the end though, I think Raskolnikov actually finds redemption, where I'm just not sure about Michael Henchard. You make a wonderful suggestion too-- read both novels in a side-by-side fashion. I think I shall do that the next time I read TMOC. Cheers! Chris