The Mayor of Casterbridge (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

The Mayor of Casterbridge (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

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by Thomas Hardy

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The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes &See more details below


The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy, is part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of Barnes & Noble Classics:

  • New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars
  • Biographies of the authors
  • Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events
  • Footnotes and endnotes
  • Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work
  • Comments by other famous authors
  • Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations
  • Bibliographies for further reading
  • Indices & Glossaries, when appropriate
All editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. Barnes & Noble Classics pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works.


Thomas Hardy’s first masterpiece, The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a scene of such heartlessness and cruelty that it still shocks readers today. A poor workman named Michael Henchard, in a fit of drunken rage, sells his wife and baby daughter to a stranger at a country fair. Stricken with remorse, Henchard forswears alcohol and works hard to become a prosperous businessman and the respected mayor of Casterbridge. But he cannot erase his past. His wife ultimately returns to offer Henchard the choice of redemption or a further descent into his own self-destructive nature. A dark, complex story, The Mayor of Casterbridge brims with invention, vitality, and even wit.


Phillip Lopate, a professor at Hofstra University in New York City, is best known as an essayist (“Bachelorhood,” “Against Joie De Vivre,” “Portrait of My Body”). He is the editor of the anthology Art of the Personal Essay and has written a novel, The Rug Merchant, and a book of poetry, The Daily Round.

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From Phillip Lopate's Introduction to The Mayor of Casterbridge

Inevitably, in analyzing this book, we must start with the novel's protagonist, since no other Hardy novel is quite so dominated by a single character. Michael Henchard has rightly been hailed as one of the unforgettable characters in fiction. "He takes his place at once with certain towering and possessed figures of Melville, Hawthorne, and Dostoevsky," wrote Albert Guerard (in Thomas Hardy; see "For Further Reading"). The novel's subtitle, "The Story of a Man of Character," is meant to lead us directly into the knot of Henchard's personality. Some of Hardy's contemporary critics took exception to this formulation, since Michael Henchard errs so often that he seems precisely to lack what Victorian moralists would have called "character." However, we should remember what Hardy's contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche, once wryly asserted: that making the same mistake over and over was a true sign of character. In any case, Hardy clearly uses the word "character" here less as approbation than as shorthand for the set of habits, traits, and foibles that may determine a person's destiny. To drive home that point, he even inserts in his text a quote from Novalis: "Character is Fate."

When we first meet Michael Henchard, he is a young, disgruntled itinerant farmhand, unemployed and saddled with a wife and child. He is also a heavy drinker, which leads him into an appalling folly: He sells his wife, Susan, and baby girl, Elizabeth-Jane, at a county fair. In his book Thomas Hardy, Irving Howe comments on the shocking but also outrageously liberating undercurrents of this act, at least for some male readers: "To shake loose from one's wife; to discard that drooping rag of a woman, with her mute complaints and maddening passivity; to escape not by a slinking abandonment but through the public sale of her body to a stranger, as horses are sold at a fair; and thus to wrest, through sheer amoral willfulness, a second chance out of life—it is with this stroke, so insidiously attractive to male fantasy, that The Mayor of Casterbridge begins. In the entire history of European fiction there are few more brilliant openings." Elaine Showalter, in "The Unmanning of The Mayor of Casterbridge," has correctively pointed out that Howe and many other male critics neglect to mention an aspect of the wife-sale that is potentially much more disturbing to women readers: It included their child as well.

Awakening from his drunken stupor, he vows not to touch a drop of alcohol for the next twenty years. But he remains, as the novelist Rick Moody has shrewdly observed, "a dry drunk," with all the unresolved inner impulses of alcoholic sentimentality and hostility, now barely held in check by sobriety. Hardy skips over the next two decades, during which, we learn, Henchard has risen to become a wealthy, powerful grain merchant, and gotten himself elected Mayor of Casterbridge, the thriving town to which he has resettled. Initially, the sale of his family seems to have had just the sort of positive effect on the burdened Henchard that he intended. It releases his energies and talents, so that he is able to carve out a position of financial power and respect in a new place. True, he is alone, cut off from love and intimacy, but this seems to him a fair price to pay, on the whole.

When his rejected wife Susan returns and seeks him out, he remarries her, mostly out of duty and penance. After she dies, a former lover of Henchard's, Lucetta, arrives on the scene, and a Hardyesque romantic triangle ensues between Lucetta, Henchard, and his Scottish assistant, Donald Farfrae. Eventually the wife-sale episode of twenty years earlier comes to light by happenstance in a police court at which Henchard is presiding. "On that day—almost at that minute—he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side," Hardy tells us, with a structurally tidy sentence that diagrams all too neatly (and deceptively) the book's narrative arc.

Summarized this way, the novel would appear to be a severe, straightforward tragedy: A man commits a shameful act in his youth, then rises to prominence, at which point the truth of his earlier misdeed surfaces, leading to his downfall. But what makes the book so much more interesting is the way the narrative keeps slipping the noose of inevitability, even as the laws of causation and retribution bear down hard. First of all, Henchard is well into his fall from grace long before his twenty-year-old error is exposed; second, he is given countless chances after this public exposure to redeem himself, which he does and does not take up; third, public opinion in Casterbridge soon forgets, or stops caring about, his old repellent act. The townsfolk have their own worries. Hardy uses them both as a Greek chorus commenting on its masters' actions, and as a set of idiosyncratic individuals, whose debates, for instance, about whether it is appropriate to rob the pennies from a corpse's eyelids place Henchard's tragic scandal in a more forgiving, everyday perspective.

Henchard and Casterbridge form alternating strands of narrative tension and attention. For a while, Henchard is the town's "monarch," so to speak, and he bears on his shoulders the solitudinous anxiety of a Shakespearian king. But Henchard is also lowborn, an ex-laborer, and his dilemma about how to act, his irritable testiness, derive in part from uncomfortably straddling two social classes. A self-invented man, he is desperately in need of self-knowledge to connect the two halves of his life.

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