Such a Small Minority

Wash away my sins, Lord,
Cleanse me in the rain
Let your holy thunder
Take away my pain.
Let me cry some tears, Lord.
Heal my sorry eyes
Dark and dry as deserts
Baking in the lies.
Call me in your dreams
Hold me in your arms
I’ve fallen in a sin-filled world
And idolized its charms.
Waiting for the rain to come down…

… Griffin House
……“Waiting for the Rain to Come”

It’s easy to forget our view of the world is often quite different than our neighbor’s. Until I reread Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, I hadn’t given much thought to the idea of “sin” for a long, long time. I long ago rejected the idea of innate sin while studying religion and philosophy in college, but I’ve given much less thought to the idea of personal sin, not to mention guilt. Rereading the novel led to several hours on the net reading various definitions of “sin” and different religious groups’ view of sin. Even with all that reading, I’ve found it difficult to define exactly how I feel about “sin” and its accompanying “guilt,” so difficult it’s taken me over a week to sketch out these simple thoughts. Overall, I think, like Hardy, I reject the traditional idea of sin and the sense of guilt it engenders.

Apparently being raised in a non-church-going, Christian-Scientist-kind-of-family has given me a rather unusual view of sin, at least if polls are to be believed for according to a recent poll 87% of Americans believe in sin,though they often disagree on exactly what is or is not a sin. That places me in a pretty small minority. Research also revealed critics have historically accused Christian Scientists of not being Christians because Christian Scientists view Sin as Illusion. Of course, Christian Scientists also reject the tenant that man is inherently evil, insisting just the opposite is true. My parents never talked about sin; instead, they talked about hurting other people, not living up to your potential, and not living up to your ideals.

I was somewhat surprised when the same research revealed that “The idea of sin or original sin has no place in Buddhism. Also, sin should not be equated to suffering.” Even the idea of dharma, with its cause-effect relationship, sounds like it could have come from Christian Science, and striving for Enlightenment seems remarkably similar to the Christian Scientist goal of becoming true spirit. No wonder I often find myself philosophically more attuned to Buddhism than to Christianity.

I’ll never know what effect this belief, or lack of belief, has had on my life. I suspect I’ve lived a rather boring, sin-free life, by most Christian standards, but not because I’ve ever consciously tried to avoid sinning. Most of what’s considered sin by the majority of people has simply never seemed like a wise choice to me. I didn’t have to be told that adultery or coveting your neighbor’s wife is a “sin” to realize it’s a bad choice that’s bound to hurt you or those you love. Stealing from your neighbor might bring short-term gains but it’s bound to cause grief in the long run. I’m not sure what labeling these as “sins” adds to the equation. Of course, if you’re one of those Conservative Christians who think even thinking about having sex with someone you’re not married to is a sin, than I guess I’m a sinner.

Personally, I can’t see how feeling guilty after sinning is particularly helpful, either. Feeling guilty seems like a waste of time. Better to spend time and energy trying to change those attitudes and feelings that led you to sin than to fixate on things you can’t change. If Henchard had worked on controlling his temper and learned to consider others’ needs and feelings, the central tragedy of the novel would have been avoided. He could never undo the damage he’d done when he sold his wife, but if he’d really learned from the incident that he needed to control his temper he would never have alienated Farfrae as he ended up doing. Feeling bad about what you’ve done can’t change it. Confessing your sin may, or may not, make you feel better, but surely an omniscient God already knows what you’ve done.

I’ve often wondered if some Vietnam veterans looked at their actions in Vietnam as a sin, perhaps an irredeemable sin. Many were devastated by what they’d done and seemed unable to move beyond their guilt. It literally paralyzed them. I’ll have to admit that at first, I, too, was traumatized by what I’d gone through and the changes that had been wrought. I suspect my job choices after the war were in many ways a form of penance. I’d certainly never thought of becoming a caseworker before the war. In the end, though, I saw my experience as proof that it was stupid to blindly believe my country was always right and always fought on the side of “God.” I was determined never to be so gullible again.

Spending your life worried about past sins seems to me like driving while looking in the rearview mirror. There are sure to be more accidents ahead. I try to spend very little time worrying about the past and, instead, focus on the future, trying to improve and become a better, smarter person. Hopefully, all my future mistakes will be new ones and there will be fewer of them.

Character is Fate

I’m sure many of Hardy’s Victorian readers read The Mayor of Casterbridge as a morality tale: those who sin are invariably punished for their sin. While it would be hard to disprove such an interpretation, especially since Hardy alludes to it himself, Hardy offers a much more interesting possible interpretation when he cites Novalis:

Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae’s character was just the reverse of Henchard’s, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described–as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.

I suspect that it would be possible to trace this statement out not only through the life of Henchard, but through the life of Farfae and Elizabeth as well. To me, the more interesting argument is that although Henchard thinks he is being punished for past sins, he really fails because he has learned nothing from his failures and fails because of his character, or, perhaps, because of his lack of character.

The first time we see Henchard after he has risen to become the Mayor of Casterbridge, we see his anger when merchants accuse him of cheating them by selling bad wheat:

Henchard’s face darkened. There was temper under the thin bland surface–the temper which, artificially intensified, had banished a wife nearly a score of years before.

He may have given up alcohol for twenty years after selling his wife while drunk, but he still hasn’t overcome his temper, a deeper source of the problem.

In fact, you could easily make the argument that the beginning of his fall from power in Casterbridge again came as the result of a fit of temper when he dismissed Farfae because other people preferred Farfae, thinking he was no only nicer but more competent:

Henchard went home, apparently satisfied. But in the morning, when his jealous temper had passed away, his heart sank within him at what he had said and done. He was the more disturbed when he found that this time Farfrae was determined to take him at his word.

It was exactly this kind of irrational anger that caused him to sell his wife and child, and this decision ends up equally bad. Though it’s not a sin to fire an employee, this decision ends up costing Henchard his business, his lover, and, finally, Elizabeth as much as his first rash act did.

Henchard, who had been hurt at finding that Farfrae did not mean to put up with his temper any longer, was incensed beyond measure when he learnt what the young man had done as an alternative. It was in the town-hall, after a council meeting, that he first became aware of Farfrae’s coup for establishing himself independently in the town; and his voice might have been heard as far as the town-pump expressing his feelings to his fellow councilmen. These tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.

It’s certainly no accident that Hardy ends with this final observation. The parallel is too obvious to ignore.

Lucetta gives a fairly accurate portrayal of Henchard when she is talking to Elizabeth:

“Do you know the impression your words give me?” she said ingenuously. “That he is a hot-tempered man–a little proud–perhaps ambitious; but not a bad man.” Her anxiety not to condemn Henchard while siding with Elizabeth was curious.

“O no; certainly not BAD,” agreed the honest girl. “And he has not even been unkind to me till lately–since mother died. But it has been very much to bear while it has lasted. All is owing to my defects, I daresay; and my defects are owing to my history.”

Although this summary misses a few important character flaws that contribute to his downfall, the novel at times comes close to a tragedy precisely because Henchard is not just a villain. Like most of us, he is simply morally flawed. Just when we expect the worse from him, he acts admirably, as he does here:

“Well,” said the senior Commissioner, addressing Henchard, “though the case is a desperate one, I am bound to admit that I have never met a debtor who behaved more fairly. I’ve proved the balance-sheet to be as honestly made out as it could possibly be; we have had no trouble; there have been no evasions and no concealments. The rashness of dealing which led to this unhappy situation is obvious enough; but as far as I can see every attempt has been made to avoid wronging anybody.”

Henchard was more affected by this than he cared to let them perceive, and he turned aside to the window again. A general murmur of agreement followed the Commissioner’s words, and the meeting dispersed. When they were gone Henchard regarded the watch they had returned to him. “‘Tisn’t mine by rights,” he said to himself. “Why the devil didn’t they take it?–I don’t want what don’t belong to me!” Moved by a recollection he took the watch to the maker’s just opposite, sold it there and then for what the tradesman offered, and went with the proceeds to one among the smaller of his creditors, a cottager of Durnover in straitened circumstances, to whom he handed the money.

It seems remarkable that someone who has just had virtually everything taken from him would sell what little he has left to pay off one his neediest creditors.

In fact, like his neighbors we may even find ourselves admiring how much he has done with so little:

When everything was ticketed that Henchard had owned, and the auctions were in progress, there was quite a sympathetic reaction in the town, which till then for some time past had done nothing but condemn him. Now that Henchard’s whole career was pictured distinctly to his neighbours, and they could see how admirably he had used his one talent of energy to create a position of affluence out of absolutely nothing–which was really all he could show when he came to the town as a journeyman hay-trusser, with his wimble and knife in his basket–they wondered and regretted his fall.

When Farfae returns Henchard’s furniture that he bought from the creditors, Henchard seems genuinely moved by the gesture:

“What–give it to me for nothing?” said Henchard. “But you paid the creditors for it!”

“Ah, yes; but maybe it’s worth more to you than it is to me.”

Henchard was a little moved. “I–sometimes think I’ve wronged ‘ee!” he said, in tones which showed the disquietude that the night shades hid in his face. He shook Farfrae abruptly by the hand, and hastened away as if unwilling to betray himself further.

Even when he gives into baser motives, as when he goes to Farfae and Lucetta’s to expose Lucetta, he is unable to carry through with his original intent

He opened a third and fourth letter, and read. This time he approached the conclusion as if the signature were indeed coming with the rest. But again he stopped short. The truth was that, as may be divined, he had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it.

Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.

because he could not consciously wreck another’s heart. Even at his worst moment, when he physically attacks Farfrae because he thinks Farfrae has ruined his life, Henchard is unable to carry through with the attack:

“Then take it, take it!” said Farfrae. “Ye’ve wished to long enough!”

Henchard looked down upon him in silence, and their eyes met. “O Farfrae!–that’s not true!” he said bitterly. “God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time….And now–though I came here to kill ‘ee, I cannot hurt thee! Go and give me in charge–do what you will–I care nothing for what comes of me!”

He withdrew to the back part of the loft, loosened his arm, and flung himself in a corner upon some sacks, in the abandonment of remorse. Farfrae regarded him in silence; then went to the hatch and descended through it. Henchard would fain have recalled him, but his tongue failed in its task, and the young man’s steps died on his ear.

Henchard took his full measure of shame and self-reproach. The scenes of his first acquaintance with Farfrae rushed back upon him–that time when the curious mixture of romance and thrift in the young man’s composition so commanded his heart that Farfrae could play upon him as on an instrument. So thoroughly subdued was he that he remained on the sacks in a crouching attitude, unusual for a man, and for such a man. Its womanliness sat tragically on the figure of so stern a piece of virility.

Unfortunately, this man who seems incapable of directly hurting anyone he likes, seems quite capable of hurting them indirectly. For instance, when Elizabeth’s real father comes looking for her after her mother’s death, Henchard has no problem telling him that Elisabeth is:

“Dead likewise,” said Henchard doggedly. “Surely you learnt that too?”

He knows what he has done is “wrong,” but he rationalizes his action in many different ways:

To satisfy his conscience somewhat Henchard repeated to himself that the lie which had retained for him the coveted treasure had not been deliberately told to that end, but had come from him as the last defiant word of a despair which took no thought of consequences. Furthermore he pleaded within himself that no Newson could love her as he loved her, or would tend her to his life’s extremity as he was prepared to do cheerfully.

for, as Hardy makes clear, Henchard is only concerned with his own well being. If he were really concerned with Elizabeth’s happiness he would have been happy later that Farfrae wants to marry her:

Henchard went away, thinking that perhaps there was nothing significant after all in Farfrae’s look at Elizabeth-Jane at that juncture. Yet he could not forget that the Scotchman had once shown a tender interest in her, of a fleeting kind. Thereupon promptly came to the surface that idiosyncrasy of Henchard’s which had ruled his courses from the beginning and had mainly made him what he was. Instead of thinking that a union between his cherished step-daughter and the energetic thriving Donald was a thing to be desired for her good and his own, he hated the very possibility.

That “idiosyncrasy” is none other than pure selfishness. It doesn’t take long for Henchard to prove his selfishness again when he learns that Elizabeth and Farfrae are planning on getting married.

There is an outer chamber of the brain in which thoughts unowned, unsolicited, and of noxious kind, are sometimes allowed to wander for a moment prior to being sent off whence they came. One of these thoughts sailed into Henchard’s ken now.

Suppose he were to communicate to Farfrae the fact that his betrothed was not the child of Michael Henchard at all–legally, nobody’s child; how would that correct and leading townsman receive the information? He might possibly forsake Elizabeth-Jane, and then she would be her step-sire’s own again.

Henchard shuddered, and exclaimed, “God forbid such a thing! Why should I still be subject to these visitations of the devil, when I try so hard to keep him away?”

While it’s comforting to know that he didn’t give in to this urge, it’s more disturbing to think that the thought even crossed his mind. And not very comforting that he blames these thoughts on “visitations of the devil” rather than considering his own selfishness.

Henchard ends up dying a poor man’s death, alone except for a single boy whose mother he had been kind to, which is hardly surprising because people who use people are the unluckiest people of all.


Hardy seems to offer two different theories for Michael Henchard’s tragic life in The Mayor of Casterbridge. On one hand, he suggests that Michael is a modern-day Job, or Cain, forced to suffer for his sins, a view that Michael himself seems to adopt. A more radical theory, one I’ll take up later, is that Fate is nothing more than character, that one’s character determines what happens to one in life. Of course, Hardy wouldn’t be Hardy if he didn’t question his own theories, often immediately after suggesting them.

Early in the novel Michael compares himself to Job when he is explaining his dilemma in choosing between his legal wife, Susan, who has returned many years after he had sold her while drunk, and Lucetta, who had befriended him when he fell ill.

“In the nature of things, Farfrae, it is almost impossible that a man of my sort should have the good fortune to tide through twenty years o’ life without making more blunders than one. It has been my custom for many years to run across to Jersey in the the way of business, particularly in the potato and root season. I do a large trade wi’ them in that line. Well, one autumn when stopping there I fell quite ill, and in my illness I sank into one of those gloomy fits I sometimes suffer from, on account o’ the loneliness of my domestic life, when the world seems to have the blackness of hell, and, like Job, I could curse the day that gave me birth.”

The comparison to Job is an interesting one precisely because of Michael’s rise to a high position as The Mayor of Casterbridge and his rapid fall from grace once his wife and “daughter” return.

Michael wants his daughter to bear his name, and after her mother’s death Elizabeth finally agrees to take Michael’s name. Ironically, in letters she has written to be opened upon her daughter’s wedding, Susan reveals that Elizabeth Jane isn’t really Michael’s daughter but was born after his daughter died. Angered, Michael feels he is being punished for his sins by some sinister force:

Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it. His wife was dead, and the first impulse for revenge died with the thought that she was beyond him. He looked out at the night as at a fiend. Henchard, like all his kind, was superstitious, and he could not help thinking that the concatenation of events this evening had produced was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him. Yet they had developed naturally. If he had not revealed his past history to Elizabeth he would not have searched the drawer for papers, and so on. The mockery was, that he should have no sooner taught a girl to claim the shelter of his paternity than he discovered her to have no kinship with him.

If there was a sinister intelligence punishing him, it was certainly because he had sold his wife and child. In the end, though, it is never-ending sequence of such ironies that makes the reader feel that Michael might well be a modern-day Job.

Once Michael discovers that Elizabeth really isn’t his daughter he tries to get rid of her by encouraging Fanfare to to court her. This effort backfires, though:

Farfrae’s sudden entry was simply the result of Henchard’s permission to him to see Elizabeth if he were minded to woo her. At first he had taken no notice of Henchard’s brusque letter; but an exceptionally fortunate business transaction put him on good terms with everybody, and revealed to him that he could undeniably marry if he chose. Then who so pleasing, thrifty, and satisfactory in every way as Elizabeth-Jane? Apart from her personal recommendations a reconciliation with his former friend Henchard would, in the natural course of things, flow from such a union. He therefore forgave the Mayor his curtness; and this morning on his way to the fair he had called at her house, where he learnt that she was staying at Miss Templeman’s. A little stimulated at not finding her ready and waiting–so fanciful are men!–he hastened on to High-Place Hall to encounter no Elizabeth but its mistress herself.

Instead of getting his daughter out of the house, this meeting results in Lucetta falling in love with Farfae. After meeting Farfae, Lucetta loses interest in Henchard just as he begins to think he will marry her.

Lucetta had come to Casterbridge to quicken Henchard’s feelings with regard to her. She had quickened them, and now she was indifferent to the achievement.

Not only does Henchard lose Lucetta, he ends up losing her to the man he hates most in the world:

But he was disturbed. And the sense of occult rivalry in suitorship was so much superadded to the palpable rivalry of their business lives. To the coarse materiality of that rivalry it added an inflaming soul.

After a number of disastrous business deals that nearly bankrupt him while making his arch-enemy Farfrae rich, Henchard again feels the gods are working against him:

“I wonder,” he asked himself with eerie misgiving; “I wonder if it can be that somebody has been roasting a waxen image of me, or stirring an unholy brew to confound me! I don’t believe in such power; and yet–what if they should ha’ been doing it!” Even he could not admit that the perpetrator, if any, might be Farfrae. These isolated hours of superstition came to Henchard in time of moody depression, when all his practical largeness of view had oozed out of him.

The major blow, though, comes when the furmity woman from the opening chapter is brought in front of the city council for trial and reveals that Michael had sold his wife years earlier and was unfit to judge her:

The retort of the furmity-woman before the magistrates had spread; and in four-and-twenty hours there was not a person in Casterbridge who remained unacquainted with the story of Henchard’s mad freak at Weydon-Priors Fair, long years before. The amends he had made in after life were lost sight of in the dramatic glare of the original act. Had the incident been well known of old and always, it might by this time have grown to be lightly regarded as the rather tall wild oat, but well-nigh the single one, of a young man with whom the steady and mature (if somewhat headstrong) burgher of to-day had scarcely a point in common. But the act having lain as dead and buried ever since, the interspace of years was unperceived; and the black spot of his youth wore the aspect of a recent crime.

Although the magistrates are quick to dismiss the furmity-woman’s charges, Henchard immediately admits the charges and steps down from his office. He’s ready to accept his sins, even though he’s worked for years to atone for them. He believes he deserves punishment for those sins.

His one consolation after his many losses is that his “daughter” Elizabeth has become more attentive to him than before:

The effect, either of her ministrations or of her mere presence, was a rapid recovery. He soon was well enough to go out; and now things seemed to wear a new colour in ahis eyes. He no longer thought of emigration, and thought more of Elizabeth. The having nothing to do made him more dreary than any other circumstance; and one day, with better views of Farfrae than he had held for some time, and a sense that honest work was not a thing to be ashamed of, he stoically went down to Farfrae’s yard and asked to be taken on as a journeyman hay-trusser.

Considering how things have gone in the novel, both the reader, and Michael Henchard himself, wonder how long before Elizabeth discovers that she really isn’t his daughter at all and that when he had learned that he had tried to get rid of her.

Meanwhile Henchard is determined to get even with Fanfare and lures him up to the barn to fight him. After struggling with Farfrae and gaining the upperhand, he is unable to strike him:

“Now,” said Henchard between his gasps, “this is the end of what you began this morning. Your life is in my hands.”

“Then take it, take it!” said Farfrae. “Ye’ve wished to long enough!”

Henchard looked down upon him in silence, and their eyes met. “O Farfrae!–that’s not true!” he said bitterly. “God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time….And now–though I came here to kill ‘ee, I cannot hurt thee! Go and give me in charge–do what you will–I care nothing for what comes of me!”

He withdrew to the back part of the loft, loosened his arm, and flung himself in a corner upon some sacks, in the abandonment of remorse. Farfrae regarded him in silence; then went to the hatch and descended through it. Henchard would fain have recalled him, but his tongue failed in its task, and the young man’s steps died on his ear.

While this incident may raise Henchard in the reader’s esteem, it has the opposite effect on Farfae. So much so that when Henchard desperately tries to fetch Farfae after Lucetta collapses Farfae refuses to believe him and suspects Henchard of trying to entrap him again. This failure causes Henchard to curse himself:

The gig and its driver lessened against the sky in Henchard’s eyes; his exertions for Farfrae’s good had been in vain. Over this repentant sinner, at least, there was to be no joy in heaven. He cursed himself like a less scrupulous Job, as a vehement man will do when he loses self-respect, the last mental prop under poverty. To this he had come after a time of emotional darkness of which the adjoining woodland shade afforded inadequate illustration. Presently he began to walk back again along the way by which he had arrived. Farfrae should at all events have no reason for delay upon the road by seeing him there when he took his journey homeward later on.

Henchard has fallen so low that only one thing keeps him going, Elixabeth’s love

But about Elizabeth-lane; in the midst of his gloom she seemed to him as a pin-point of light. He had liked the look on her face as she answered him from the stairs. There had been affection in it, and above all things what he desired now was affection from anything that was good and pure. She was not his own, yet, for the first time, he had a faint dream that he might get to like her as his own,–if she would only continue to love him.

Considering how important Elizabeth is to Henchard, it’s not surprising that her real father Newson soon shows up nor that Henchard lies and tells Newson that his daughter is dead in a vain attempt to hang on to her:

I’ve never returned to this country till a month ago, and I found that, as I supposed, she went to you, and my daughter with her. They told me in Falmouth that Susan was dead. But my Elizabeth-Jane–where is she?”

“Dead likewise,” said Henchard doggedly. “Surely you learnt that too?”

But neither the reader nor Henchard’s attempt to hang on to Elizabeth will work:

But the emotional conviction that he was in Somebody’s hand began to die out of Henchard’s breast as time slowly removed into distance the event which had given that feeling birth. The apparition of Newson haunted him. He would surely return.

When Newson finally does return and Elizabeth learns of Henchard’s attempted deception, she finally t

urns against him, too, compounded by the fact that she is about to marry Farfae.

Banished from Casterbridge, Henchard once again sees himself as Cain:

He went on till he came to the first milestone, which stood in the bank, half way up a steep hill. He rested his basket on the top of the stone, placed his elbows on it, and gave way to a convulsive twitch, which was worse than a sob, because it was so hard and so dry.

“If I had only got her with me–if I only had!” he said. “Hard work would be nothing to me then! But that was not to be. I–Cain–go alone as I deserve–an outcast and a vagabond. But my punishment is not greater than I can bear!”

It would be easy to assume that Henchard’s seeing himself as Job or Cain is merely a personal delusion, a way of exaggerating his self-importance, but it seems unlikely that it is pure coincidence that the novel ends at precisely the place it began, as Henchard returns to the precise location where he first got drunk and sold his wife and child:

And thus Henchard found himself again on the precise standing which he had occupied a quarter of a century before. Externally there was nothing to hinder his making another start on the upward slope, and by his new lights achieving higher things than his soul in its half-formed state had been able to accomplish. But the ingenious machinery contrived by the Gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum–which arranges that wisdom to do shall come pari passu with the departure of zest for doing–stood in the way of all that. He had no wish to make an arena a second time of a world that had become a mere painted scene to him.

Was this ending inevitable after Henchard committed the original sin of selling the two most important people in his life for a few shilling? Does such a horrible sin demand such an ending? What is the reader to make of Hardy’s line “But the ingenious machinery contrived by the Gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum–which arranges that wisdom to do shall come pari passu with the departure of zest for doing–stood in the way of all that.”

A Matter of Perspective

There was at least one more major point I had planned to make on The Return of the Native, but when I realized how much work it would take to go back and support the idea with quotations, I decided to use the first two chapters from The Mayor of Casterbridge to make the same point instead. Probably any comment I make about Hardy in these short essays will apply to all four novels, anyway.

Hardy is a master of perspective, which may explain why he’s often considered the first “modern novelist.” He made better use of the omniscient viewpoint than any novelist I’d ever read before, him, though modern novelists like Faulkner make even better use of it. This technique led some to accuse him of moral ambiguity because it’s not easy to pass judgements on characters when we begin to understand why they acted the way they did. Rigid rules don’t always apply easily to complex situations. Those of us who like his style would suggest that such insight makes it easier to emphasize with characters who may not always follow society’s mores.

For instance, in the climactic scene in The Return of the Native when Mrs. Yeobright is “turned away” from her son’s door and ends up dying of heat exhaustion on her way home we see the scene from Eustacia’s, Mrs. Yeobright, and, later, Clym’s viewpoint. Originally, we see it from Eustacia’s viewpoint inside the house where she feels compromised by Wildeve’s presence. She tries to get him out the back and assumes that Clym, who’s sleeping near the door will wake up and let his mother in. When she returns to the front room to greet her mother-in-law she realizes Clym has never woken up, opens the door, looks outside, but cannot see where her mother-in-law has gone. Then we see the same scene from the mother’s viewpoint. She’s seen Eustacia look out the window at her and assumes that Eustacia must hate her so much that she has shut her door against her. Worst yet she believes her son who she had just seen enter the home let his wife do such a thing on a blistering hot day. It’s not surprising that Clym throws his wife out after he discovers that she had not opened the door for his mother, directly leading to her death and her deathbed condemnation of her son. Though students might complain that this kind of multiple look is “boring” and slows down the action, it’s precisely what transforms an escapist plot into a serious novel.

But enough of Native. Let’s discuss The Mayor of Casterbridge, my least favorite of the four novels I read for my senior paper. To tell you the truth, I have no memory of the novel. I don’t remember a single character, a shred of the plot. After reading the first chapter when Michael sells his wife, and daughter, for a few shillings I’m surprised I didn’t remember it. It’s about as shocking an event as one can imagine to start a novel.

The novel begins with what is essentially a long shot of Michael and his wife as they enter a new town and then proceeds to close-ups of the pair and their child:

What was really peculiar, however, in this couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved. They walked side by side in such a way as to suggest afar off the low, easy, confidential chat of people full of reciprocity; but on closer view it could be discerned that the man was reading, or pretending to read, a ballad sheet which he kept before his eyes with some difficulty by the hand that was passed through the basket strap. Whether this apparent cause were the real cause, or whether it were an assumed one to escape an intercourse that would have been irksome to him, nobody but himself could have said precisely; but his taciturnity was unbroken, and the woman enjoyed no society whatever from his presence. Virtually she walked the highway alone, save for the child she bore. Sometimes the man’s bent elbow almost touched her shoulder, for she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact, but she seemed to have no idea of taking his arm, nor he of offering it; and far from exhibiting surprise at his ignoring silence she appeared to receive it as a natural thing. If any word at all were uttered by the little group, it was an occasional whisper of the woman to the child–a tiny girl in short clothes and blue boots of knitted yarn–and the murmured babble of the child in reply.

When one reads the description carefully, it becomes more complex, more ambiguous, and more difficult to tell how this man and wife really feel about each other from the way they walk together. It’s obvious a movie camera could never totally convey the complexity of this small scene.

After a few swigs at the local market, though, we get a better idea of what the man seems to be feeling:

The conversation took a high turn, as it often does on such occasions. The ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes and the extinction of his energies by an early imprudent marriage, was the theme.

“I did for myself that way thoroughly,” said the trusser with a contemplative bitterness that was well-nigh resentful. “I married at eighteen, like the fool that I was; and this is the consequence o’t.” He pointed at himself and family with a wave of the hand intended to bring out the penuriousness of the exhibition.

The young woman his wife, who seemed accustomed to such remarks, acted as if she did not hear them, and continued her intermittent private words of tender trifles to the sleeping and waking child, who was just big enough to be placed for a moment on the bench beside her when she wished to ease her arms. The man continued–

Of course, this could just be bar talk, especially since the young wife seems to have heard it all before and totally ignores it.

After Michael offers to sell his wife , though, things take a turn for the worse when a sailor actually puts the money on the table:

Up to this moment it could not positively have been asserted that the man, in spite of his tantalizing declaration, was really in earnest. The spectators had indeed taken the proceedings throughout as a piece of mirthful irony carried to extremes; and had assumed that, being out of work, he was, as a consequence, out of temper with the world, and society, and his nearest kin. But with the demand and response of real cash the jovial frivolity of the scene departed. A lurid colour seemed to fill the tent, and change the aspect of all therein. The mirth-wrinkles left the listeners’ faces, and they waited with parting lips.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

Michael can’t resist the challenge and picks up the money. The last he sees of his wife is she and their child following the sailor out the door into the evening. It’s hard to see Michael as anything but a monster willing to sell his wife and child for a handful of coins to a complete, stranger.

In typical, Harydesque fashion, though, the Universe seems completely indifferent to these people’s treatment of each other:

He rose and walked to the entrance with the careful tread of one conscious of his alcoholic load. Some others followed, and they stood looking into the twilight. The difference between the peacefulness of inferior nature and the wilful hostilities of mankind was very apparent at this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.

Even this “judgement” is only allowed to stand until the last sentence when Hardy seems to reverse his opinion.

It’s not until the next morning, though, that we really see Michael’s reaction to his previous night’s actions. He finally sobers up enough to dimly remember what has happened and wanders outside looking for his wife and baby daughter. It’s not long, though, before other concerns than where his wife and daughter are begin to surface:

“Did I tell my name to anybody last night, or didn’t I tell my name?” he said to himself; and at last concluded that he did not. His general demeanour was enough to show how he was surprised and nettled that his wife had taken him so literally–as much could be seen in his face, and in the way he nibbled a straw which he pulled from the hedge. He knew that she must have been somewhat excited to do this; moreover, she must have believed that there was some sort of binding force in the transaction. On this latter point he felt almost certain, knowing her freedom from levity of character, and the extreme simplicity of her intellect. There may, too, have been enough recklessness and resentment beneath her ordinary placidity to make her stifle any momentary doubts. On a previous occasion when he had declared during a fuddle that he would dispose of her as he had done, she had replied that she would not hear him say that many times more before it happened, in the resigned tones of a fatalist…. “Yet she knows I am not in my senses when I do that!” he exclaimed. “Well, I must walk about till I find her.… Seize her, why didn’t she know better than bring me into this disgrace!” he roared out. “She wasn’t queer if I was. ‘Tis like Susan to show such idiotic simplicity. Meek–that meekness has done me more harm than the bitterest temper!”

While the reader may have been moved by his first concern for the whereabouts of his wife and baby daughter, it’s unlikely that they will be quite as moved by his sudden worry over whether or not he had revealed his name and his anger over his wife’s “meekness.”

This anger passes quickly, though, and when

… he was calmer he turned to his original conviction that he must somehow find her and his little Elizabeth-Jane, and put up with the shame as best he could. It was of his own making, and he ought to bear it. But first he resolved to register an oath, a greater oath than he had ever sworn before: and to do it properly he required a fit place and imagery; for there was something fetichistic in this man’s beliefs.

It’s even hard to doubt the sincerity of his regret when he seeks out the nearest church so that he can take an oath:

“I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take an oath before God here in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me; and may I be strook dumb, blind, and helpless, if I break this my oath!”

When he had said it and kissed the big book, the hay-trusser arose, and seemed relieved at having made a start in a new direction. While standing in the porch a moment he saw a thick jet of wood smoke suddenly start up from the red chimney of a cottage near, and knew that the occupant had just lit her fire. He went round to the door, and the housewife agreed to prepare him some breakfast for a trifling payment, which was done. Then he started on the search for his wife and child.

He searches for the two for several months until he reaches a seaport and hears that three people meeting their general description have emigrated, and he resigns himself to the idea that he has lost them. I suspect it will take the rest of the book to learn the moral ramifications of this transaction, but one can be sure that a price will be extracted for these actions.

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