An Africa-centred critique of The Mayor of Casterbridge: Part Seven…..main themes and motifs


AFRICA-centred thought esteems human values of compassion, sympathy and empathy.
It values above all unhu/ubuntu, that is, the quality of being human.
Anything that militates against unhu/ubuntu is considered a liability or risk to persons and to communities.
African folklore is awash with stories that teach that the road to ruin is punctuated by vice, jealousy and hatred.
And Thomas Hardy strives to teach the same in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
However, the only deviation from African thought is where he completely refuses to grant mercy even to those who have shown contrition and penitence.
Hardy becomes so obsessed with Fate that he leaves no room for rehabilitative and restorative justice – the cornerstones of Africa-centred jurisprudence.
So complete is his decimation of the protagonist that we wonder where he gets this unbending callousness, almost forcing us to see him as hitlerite.
The idea of a blind, arbitrary Fate is a central theme in Hardy’s fiction.
It is a force that brings suffering and feels no pity or remorse, reminding us of a cold-bloodedness we associate with European acts of racism, slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, blind Fate manifests as a series of ruinous coincidences and un-foreseeable circumstances.
Such coincidences and circumstances seem to conspire against Michael Henchard from the opening scenes.
It is clear from the onset that Henchard is doomed to catastrophe.
Notice there are two shops offering food at the fair; one clearly advertises that it sells liquor, but the other seems not to do so.
Susan, knowing Henchard’s weakness for alcohol, steers him to what seems to be the ‘safer’ of the two establishments, but, as fate would have it, the proprietor there sells rum on the sly and Henchard is soon drunk and loudly insisting on his desire to sell his wife.
Once Henchard yields to the choice to sell Susan and the baby, despite all the protestations and efforts to bring him to his reason, his fateful end is sealed.
This leads to the twin theme of how personal choice interacts with Fate.
Hardy explores how, and whether, fate can be altered, forestalled or avoided by personal choices.
He explores how personal choice may or may not influence the outcome of a person’s life.
He answers the questions: May a person have a happy end instead of a miserable end if by some means Fate can be contained or avoided?
Henchard illustrates how a person may unleash the forces of fate through immoral, rash, unethical and cruel choices.
He shows how fate is let loose in all its fury by choices that are unreasoned, unsound and unseeing, no foresight is employed to calculate future effects of present choices.
Farfrae illustrates the opposite.
He shows how calm, well-ordered scientific rational thought and choices can lead to a smooth course in life by forestalling any opportunity for Fate to unleash calamity that dooms life to a miserable end.
Hardy’s answer to his own questions is that a person may, by some means, avoid the misery of Fate and that means is cool, calm, reserved, careful, deliberate and well-reasoned thought that foresees the future consequences of present choices.
Throughout the novel, protagonist Henchard makes decisions while drunk, angry, proud or jealous.
These choices ultimately harm Henchard himself and lead to the loss of his family, fortune and position in society.
Henchard’s drinking early in the novel causes an emotional rift between him and his wife and allows her to happily leave him for Richard Newson.
After the loss of his wife and daughter, Henchard vows to not drink for 20 years.
This vow allows Henchard to be successful and prosperous, rising to prominence in Casterbridge as the mayor and as the owner of a successful corn and wheat business.
His subsequent return to alcoholism contributes to his poor plan to kill Donald Farfrae.
Henchard’s alcoholism is linked to his pride, as he uses drinking to compensate for feelings of self-hatred.
His pride causes him to lose his partnership with Farfrae and to eventually go bankrupt because he cannot accept that the younger man might be more popular and more successful than himself.
Henchard’s pride produces his hatred of Farfrae.
After Farfrae’s holiday celebrations are more popular than Henchard’s, Henchard, in a ‘jealous temper’, says the young man’s time as his business manager is drawing to a close.
As Farfrae starts his own separate business and continues to excel within Casterbridge society, Henchard loses family and fortune as his jealousy harms himself and his reputation.
For example, Henchard’s attempt to ruin Farfrae’s business backfires and causes his own business to go into debt.
Despite Farfrae’s kindness, Henchard establishes himself as Farfrae’s rival in business and in romance.
Henchard’s interest in Lucetta increases, primarily because of her transfer of her affections to Farfrae.
Henchard jealously tries to force her to agree to marry him.
When Lucetta marries Farfrae secretly, Henchard is angry and obsessed with her betrayal.
Henchard is driven crazy by the thought of Farfrae taking a position as the new mayor and their positions are completely reversed by the end of the novel.
Farfrae is a successful and prominent figure in Casterbridge, and he lives in the grand house that was once Henchard’s.
Henchard dies, virtually alone and friendless.
The central theme of The Mayor of Casterbridge may be as enigmatic as ‘anything (is) possible at the hands of time and chance, except, perhaps, fair play’ (Ch. 1).
However, the novel’s subtitle, ‘A Study of a Man of Character’, suggests that it must be related to Henchard’s capacity for suffering, since for Henchard — in part owing to his failure to communicate his true feelings and to his tendency towards ‘introspective inflexibility’ (an inability to understand his own motivations) — ‘happiness (is) but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain’ (Ch. 45), for that is the lesson that the youthful Elizabeth-Jane apparently learns from her step-father.
And yet the ‘unbroken tranquility’ she enjoys in maturity, as Farfrae’s wife, forces her ‘to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen’.
Certainly, neither Henchard nor Lucetta realises any satisfaction from an existence (and apparently, a pleasant existence socially and materially) founded on a lie.
Both characters’ fates illustrate the pattern of a secret in the past unexpectedly being brought to light and blighting present happiness.
Lucetta refuses to ‘be a slave to the past’ (Ch. 25) and determines to bury the secret of her former relationship with Henchard (and, therefore, her social obligation to marry him) in order to satisfy her present passion.
Similarly, Henchard’s lying to Newson about the death of Elizabeth-Jane is directly responsible for her rejection of him.
Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae both escape the tragedy because, although they too are guilty of minor duplicities, they are essentially altruistic and ‘single-hearted’.
It is not enough, Hardy seems to imply in this novel, to meet the vicissitudes of life heroically or defiantly one must do so with love, compassion and charity.


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