Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Mayor of Castorbridge, by Thomas Hardy

I "read" this book on tape, mostly in my car while running errands. This is important, because my responses to Michael Henchard (especially) were affected by the harsh tone the reader gave to that character. The gruff roughness of his voice made Henchard seem so much more brutal than the other characters in the story, and may have fatally affected my response to this book.

That said, I have a problem with this book, and with Thomas Hardy. The man plays with loaded dice. He is so intent on presenting the fatal downfall of the man, that he is really quite hamfisted.

In brief, the book starts at a country fair, where Michael Henchard, his wife and baby daughter arrive looking for work. Henchard gets drunk, picks a fight with his wife, and then offers to sell her and the baby to anyone willing to pay. A sailor takes the offer, and by the time Henchard sobers up the next morning, they are gone. Chapter two takes place some twenty years later, as Henchard is celebrating his election as the Mayor of the village of Casterbridge. His wife and daughter come into town, having lived the time with the sailor, who has been lost at sea. Susan feels obligated to seek out the husband who sold her, bringing her now grown-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.

Elizabeth-Jane peeks into the inn and sees the celebration--and this is the high point of the novel. From here on, everything becomes sadder, poorer, lonelier. Henchard has worked hard over the intervening years, and has made a great success of himself. But because this is a Hardy book, nothing else will ever go right for him again.

It is this inevitability of fate that feels so contrived to me. The man who manages to work himself up from transient farm-hand to substantial man of property and town mayor is a man who has something that we never see in the resulting 17 hours of narration. The Henchard we come to know is a poor businessman, a violently emotional man, a man who carries a grudge long past the point where he alonw is the victim of his malice. He makes bitter enemies, he makes nothing but bad decisions, often fueled by his own hot-headedness, and then refuses to change course or even learn to avoid those sorts of errors. How this guy managed to not be killed in a bar brawl by 25 is beyond me.

If you assume that Henchard earned his place of distinction, his fall makes no sense. If you accept the character of the man as Hardy depicts his fall, there is no way to believe that he was ever so exalted. Plus, the man is so gosh-darned unlikeable, that I found it hard to care enough to finish the damn book.

I have seen several synopses describe the book as "Michael Henchard's attempt to atone for the sale of his wife." But that's not really what it is about. Instead, it is instead the story of Michael Henchard's bad temper. It was his drunken temper that lead him to sell his wife and daughter. It was his temper that alienated his former best friend, Donald Farfrae. It was his temper that led him into terrible business decisions as he tried to destroy Farfrae, but ruining himself instead. It should have been called "Michael Henchard's Terrible, Horrible, Awful, No Good Temper."

But there are other things that are troublesome. For instance, there is a vague morality that shifts about in order to make things the worst for Henchard. He sold his wife while drunk--bad enough--but then Hardy makes the point that Susan was too stupid to realize that she didn't have to go with the sailor. Frankly, I think it probably saved her life--Henchard would probably have killed her first and then died in a bar fight--and it seems that she was happy for those years without Henchard. Plus, it was brave of her to leave Henchard behind, and set out on an unknown life with a complete stranger. It was downright noble of her to stick to Henchard's bargain--this is not a woman who deserved to be made fun of as "simple" for following the sailor.

There is a contradiction too, in the way Hardy treats Lucetta Templeman. Henchard met Lucetta in Jersey, where their relationship created such a scandal that Lucetta could only rescue her reputation by marrying him. Henchard was prepared to propose, when Susan returned, and he felt morally obligated to resume that marriage. Lucetta comes into an inheritance and moves to Castorbridge, where she gets a eyeful of Henchard, and pretty soon recognizes that it would be a mistake to marry him. Instead, she meets and falls in love with Farfrae, and rejects Henchard's marriage proposal.

This is wrong of her, in the scheme of the book--she begged Henchard to marry her when she had no prospects and a ruined reputation. When her circumstances changed, and she had other options--she still should have married him because. . .I'm not sure why. Again, I'm sure Henchard would have been the death of her, and I'm totally in favor of a woman not being forced to marry a violent man. In one scene, Henchard enters Lucetta's house and threatens her until she promises to marry him--under the very real threat of serious physical harm, she makes a promise she does not want to make, just to get away from him. She then secretly marries Farfrae--both because she loves him, and to escape Henchard.

For this, Lucetta gets a terrible reputation! Not just in Casterbridge, but in a lot of critical reviews. Hardy treats this promise as binding--so what if she was afraid for her life? She made a promise, and she should have kept it! Compare this to Hardy's treatment of Susan--who believed herself to be bound by her word. A woman can't catch a break!

There is also a heavy handed use of coincidence. Sure, I'm willing to suspend a lot of disbelief in the context of a novel, but Hardy's coincidences are fuel for Henchard's bad temper, and thus they HAVE to happen, or Henchard wouldn't self-destruct. For example, Henchard decides (after Susan's death) to tell Elizabeth-Jane the truth: that he and Susan were married long ago, and that he, not the sailor Newson, is her father. No sooner does he decide to do this then he finds a letter written by Susan saying that Elizabeth-Jane is actually Newson's daughter, and "his" Elizabeth-Jane died years ago. Henchard's pig-headedness erupts in full force, and he decides he cannot bear to have Elizabeth-Jane in his house.

There are other examples, where Henchard decides to do something, only to find out in the literal next minute the exact and only thing that makes him change his mind completely. He gets so angry at Farfrae, that he tricks Farfrae into a fist-fight in which he fully intends to kill the man. Less than 2 hours later, Henchard is running across country to tell Farfrae that Lucetta is ill. Of course, Farfrae thinks it's a trick to send him into another ambush, and Henchard suffers immediate and complete remorse for his earlier fight.

So, I found myself not at all sympathetic to the Mayor of Casterbridge--the man was certifiable, and his downfall is unbelievable in part because there is no way such a volatile man would have risen the way he did.

There are some fascinating aspects to the work--aspects that get overwhelmed by Hardy's insistence on the arc of Henchard's life, but that are really quite wonderful. The detail of the country fairs, the civic celebrations, the rhythms of agricultural life in the era before mechanization--they all preserve a way of life that was gone by the time Hardy was writing.

Hardy does set up some elegant balances to his work: Henchard's stubborn clinging to tradition, versus Farfrae's curiosity about the future, for example; or Elizabeth-Jane's care to dress modestly versus Lucetta's extravagant cherry red costuming. There is a sensitive reporting of the different social and economic classes that exist even in the smallest of villages: the rustics who cling to superstition and tradition are carefully described. After Susan Henchard is buried, one of the rustics mentions that Susan had provided everything for her own funeral, even the four pennies for her eyes. One of the other rustics digs up the money, illustrating the desperate practicality of the poor over the sentiment available to the more well off.

I felt this way about Tess of the D'Urbervilles as well: the whole plot turns on the question of who is Tess's "true" husband: the man who raped her, or the man who married her? Even so, Tess's fate is not sealed until she murders D'Urberville. Really, once the blood seeps through the floor to drip from the ceiling below--it's hard to feel that Fate has ruined Tess's life, since she did such a nice job of setting herself up for the gallows all by her self.

There is an interesting article in last week's New Yorker about Thomas Hardy, calling him the novelist of the world in which God is dead. I don't agree: Hardy uses "Fate" to punish the wicked and the weak, and even the good end up damaged--but I don't see a material distinction between his "Fate" and many conceptions of "God." Men's fates are predetermined in Hardy's novel, and that's as God-like as John Calvin.

No comments: