The Wife Selling Scene in The Mayor of Casterbridge
Like Shakespeare, the dramatist, Thomas Hardy, the novelist takes great care to make the opening chapter of his story impressive and interesting, so that the readers at once feel like glued to it. Weird, absurd, phantasmagoric, whatever epithet we may use to stress the strangeness and unrealisticness of the episode, it remains a master piece of fictional achievement, a symbolic representation of the motto “What will be, will be”, and a parable of universal significance. It is like the drama of life beginning at the point of climax, and all subsequent events of the protagonist’s career revert to this height of his sin committed in the very first scene of the novel. The whole scene is presented so vividly that the reader has the impression of being present at the very location and witnessing every moment of the strange transaction.
The central figure of the episode, as yet unnamed, is a young hay-trusser of twenty-one. He comes to Weydon Priors along with his wife and child on a fair-day. He comes from a distant village in search of job, and arrives at the fair at about evening, tired from walking all day, and hungry as well. On entering the fair-ground, the family can see two prominent tents offering refreshments. One of them is the licensed liquor tent, the other is selling furmity. The husband and wife, it has been clearly pointed out, do not cherish any mutual love, and they even avoid conversation with each other as far as possible. But knowing the man’s propensity for drinks and the bad effect it has on him on occasions, the wife successfully guides him to the apparently harmless furmity tent. But the relief proves to be ironical, because the proprietress of the furmity tent is an evil hag who loves to carry on an underhand business, for greater profit, by mixing smuggled rum with furmity, and selling it to the customers who want it at a higher price. The young hay-trusser soon joins the game by winking at the furmity-woman, and starts taking basin after basin of this intoxicating concoction. As a result he gets more and more drunk and his subconscious desire begins to surface. The company within the tent, consisting mostly of low people, now happens to discuss the frustrating effect of early marriage on the careers of young men.
Henchard (whose name is not mentioned in Chapter 1), himself suffering from the grudge that the burden of a family has prevented him at early youth from achieving anything great and brilliant, now declares that he would be happy to get rid of this burden of wife and child. Coincidentally just about that time some Gypsies are heard auctioning their old horses, including a mare, at a throwaway price. Henchard on hearing it, at once decides to sell his wife by auction to anybody needing such a commodity, since she does not have any use for him. The degenerate company encourages the proposal, taking it as an entertaining joke. Susan tries to bring her husband to sense without any avail, and finally, disgusted with the man and the situation, she indirectly agrees to be sold to another man. The proceeding is interrupted for some time by the sudden entry of a swallow into the tent. The bird, puzzled and frightened, does not easily find a way out. Its haphazard zig-zag flight over their heads diverts the attention of the assembled people.
There is an unmistakable parallelism between Susan and the swallow. With the departure of the bird, Henchard’s proposal of wife-selling seems to have been forgotten by the company. But he himself remembers what he was bent to do. By this time he is even more deeply drunk, and is beyond knowing what a great sin he is about to commit, and what far-reaching calamities it would bring to him. He insists that Susan should stand up to be properly seen by prospective buyers, and she does so out of exasperation. A man volunteers to act as the auctioneer. In spite of the warning from a well meaning matron, the auction gets started. The minimum price announced is five guineas. But when the call is made, there is no taker. It is already decided that whoever offers the stipulated amount will get both Susan and the child. For a moment it seems that the transaction will not materialize after all. A dramatic suspense prevails. But just when the offer is about to be withdrawn, unexpectedly a stranger, dropping from nowhere, accepts the terms and comes forward. Henchard demands the money first from the newcomer. The sailor produces five pounds and adds five shillings to it for the child. Susan warns her husband for the last time that to take the money is to cancel their conjugal bond once for all. The obstinate husband does not listen to the voice of concern and morality. As soon as he takes the money, Susan takes off the wedding ring from her finger and flings it at him. She goes away with the sailor, taking the child with her. The husband just stupidly keeps looking at their disappearance without emotion or understanding. A slight reaction is heard for a moment that she should not have taken his daughter with her. But almost at once he falls into a deep slumber.
The whole scene has a dream-like effect, as if it has not happened in reality, but is only a nightmare. It is an unexpectedly sensational beginning of a tragic story, and the seed of tragedy is sown through this decisive, dreadful act of violation of the sacred marriage-bond and of human relationship. The episode is presented in a vividly dramatic manner. So unexpectedly we find the characters in the midst of a grim situation. Dialogues appropriately reflect the fatefulness of the whole affair. There is uncertainty and suspense for quite some time as to whether the transaction will actually happen, and when it does, the readers feel as much dumbfounded as the actual spectators of the scene within the tent.
Though it has a definite local colour, the incident has a universal appeal and perspective. The ‘man’ in this chapter might have been any man of that time in any country of the world. Special dimensions are given to this episode through the coincidence of the horse-selling that inspires the frustrated husband’s horrid idea of wife-selling, and through the symbolic intrusion of the swallow into the furmity tent
Evil and fatalism are the basic factors in an authentic tragedy. Here we find Destiny using the furmity-woman as its agent. In fact she reminds us of the witches in Macbeth. She prepares a concoction out of which evil is produced, and, like the witches, she is a double dealer pretending to be good and honest. Altogether the fair at Weydon Priors proves to be the foulest stroke of Fate for Henchard and his family.
To sell away one’s wife and child is to disown one’s nearest kith and kin, and murder the sacred relationship. Henchard’s act is therefore the gravest possible sin which puts him at par with the biblical Cain. Inevitably he will have to suffer a dire punishment for this crime. If he had not done such a revolting wrong there would have been no story, and no possibility of any tragedy. All that happens in Henchard’s life henceforth, whether his triumphant achievement of mayorship and affluence, or his subsequent ignominy, and mental agony, and extreme physical suffering leading to his tragic death, all have reference to this initial blunder. This first outrageous act of the protagonist serves as the index of the devilish urge in him which is to assert itself from time to time, and destroy all the worthy and noble impulses of his character, finally making him unfit for humanity and social order. The sense of the unrealisticity of the scene becomes irrelevant as one realizes the masterly manner in which Hardy makes it run like a leitmotif through the entire novel. Indeed, very few novels in the literature of the world can claim to have a more meaningful opening scene.