The Mayor of Casterbridge as a Regional Novel
Walter Scott has immortalized some part of Scotland in his Waverley Novels, mainly out of the necessity of providing a historical foundation to his fiction depicting several generations through a series of novels. But among the moderns, Thomas Hardy is the first major English regional novelist. His Wessex is a symbolic microcosm like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, or like Conrad’s Sulaco, for the land itself breathes the essence of the tales that take place in it. Wessex is firmly based on observed actuality, but the structure of meaning rises far above the base. Egdon Heath (The Return of the Native), Hintock Woods (Far From the Madding Crowd), Tolbothays Dairy (Tess), the mouldering stonework of Christminster (Jude the Obscure), and the city of Casterbridge — each of these is symbolic and metaphoric. Hardy not only portrays a locality so clearly and vividly but also makes his setting part and parcel of the two most important ingredients of the story, plot and characterization. The Mayor of Casterbridge is particularly comparable to Zola’s La Terre, a passionate novel about the countryside.
“The vast agricultural plain of La Beauce, stretching northward from the Loire, with Chartres as its capital, provides a setting very much like Wessex: a world of its own in which generations have pursued what seems an unchanging pattern of exploitation of the land” (Laurence Lerner).
The action of The Mayor of Casterbridge takes place mainly in the old country-town of Dorchester. Casterbridge, as described by Hardy, is a typical city grown in the midst of surrounding country pastures of the nineteenth century. The reader senses the atmosphere of leisurely, unhurried living which was characteristic of the markettowns of those days. The marketplace, the hay and corn business, the town band playing ‘The Roast Beef of old England’ in the High Street, the esteem in which the Mayor is held by the country folk, are typical of the nineteenth century rural England; and Hardy has unmistakably captured these subtleties with the feelings, imagination, and literary technique which includes apt use of Dorsetshire dialect. And these qualities have placed him in the forefront of most authors of his days.
A deeper dimension is given through revelation of the customs, beliefs and superstitions of the Wessex people. Henchard, before gambling with the weather-dependent harvest, goes to Mr. Fall, ‘a man of curious repute as a forecaster or weather-prophet’. We are made to feel that the man indeed has a marvellous power of knowing things beyond the normal rational calculation. His prediction to Henchard, somewhat like those of the Witches to Macbeth, is partly true. Susan’s death provides an occasion for Hardy to relate, through choric speeches, some of the practices or rites of the rustics, such as shutting the eyes of the dead with coins, and keeping them in place for some time, making sure that ‘eyes don’t open no more’, and then the pennies should be buried.
The basic physical layout of Casterbridge – a square of mosaics surrounded by green fields all round-is carefully described, and individual buildings like Henchard’s house, Jopp’s cottage, High Place Hall, the various inns, are fitted into place. But Hardy’s chief concern is not so much to enumerate the town’s visual features – topographical, architectural, archaeological – as to evoke the precise texture of its social and economic life. He insists upon the intimate connection between Casterbridge and the surrounding countryside. While it is a relationship in itself picturesque — as butterflies fly along the High Street on their way from one field to another it is at the same time absolutely fundamental to the economy of the town, and to the action of the novel. It is upon the growing and marketing of hay and com-upon the quality of the harvest and the prevailing conditions of supply and demand—that the livelihood of Casterbridge chiefly depends. Agriculture provides the reason for the town’s existence. The procession of the seasons dominate the pattern of its life. Hence the problem caused by the supply of bad corn. Hence the crucial importance of the weather during the harvest fortnight.
Without a setting like Casterbridge, Henchard’s tragedy could not have worked out the way it has. It is such a small place that it cannot accommodate two big men at a time, and the fittest and the most obeyed can flourish here alone at the cost of others. Popular verdict carries a lot of influence in Casterbridge. Henchard-Farfrae rivalry is taken up by the people of the town when both are engaged in the corn and fodder business. It becomes evident in the episode of the collision of two carts-one belonging to Farfrae and the other to Henchard–that Henchard is fast losing popular support while Farfrae is gaining what Henchard is losing. Ominous voices already made themselves heard in the days of Henchard’s prosperity from members of the lower orders of the society who complained of Henchard’s ‘unprincipled bread’.
Hardy keeps Casterbridge constantly before the reader’s attention by spacing his descriptive passages throughout the length of the novel: the Ring or the Roman amphitheatre, the old prison, the black river, the wayside shops etc. It is only in Chapter 36 that he fills in the part of the map called Mixen Lane, whose relationship to the polite face of the town is somewhat analogous to that between the sinister rear of the High Place Hall and its dignified front elevation. The focal point of the area-its ‘Church’, as Hardy remarks ironically, is Peter’s Finger, an inn bearing about the same social relation to the Three Mariners as the latter to the King’s Arms,” though the lowest fringe of the Mariner’s partly touched the crest of Peter’s at points.” The Skimmity Ride or Skimmington Ride, one of the most notorious social features of the region, originates at Peter’s Finger. It derives immediately from Jopp’s animosity towards Henchard and Farfrae and Lucetta, and from Henchard’s poor judgement in trusting him with confidential matters. Fundamentally, however, it has its roots in the more generalized class hostility already evident among the crowd outside the King’s Arms. It is Nance Mockeridge, who took bitter offence at Henchard’s objection to Elizabeth Jane’s serving her food, who first suggests the Skimmity Ride. It is motivated, as Farfrae himself recognizes, by the “tempting prospect of putting to the blush the people who stand at the head of affairs-that supreme and piquant enjoyment of those who writhe under the heel of the same.” The whole episode is an effective dramatization of the regional practice, and, we are told, accounts of at least three Skimmity Rides occurred in Dorset newspapers in 1884.
The comprehensive social knowledge and understanding displayed in The Mayor obviously owe something to childhood memories of the actual Dorchester, to daily experience of the town, and to deliberate research that resulted in procuring a newspaper report of an actual incident of wife-selling. But everything Hardy draws from these sources is merged and transmuted in the creation of a specifically fictional Casterbridge, the product of an informed imagination. The setting is darkly suited to this tale of human disintegration. Though we have glimpse of Casterbrige’s secluded gardens, its royal occasions, its sunny rusticity, we are left with acuter impressions of its less favourable side. The ghosts of the long slaughtered are conjured up; the worst features of the country traditions are emphasized, as though when country-folk come to town they become evil. The bridge where the unfortunates loiter to stew in their own misfortune, are symbolic of Casterbridge, of Michael Henchard, and of the entire story.