Title and Subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge | Significance

Title and Subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge | Significance

Title and Subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge

It should be noted, and a few critics have done it, that the complete title of Hardy’s novel is The Life and Death of The Mayor of Casterbridge, which sounds somewhat medieval, reminding one of titles like Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. It carries a moral implication with it, and indeed the question of morality and immorality comes up again and again in the story either directly or obliquely. But the fundamental point is that the title announces the complete dominance of the protagonist in this book, as usually happens in authentic tragedies, and thereby makes the readers anticipate a tragic story, especially since death will occur at the end of it.

So the justification of naming the novel after its central figure is to be sought, first of all, through a scrutiny of its overwhelming importance, and how this one character overshadows all other figures in stature, interest and emotional appeal. Even a casual reading of the novel must give the reader a strong impression that compared to Michael Henchard all other characters are pale and insignificant. In fact, they are around him so that his characteristic traits can flourish in interaction with them, and only as far as they can contribute to the momentum of his career and fatal behaviours. As Laurence Lerner observes, the book is ‘dominated by one man’, and “the center from which the action derives is that man’s highly individual personality, his tendency to impose himself on the world’. He is the focus of attention right from the start as he enters the stage, reading a ballad sheet while walking silently along a country road. He is the cynosure as he sells his wife and baby daughter at a shocking auction within the furmity-tent in a drunken spell. Hardy repeatedly gives us his hero’s exclusive close-ups attended often with somewhat Shakespeare-like soliloquies, not so eloquent, but nevertheless revealing. In distress and trouble, as well as in his moments of power and grandeur, Henchard absorbs our attention all through. His bewilderment on the morning following the auction, leading to remorse, hatred for his weakness, and then culminating in his stern oath to give up drinking liquor for twenty-one years, made at a church, duly touching the Holy Bible, is unfolded magically by the author to our eager, astonished eyes.

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Again everyone’s eyes, including those of Elizabeth-Jane and Susan, are riveted on Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, as he presides over the meeting of the distinguished people of the city at King’s Arms. We see him fascinated as he ventures to seek out the weather-prophet, Mr. Fall; when he accepts from the seat of the Magistrate that the profligate beggarly old woman is telling the truth about his past; when he saves Lucetta’s life from the attack of the mad bull; and then, after knowing that she had secretly married Farfrae, hatefully refuses monetary help from her; when he jumps to the sanded spot with a private flag to welcome the Prince before the civic authorities can do the same, when he fights with Farfrae on top of the granary loft, with one hand bound to his side in order to avoid the advantage of his greater physical strength, and yet, having his enemy’s life at his complete mercy, lets him go; and even when at the end of his career he has starved himself to death after writing his last “Will”, duly signed, where he has abjured all social religious and personal attachment with this world. Farfrae may have become very rich in business, and attained the prestigious mayorship, but he is unquestionably dwarfed by the insatiable energy, the primitive and lofty personality of the unrefined benefactor at whose expense his material rise was possible. So without taking much trouble of investigation, critics can unanimously conclude that Henchard’s life is what the book is primarily and predominantly concerned with, and so it has been befittingly named after the hero. But one point may be raised: the title could have been ‘The Rise and Fall of Michael Henchard’ because Henchard was not a Mayor, but a most insignificant hay-trusser, at the beginning, and the last stage of his life saw him reduced to the condition of a daily labourer.

This is where Thomas Hardy has advantage over Bunyan, and utilizes his opportunity and power of concept skilfully. Hardy is conscious of writing a tragic novel modelled on Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. He knows that an ordinary man can not be a tragic hero; to make it consequential enough he must be shown as enjoying eminence and an elevated position in society before the reversal of fortune. If simply the name of Henchard was mentioned in the title, there would be only an expectation of an eventful life ending in perhaps a pathetic death of a commonplace person. It is in his Mayorship achieved through his full utilization of the talent of industry and inborn knack in the fodder business, and ultimately lost due to a combination of his constitutional weak traits like vanity, recklessness, sentimental foolishness and superstition, that constitutes the chief importance of Henchard. Hence instead of mentioning his name, the designation indicating the height he had soared to is mentioned prominently in the title of his story,

While there is little scope of dispute or debate about the title of the novel, the sub-title ‘The Story of a Man of Character‘ has caused many critics to raise their eye-brows. To put it simply, they have expressed both surprise and disapproval of such a description of the protagonist.

Among the earliest of the disapprovers was R.H. Hutton who wrote in Spectator, “Why should he specially term his hero in the title page a ‘man of character’, we do not clearly understand. To keep strictly to the associations from which the word “character is derived, a man of character ought to suggest a man of steady and unvarying character, a man who conveys very much the same conception of his own qualities under one set of circumstances, which he conveys under another. This is true of many men, and they might be called men of character par excellence. But the essence of Michael Henchard is that he is a man of large nature and depth of passion, who is yet subject to the most fitful influences, who can do in one mood acts of which he will never cease to repent in all his other moods….”. So the point of Hutton’s objection is that Henchard does not have a fixed, unchangeable character who will react predictably to various circumstances.

A ‘man of character’ may also be interpreted as a man of ideal character, who can be a role model to others. Men of noble principles and incarnations of great virtues, who rise above worldly motives and are ready to sacrifice their lives for great causes, should certainly be eulogized as men of character. And definitely Henchard cannot come anywhere near this noble category. Far from being perfect and venerable, he is a man of many flaws, some of which are dangerous, such as his outburst of anger leading to cruel acts, like the selling away of his wife, and dragging Abel Whittle to the street in his underclothes.

But to find fault with the phrasing of the sub-title basically comes from misunderstanding what Hardy has implied by the phrase “Man of Character. He is quite justified to use it in the sense of a man of unique and memorable character, which is surprisingly composed of opposite elements rarely found in the same man. It is true that his temper of heart changes many times even during the execution of the same purpose. But basically we find in him the same ardour, the same pride, the same unlimited magnanimity, the same inability to carry out in cold blood the angry resolve of the mood of revenge or scorn, the same hasty unreasonableness, the same disposition to swing back to an equally hasty reasonableness. This is found throughout his career, and if his character was not what it is, there would have been no tragedy in the story of his life and death. He is a man of character in the sense that he is an extremely remarkable person, and unforgettable for his possession of extremes of admirable and blamable qualities which interact with each other, with circumstances, and with other characters, in such a way as to always ensure his future suffering.

F.R. Karl’s observation on Henchard’s character is relevant to the point under discussion. He says, ‘By moving at the extremes of behaviour which he himself cannot understand Henchard recalls in part Dickens’s Steerforth (David Copperfield) and Bradley Headstone (Our Mutual Friend), and foreruns Conrad’s Lord Jim, Gide’s Lafcadio, and Camus’ Meursault-each of whom is obsessed by demons that remain unrecognizable, although they all perceive that there is something within they must control. When control nevertheless becomes impossible they commit actions which directly or indirectly injure others while also laying the groundwork for their own destruction. Henchard’s fixed behaviour strengthens the fable or fairytale atmosphere that surrounds the narrative.

Yes, there is something mythical and symbolic in the conception and presentation of such a character, which defies the demands of realistic development of a character. Such a character can be and must be the destiny of its possessor. It is Hardy’s great achievement that his portrait of his protagonist, extremely impulsive in his loves, his hates and his decisions, capable of Titanic physical strength (he wrenches the neck of the mad bull, and easily lifts a loaded cart sunk in the soil) and enormous strength of will (he keeps his oath of not touching liquors for 21 years, and willfully starves himself to death), and yet full of tenderness and helplessness of a child in the depth of his heart (how he begs to Elizabeth-Jane not to forget him), is fully credible to us. Laurence Lerner rightly says, ‘Hardy knew that he had created a masterly character study, and with pardonable pride he pointed it out in the sub-title.’ And in his Preface, Hardy plainly states the fact:

“This is more particularly a study of one man’s deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex life.”

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