Philosophy and Literature: Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge

A recent rereading of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge has inspired a view thoughts about philosophy and literature.

It is a novel which is particularly close to tragedy, as define dby Aristotle in The Poetics, a hero falls in the world and endures suffering as the result of an error of judgement. As a novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge repeats the situation in a structure more complex than tragedy. An Aristotelian terms. a repeated tragedy within an epic. The tight structure of tragedy is repeated across a work with the episodic associational structure of epic.

The tragic falls: Henchard sells his wife while drunk and angry with her; Henchard ruins himself later when he is a wealthy farmer and a mayor, by engaging in a reckless attempt to win a commercial battle with his ex-friend and manager Donald Farfrae; he misses the chance to marry his ex-girlfriend before Farfrae wins her over; he misses the chance to tell his step-daughter Elizabeth-Jane that he is not her biological father when he finds out himself: he misses the chance to tell the truth to Elizabeth-Jane and her biological father. He goes through many little falls due to his self-destructive character leading to our next topic.

The hero Michael Henchard has many ‘anti-hero’ qualities. He is a loner and is disposed to arbitrary destructive and self-destructive acts. He is a Dostoevskian character in this sense, and has some resemblance with the heroes of Knut Hansun, themselves presumably drawing on Dostoevsky. Like Dostoevskey’s characters he tends to promote scandal. One memorable example is his attempt to welcome a member of the Royal Family to Dorchester after he has fallen from being mayor and is a rather disreputable laboourer.

The anti-hero, I believe, receives its classical description and theorisation in Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel. Lukacs refers to the growing contradiction in the novel between the hero and the world. The hero does not see herself in the world and cannot follow the laws of the world. There is an opposition between subjectivity and the world. The hero can increasingly only exist as insane or criminal. In this argument, the anti-hero is the necessary hero of the novel since Cervantes.

The Dostoevskian aspects of Henchard, irritability, irrationality, self-destruction, provocation of scandal, excessive pride coexisting with excessive humility, draw us towards Bakhtin”s discussion of the novel through Dostoevsky in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Bakhtin emphasises all these aspects of Dostoevsky in a discussion of what he takes to be the ideal form of the novel in Dostoevsky. The most Bakhtinian concern is the provocation of scandal and that leads us to the preoccupations of Rabelais and his World. Famously Bakhtin there dwells on the carnivalesque as an important moment in popular culture until recent times, referring to festival moments where social hierarchy is inverted, and power is mocked. The rise of Henchard from labourer to mayor and rich farmer, and his subsequent fall to labourer again has this structure in general. One moment in the novel particularly suggest the Carnivalesque. This is the ‘skimmity ride’ in which disreputable local characters humiliate a couple in the novel. In general the Skimmity Ride is a rural practice of mocking a couple where the wife does not ‘belong’ wholly to the husband. In this case they the locals parade large dummies of Henchard and his ex-girlfriend Lucetta. The intention is to humiliate Lucetta and her husband Donald Farfrae. The consequence is that Lucetta miscarries and dies. This is the Carnivalesque as a festival of resentment, rather then the neo-Marxist reading of Bakhtin in which the Carnival is the release of popular radical energies. In this case, the mocking of power is clearly an example of evil, and is described in terms of every kind of economic, social and psychological resentment coming to the surface. It very much suggests Rousseau on self-love and imagination, and Nietzsche on ressentiment.

In its tragic aspects, Hardy’s novel seems to confirm Hegel and Kierkegaard’s analysis of the difference between Ancient and Modern Tragedy. Ancient Tragedy refers to the burden of fate carried by a family or a nation , it refers to pollution that afflicts the hero which comes from an unconscious or inherited transgression of boundaries. In Modern Tragedy, the hero bears all this alone from deliberate willed decision. Henchard demonstrates a strong sense of unbearable guilt not just at his actions, but at his who,e existence. The novel ends with his desire to be forgotten. Elizabeth-Jane is left to reflect in a more measured novellistic way on the burdens of existence, so tragic elements are modified by the novellistic which presents a whole world or varied fortunes. The tragic elements also have to be seen in terms of Schopenhauer, whose philosophy Hardy knew,a s did many literary writers of the time. Henchard’s sense of the futility of existence is like Schopenhauer. The role of tragedy relates to Schopenhauer, as does the role of music. Henchard is partly destroyed because he normally lacks the music which communicates with his inner self, a view of music clearly taken from Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy and Literature: Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge

  1. <>Henchard demonstrates a strong sense of unbearable guilt not just at his actions, but at his whole existence.<>Hello Professor Stocker … I watched the BBC adaptation of this story some time ago. The character of Henchard struck me as the most powerful literary treatment of the Christian doctrine of original sin i have ever encountered.

  2. Thanks for your comment Celal. I see what you mean by the role of original sin, though I believe it is important that original sin has been secularised in Hardy. Henchard is defined by a character at odds with his environment and with the narrative of change and development which characterises the novelistic form. There is also a reaching back to an antique sense of the tragedy of life via Schopenhauer.

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