A Book Review on The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886.
The Mayor of Casterbridge was written by the British author Thomas Hardy, who is described as “the greatest tragic writer among English novelists”[i]. In fact, he is believed to be the source of the term “cliffhanger”. In one serialized novel, Hardy literally ended a chapter with a main character hanging off a cliff[ii]. His book The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in 1886, and is set in a fictional part of rural England called Wessex. Hardy didn’t need a cliffhanger for this story, however, because it started with a man auctioning off his wife and baby daughter.
This is how the story starts, “A young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching a village… what was really peculiar, however, in this couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved. They walked side by side in such a way as to suggest afar the confidential chat of people full of reciprocity, but on closer view it could be discerned that the man was reading or pretending to read” p1
The hustle and bustle of a fair taking place in town attracted the pair. Having not found work, and hungry, they entered the fair field. The young man, Henchard, woke up the next day to find money thrust in his front pocket and his wife’s ring tossed on the floor. Fragments of last night’s occurrences crowded his mind. It was not a dream he realized, he had indeed auctioned off his wife and daughter.
Desperately he searched the town, but couldn’t find them anywhere. It all started with a drunken fit complaining about him being married so young. He swore never to drink again for as many years as he lived, and took off to the town of Casterbridge. Eighteen years later, the mother and daughter returned looking for him. Turns out, he was not hard to find, seeing as the man they’re looking for is now Mister mayor.
Funny how all of this mess is only chapter one; clearly there is more to the plot than just that. There are few main characters here, and with every chapter the story continues but from a shifting perspective, revealing their inner thoughts and feelings.
The major themes in this novel are past secrets, propriety, and honor. When Henchard moved to Casterbridge, the town’s people only know that he lost his wife. They are unaware of the exact circumstances that led to that, and now that he has become mayor he intends to keep it that way. If the complete story was made known, his respectability will be at risk. As the story goes, it is revealed that Henchard is not the only character with a dark past to conceal.
It is evident how propriety and honor were on the forefront of Henchard’s mind, and these values don’t always push him in the right direction. His desires and values are in a constant tug of war, yanking him this way and that. He is presented as not entirely good and not entirely bad, but simply flawed. And aren’t we all?
“A shocker” – if I had to describe this book with one word, that would be it. The twists in this book won’t fail to make you gasp every time. The Mayor of Casterbridge is a fast paced, thrilling read, with never a dull moment. It took me four unproductive days to finish this 360 pages long book, and it was worth every moment.