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The Mayor of Casterbridge: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Overview of The Mayor…
  • 0:35 Characters
  • 1:57 Plot Summary
  • 8:25 Themes and Analysis
  • 9:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Thompson

James has served as a teaching assistant in humanities and has master's degrees in humanities and interdisciplinary studies.

Thomas Hardy's novel 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' addresses the theme of remorse, the desire for redemption, and the challenge of atoning for the past. In this lesson, we will explore this masterpiece of Victorian English literature.

Overview of The Mayor of Casterbridge

Have you ever done something that you later regretted? In his 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy set out to examine how a man's choices affect his life in the long run. Set in the early nineteenth-century in Casterbridge, a fictional town in Dorset in southwestern England, Hardy used his unique understanding of the poor and the rich to create the unique plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Through summarizing the plot and analyzing the characters, we will look at the ultimate themes of remorse and redemption.

The Characters

  • Michael Henchard is a young migrant farm laborer who works his way up to a position as a wealthy agricultural merchant and mayor of the town of Casterbridge.
  • Susan Henchard is Henchard's wife, whom he sells at a country fair along with their baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane.
  • Richard Newson is a sailor who buys Susan and Elizabeth-Jane from Henchard.
  • Elizabeth-Jane Newson is the daughter whom Richard Newson and Susan have together after the first Elizabeth-Jane (Susan and Henchard 's daughter) dies.
  • Donald Farfrae is a young man from Scotland who passes through Casterbridge on his way to America. Henchard convinces him to stay in Casterbridge and become Henchard's manager. However, the two become rivals. Farfrae starts his own business in competition with Henchard. Farfrae then becomes the mayor of Casterbridge after Henchard's term expires.
  • Lucetta Templeman is a woman from the Isle of Jersey who meets Henchard and falls in love with him. She later moves to Casterbridge with the intention of marrying Henchard, but she meets Farfrae, falls in love with him, and marries him instead.
  • Joshua Jopp is one of Henchard's employees. He bears a grudge against Lucetta because she refused to help him get a job with Farfrae. When Henchard gives Jopp love letters that she wrote to him, Jopp uses this evidence of their old affair to humiliate Lucetta after she marries Farfrae.

Plot Summary

In the opening scene, Michael Henchard arrives at a country fair with his wife and child, looking for work. Henchard and Susan have grown emotionally distant from each other, and Henchard regrets marrying her. At the fair, he gets drunk and complains about his unhappy married life, then offers to sell Susan and Elizabeth-Jane to anyone who will buy them from him. At first, the onlookers assume he is only joking, but Richard Newson takes him up on his offer. Henchard falls asleep, and when he awakes he finds himself alone and is overcome with remorse. He desperately tries to find Newson, Susan, and Elizabeth-Jane, but no one knows where they have gone.

Henchard resolves to make a new start in life. He works hard and gradually becomes an agricultural merchant. His wealth increases, and he is eventually elected mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard never marries, but while staying on the Isle of Jersey, he meets Lucetta Templeman. They have an affair. He would like to marry her, but he is unsure if Susan is still living.

Meanwhile, Susan and Newson, living as husband and wife, move to Canada, where Elizabeth-Jane dies. Susan and Newson have a daughter together; whom Susan also names Elizabeth-Jane. This second Elizabeth-Jane grows up knowing nothing about her mother's marriage to Henchard. When Elizabeth-Jane is eighteen, Newson's ship fails to return from a sea voyage, and it is assumed that he has been lost at sea. Susan becomes convinced that she should try to find Henchard and reconcile with him. Nevertheless, she does not want to disclose the actual nature of their relationship to Elizabeth-Jane, so she tells her daughter only that Henchard is related to them by marriage.

Susan and Elizabeth-Jane return to Casterbridge. Susan meets with Henchard and reveals her identity to him, but she doesn't tell him that his daughter is dead and that Elizabeth-Jane is actually Newson's daughter. Henchard is overjoyed that she and Elizabeth-Jane have come back to him. Henchard and Susan agree not to tell Elizabeth-Jane that he had sold her and Susan years earlier. Henchard marries Susan, whereupon Elizabeth becomes his step-daughter in her own eyes.

Henchard's reputation as an agricultural merchant has been damaged by his purchase of a large load of bad wheat, which he has resold to the citizens of the town. Donald Farfrae, having just arrived at Casterbridge, hears about the bad wheat and suggests a means of processing the wheat so that it will be palatable. Henchard is deeply grateful, and he convinces Farfrae to remain in Casterbridge and become the manager of his business, even though he had already given the position to Jopp.

Susan falls ill and dies, and Henchard inaccurately tells Elizabeth-Jane that he is her father. While going through Susan's papers, however, Henchard discovers a letter that reveals that his daughter Elizabeth-Jane died in babyhood, and that this Elizabeth-Jane is Newson's daughter. Henchard feels conflicted, but he refrains from telling Elizabeth-Jane the truth. He continues to live with her as her father. However, he becomes stern and demanding in his demeanor toward her, and she desires to get away from him.

Farfrae becomes popular in the community, and Henchard, resenting this, fires him. Farfrae opens his own business as an agricultural merchant, in competition with Henchard. Farfrae soon becomes rich and powerful. He is elected mayor. Henchard's fortunes soon decline, and he is forced to declare bankruptcy and sell his house. He has no choice but to become a farm laborer, working for Farfrae.

Meanwhile, Lucetta has moved to Casterbridge in an attempt to reunite with Henchard. She meets Elizabeth-Jane, and the two of them become close friends. Lucetta invites Elizabeth-Jane to come live with her, and Elizabeth-Jane accepts. Before Lucetta can rekindle her old romance with Henchard, she meets Farfrae and falls in love with him. They get married.

Lucetta is afraid that a scandal will occur if the townspeople learn that Henchard had once been her lover. Henchard considers getting his revenge on her by telling Farfrae about their old love affair. Lucetta asks him to have pity on her and allow her to enjoy her new-found happiness with Farfrae. Henchard relents and sends a package of love letters that she had written to him back to her.

Unfortunately for Lucetta, Henchard gives the package to Jopp. Instead of giving them to her, Jopp reads the letters aloud at a tavern. The tavern's patrons decide to humiliate Lucetta and Farfrae, whom they envy for their wealth and prominence. They propose a procession known as a skimmity-ride, which is used to mock a man when it becomes known that his wife loves, or has loved, another man. In a skimmity-ride, effigies of the man and woman are tied to the back of a donkey and paraded through the streets. Farfrae is out of town when the skimmity-ride takes place, but Lucetta witnesses it. She is so humiliated that she has an epileptic seizure and dies.

Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane are both grief-stricken over Lucetta's death. Henchard was still in love with her, even though he resented her for abandoning him for Farfrae. Their mutual sadness brings Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane closer together, and she agrees to come live with him in his humble cottage.

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