In June of 1883, Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma settled into their new home in Dorchester. The Hardys had spent the last few years traveling about England, although they wanted to settle down and perhaps begin a family. Finally, Hardy and Emma decided to return to Dorchester. This town, located only a few miles from his birthplace of Upper Bockhampton, was long important to Hardy--he attended school there in his youth, and later he was apprenticed as a young architect there.
Now Hardy had returned home, and he was there to stay, as he proved through his attempts to become part of the town. He quickly built his home, Max Gate, in town. He also became interested in the issues important to the townspeople, such as the status of the laborers. He eagerly read historical records from the area, savoring the "really valuable and curious" Records of the Town of Weymouth. Despite his efforts to return to the community, however, Hardy's first love was his writing. Although he had written various short stories, he had not written a new novel in three years. Hardy had long wanted to write a novel that combined his love of history with his love of Dorsetshire. In addition, he wanted to capitalize on the success of the Wessex setting from his earlier novels. His desire to immerse himself in the history of the region led him to examine the files of the Dorsetshire County Chronicle in the spring of 1884. In these files, he found an article describing the sale of a wife by an auction. The article about the wife-sale provided him with a spectacular situation for his characters.
After spending several weeks immersed in research, Hardy began to write the novel that would become The Mayor of Casterbridge in the summer of 1884. He wrote it in bursts, constantly writing and putting it aside until he finally completed the novel on April 17, 1885. The literary magazine Graphic agreed to publish the novel serially, although with misgivings. The publishers wanted to see everything before it was published, since Hardy was known for his ability to offend everyone, even atheists. Hardy felt so constrained by the Graphic's demands that he alluded to their heavy-handed treatment in the courtroom scene: Stubberd substitutes all the curse words with letters, to the annoyance of the court. Nevertheless, Hardy's novel eventually began its serialization on January 2, 1886. On May 10 of the same year, The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in two volumes. Although the critics loved Hardy's realism and poetic style, most agreed that the novel was too improbable and too shocking--opinions that would only increase as Hardy continued to write novels.
The Mayor of Castrbridge is set in the county of Wessex, a land that has relied on the beliefs of the farming folk for centuries. Because the farmers are more connected to the land, they follow a more primal religion, based on the changing of the seasons and the forces of Nature. One of the forces of nature is cruel Fate, that "sinister intelligence bent upon punishing" which stops at nothing to keep things from being "as you wish it." This fate usually works through two channels: chance and irony. Chance often brings chraracters: Farfrae and Lucetta are brought to Casterbridge quite unexpectedly, but their arrivals ruin the lives of the Henchards. Irony works upon the people who are already there, making the best laid plans go awry. Just as Michael convinces Elizabeth-Jane that she is his daughter, he finds the note from Susan that tells the truth. Nature also serves to assist Fate--the harvest weather is bad until Michael buys all the ruined grain at high prices and cannot sell it back. With the actions of a primal and unchanging world working against the weak human, life becomes a series of pains, punctuated only by flashes of happiness.
Yet it is not completely the whims of fate that bring the characters to their downfall. When The Mayor of Casterbridge was first published in serial form, Hardy wrote, "It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter." This is the basic theme of the novel, which has the additional title, "The Story of a Man of Character." Fate may create the situations for the characters, but in the end their personalities determine how they will react. Michael gains a true confidant in Farfrae, but his quick temper and mercurial ways only serve to push the young man away. Michael's pride keeps him from confessing whatever secret he has at the time. Lucetta's reckless nature causes her to do dangerous things for love. The gossiping nature of the townspeople is responsible for the skimmity ride that kills Lucetta, and the gossip that ruins Michael's career. Even Elizabeth-Jane's prudishness pushes Michael away for the first and last time. Character is just as responsible for the foibles of mankind as Fate is.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragedy, in the tradition of the Greek tragedies and the plays Othello and King Lear. However, the novel still ends with a hope for humanity. The belief that fate is to blame is a tool of the past, of the superstitious farmers such as the townspeople. When Michael believes that fate is destroying him, his problems continue. Only when Michael looks into the future by casting off old beliefs is he able to change. When he sacrifices duty for love of Elizabeth-Jane, he becomes more aware of his feelings as an individual. That is humaity's only way to escape the pain of life: by relying on present instead of past, character instead of fate, the individual instead of the multitude.