The Mayor of Casterbridge Summary and Analysis
by Thomas Hardy
Within a day, the furmity-seller's story had become common knowledge in Casterbridge. After such a shocking confession, Henchard's fortunes decrease along with his good name. One of his largest debtors fails, and his employees make bad decisions in purchasing corn. He has lost nearly all his fortune. The creditors take possession of any property Michael has left. During the bankruptcy proceedings, Michael offers everything he has: a gold watch and a money-bag containing spare change. The creditors refuse these items, praising Michael for his honesty. Although he is touched by their compassion, Michael still pawns the watch and uses the money to pay a minor creditor.
Elizabeth-Jane tries to find her father, but writing letters and trying to visit him does no good. She learns that he has moved into Jopp's cottage at Priory Mill, and that he will see no one. As she passes the old business, Abel Whittle tells her that Farfrae owns it now. Farfrae uses the modern equipment, and the men are happy with the working conditions despite the lower salary.
The dark fate again haunts Henchard. Despite his noble act of confession, the townspeople instantly think his act is scandalous--implying the hurtful nature of public opinion once more. Ironically, Michael could have stopped the damage if he had been honest from the beginning. Hardy notes that the damage would not have been as great if the news had been older. Regardless, his debtors fail and all his property is taken. On the other end of the scale, Farfrae has gained the business that Michael has lost due to the same fate.
The punishment that Michael deems fitting for himself is self-destruction. We can see this in his refusal to take the comfort of Elizabeth-Jane and his moving in with his enemy Jopp. Jopp and Michael have a strange, parasitic relationship: Michael stays with Jopp because the man continues to taunt him with his signs of failure. Michael also returns to the depressing and barren side of town, giving Nature a hand in his depression.
This chapter also contains a hint of Hardy's intent to connect the series of Wessex novels. One of the men at the bankruptcy proceedings is "a reserved young man named Boldwood." Boldwood appeared in an earlier Wessex novel, Far from the Madding Crowd. This is Hardy's attempt to fashion a reality for his characters and his world.
Two bridges on the road leading away from town have long had a reputation for attracting failures and suicides. The poorer people of town visit the near bridge made of brick, while the upper-class people visit the farther one made of stone. Michael frequently visits the stone bridge. One afternoon, Jopp meets him there. He tells Michael that the Farfraes have moved into their new house (Michael's former mansion) and have bought new furniture (Michael's old furniture). Jopp then leaves, satisfied that he has ruined Michael's heart. Michael is bitter at his changed fortune. However, things seem to change when Farfrae comes to visit Michael. He offers Michael a space in his former home, which Michael refuses. Farfrae then offers Michael any furniture that might have sentimental value. Michael begins to think that he may have wronged Farfrae.
Elizabeth-Jane spends most of her days involved in her studies. She does not look out her window at Farfrae and Lucetta, who appear very happy. She hears that Michael has a cold, and leaves to take care of him. At first Michael tries to send her away, but she stays and promises to visit more often. Her visits soon bring him back to health and give him a better outlook on life. He even applies to Farfrae for a job as a hay-trusser. Farfrae employs him, but always sends instructions through a third person.
Michael has now returned to the clothes of a hay-trusser. A ragged blue suit is the last piece of his gentlemanly past. At first he seems very happy with his new life. However, rumors that Farfrae will be elected Mayor are beginning to surface. Upon hearing this and watching the happy Farfraes, Michael slowly grows more angry. When Elizabeth-Jane overhears that Michael is now drinking (after twenty-one years), she hurries to find her father.
The bridges of the town are made of brick and stone. They act as metaphors for the differences in lifestyle between the lower classes and the upper classes. The brick bridge symbolizes progress and hope (as brick is the man-made material). The lower classes often come here to think of their misfortunes, but they do not brood on them: "they said they were down on their luck." The misfortunes of the poor are temporary and based upon the whim of fate. The upper classes, however, go to the farther bridge that is made of the more natural stone. The upper classes, like Michael, go there to "muse" on their fate, rather than dismissing it. The stone bridge is farther from town to hide the aristocrats from prying eyes. The stone, the older material, also implies that the aristocrats are rooted in the past.
Farfrae continues his ironic climb to power. He now acquires Michael's house and furniture, making his victory almost complete. Yet he remains kind to Michael, offering him a home and furniture. Elizabeth-Jane also continues to be kind despite all of Michael's rejections, giving him tenderness and someone who cares about him.
Michael is in the same situation as he was twenty-one years before. Again he is a hay-trusser who is down on his luck. He has seen another man take his woman away once more. It is natural that such a dire repetition of events should lead Michael to drink once again.
Later that Sunday, Michael joins the Casterbridge workers in the weekly discussion and singing that takes place in the Three Mariners. The people welcome him, and offer to sing the Fourth Psalm for him. Michael angrily orders the company to sing the 109th Psalm, a Psalm about a man who has "ill-got riches." As the Farfraes leave church, Michael says that the Psalm is dedicated to Donald, to everyone's shock. Fortunately, Elizabeth-Jane arrives to take her drunken father home. His veiled threats against Farfrae convince her that Farfrae must be warned. Later in the week, Abel Whittle's pitying looks cause Michael to explode. Elizabeth-Jane offers to help, not only to keep Whittle away from her father, but also to see what happens when Michael and Farfrae meet.
Lucetta is never seen out of her husband's company, and she glories in his love. One day, she stumbles into the barn where Michael is working. Michael greets her with a sarcastic servility. The next day Lucetta sends him a note that begs him not to be so bitter the next time they meet. Although Michael realizes this letter could ruin Lucetta, he tosses it into the fire.
Elizabeth-Jane brings Michael tea in an effort to keep him away from stronger drink. One day, she arrives to find her father and Farfrae talking near an open door on the top floor. Michael makes a movement with his arms, as if he plans to push Farfrae out the door and to his death. She is so frightened by this gesture that she resolves to warn Farfrae of the potential danger.
Hardy adds the usual smattering of irony to this chapter. The first irony occurs in the Casterbridge custom of meeting for drinks on Sunday. Although the people are gathering in the tavern to discuss the Christian sermon, Hardy likens it to a ritual in "the monolithic circle at Stonehenge." The landlord also has all the tools needed for the ritual in quantities of forty: cups, pipes and chairs. The scene shows the Wessex tendency to combine the Christian with the pagan, and the villagers' tendencies to remain close to the old ways and religions.
Another ironic incident is the dedication of the 109th Psalm to Donald by Michael. Michael intends it to be a prophetic song, but as we can see, the Psalm actually traces Michael's fall. Michael's child is an orphan, and his wife was "a widow plunged in grief." The fruit of all Michael's toil was taken away by "strangers" in the form of creditors. Michael seems to realize how much it impacts his life as he is led away from the tavern.
Michael is obviously more bitter than ever about the quick change in the Farfraes' fortunes. His painfully sarcastic remarks about the feelings of "we of the lower classes" makes that clear. To be fair, the Farfraes are "higher" than the rest of the town: Lucetta's window "aloft" over the marketplace, Farfrae's business taking him to the top of the loft. Michael's threat to push Farfrae from the top of the building symbolizes his desire for Farfrae to "fall from a great height," as Michael did.
The next morning, Elizabeth-Jane rises early and goes to meet Farfrae. When she says that Michael may try to injure him, he is incredulous. Farfrae makes light of her fears, but later that day the town clerk says the same. Farfrae came to discuss the terms of a recent agreement. In exchange for the town council's underwriting the costs of a seed shop, Farfrae will pay fifty pounds as down payment. The seed shop was for Michael's "new beginning." At the town clerk's warning, however, Farfrae decides to stop negotiations with the owner of the shop. The disappointed shop owner later tells Michael that the council had wanted to give him a shop, but Farfrae had ruined the plans.
Lucetta greets her husband warmly at the end of the day, but notices that he is preoccupied. Farfrae confesses that he is confused and hurt by Michael's hatred. Lucetta, afraid that Farfrae will eventually learn of her past indiscretion, suggests that they leave town. Farfrae considers her suggestion until a visitor comes. It is Alderman Vatt, announcing Mayor Chalkfield's death and offering the mayorship to Farfrae. Farfrae accepts, since it is the will of the people and the will of the Powers above.
Soon after, Lucetta accidentally meets Michael in the crowded marketplace. She asks him to return her old letters again, since the death of her aunt prevented her from getting them previously. Michael says he doesn't know where they are, but he will think about finding them. As the town celebrates Farfrae's election, Michael remembers that the letters are right under Lucetta's nose, in the dining-room safe of the old house.
The next day, Farfrae decides to allow Michael into the house to open the safe. Michael finds the letters there. He reminds Farfrae of the story behind the letters, then begins to read them aloud to the bored Farfrae. However, he always stops reading before he reveals the writer.
This chapter is filled with irony, all of it caused by the coincidence/ strange fate that has haunted the Henchards. Now it seems that the fate is beginning to turn on Lucetta. Just as she has convinced Farfrae that leaving is the best solution, the city council offers Farfrae the most powerful position in the city government. She wants to keep her past with Michael a secret, yet she continues to meet him in public places. She asks Michael for the letters that are as close as her own living room. Finally, her own words come back to haunt her as Michael reads his love letters to her husband, revealing her tragic flaw as "a creature too unconventionally devoted to you."
The reversal of roles between Farfrae and Michael is complete. Now Farfrae even has Michael's job, and the whole town is pleased. Each level of society, from the upper to the lower classes, is represented in the metaphor of the ringing bells: "brass, wood, catgut, and leather bands." Nevertheless, Farfrae remains cautious: he has premonitions of failure.
Michael has been given several motivations and opportunities for revenge. He believes that Farfrae ruined his chances for getting a shop. Yet he can be seen with Lucetta, and he can reveal who the writer of the letters is...and he doesn't, since the thought "appalled even him. This shows that, despite all his violent thoughts, Michael is still a noble man at heart.
Lucetta retired early, but not to sleep. As she amused herself, she heard someone reading something downstairs. Thinking someone was reading about a crime, she tiptoed down the staircase, only to hear her letters in Michael's words. Michael says that he will not destroy the letters, then leaves. As she returns to her room, she fears that Michael has told everything, but Farfrae seems to know nothing of her past. The next morning she writes a note to Michael asking to meet at the Ring that evening. Then she works on making herself appear haggard.
At sunset she meets Michael in the Ring. Seeing the haggard young woman waiting reminds him of his past meeting with Susan, and his heart melts with pity. As she begs for her letters, he thinks that she has placed herself in a very compromising situation. He says that reading the letters was just a practical joke, and he promises to give them back the next morning.
Hardy again changes the viewpoint to create sympathy. By seeing the events from Lucetta's viewpoint, we can experience the embarrassment she feels upon hearing her youthful words, her fear that Henchard can ruin her by revealing her past indiscretions to her husband. Although she continues to do foolish things (such as continuing to meet Michael) and manipulative things (such as deliberately planning to look humble to inspire pity) at least we realize why she is doing these things--so that she can be "a faithful and deserving wife." She first believes that the reading of the letters was someone reading about a "crime," an ironic belief since she would regard it as a crime.
Once again, the Ring acts as the Coliseum of Casterbridge, serving as a place for a face-off between the gladiator Michael and the "creature" Lucetta. Lucetta behaves as a wild animal in the encounter, openly scratching at Michael with blatant accusations: "It is all your fault." Michael, ironically, is not affected by her animal tactics, but by her weak, haggard appearance. Michael is also aware of how the scene mirrors his previous meeting in the Ring with Susan. Michael is even motivated by the same feelings that caused his kindness to Susan: not love, but pity.
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25
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- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-35
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-40
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 41-45
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