The Mayor of Casterbridge Summary and Analysis
by Thomas Hardy
Elizabeth-Jane arrives, upset about Lucetta's death. Michael comforts her, tells her to stay with him, and offers to make her some breakfast. As the girl rests, Michael watches her lovingly, convinced he can find happiness with her.
A knock on the door calls Michael away from his thoughts. It is the stranger from Peter's Finger a few weeks ago. He introduces himself as Newson, and Michael becomes very agitated. Newson briefly relates the history of his marriage to Susan and how he came to be "lost at sea." His ship was lost at sea, but he came ashore in Newfoundland. Since Susan was unhappy about their marriage, his "death" was arranged for her benefit. Newson knows that Susan is dead, but he has returned for Elizabeth-Jane. Michael tells him that she died a year ago. Newson shrugs and promises to trouble Michael no longer. Michael is frightened that Newson will learn the truth, so he follows the sailor to ensure that he has safely left town.
When Michael returns home, Elizabeth-Jane has awakened after napping. Michael considers asking her to stay with him, but doesn't, fearing that Newson will return and take her away. They have a lovely breakfast, lingering until it is time for Michael to go to work. Although Elizabeth-Jane promises to return soon, Michael is haunted by the belief that Newson will take her away. He goes to Ten Hatches, the place where the river runs deep, and contemplates his suicide. Suddenly, he sees himself already floating in the water! When he hurries home, Elizabeth-Jane is waiting for him. He takes her to Ten Hatches, where she finds that the image he saw was that of the skimmity ride dummy. She understands what Michael plans to do, so she quickly offers to stay with him and care for him. At this news, Michael changes heart again and becomes a confident new man.
Michael and Elizabeth-Jane have completely switched Victorian gender roles, as we can see in this chapter. Michael, once the strong, powerful Mayor, has now fallen to a low that removes all his masculinity. He cares for Elizabeth-Jane as a mother would-- cooking for her, keeping the house clean for her, and doing other things "with housewifely care, as if it were an honor to have her in his house." Elizabeth-Jane still remains the tender-hearted and concerned girl. However, her decisions control the now weak-willed and vulnerable Michael. She issues the commands now--"Let us go home"-- and is the real provider for her stepfather. "May I live with you, and tend upon you as I used to do?" This marked change in Michael and Elizabeth-Jane's personalities prepares us for the next change in Michael. Once Michael has become more feminine, perhaps he can finally learn to become less bullish and considerate to others. (Of course, that also means that Elizabeth-Jane can become more bullish with her masculinity, as we will see later.)
Irony is used again to create sympathy for Michael. The cruel fate seems to be especially harsh here. Just as Michael has decided that he has "the dream of a future lit by [Elizabeth-Jane's] presence, Newson has arrived to take her away. The skimmity ride effigies that killed Lucetta merely keep Michael alive and die in his place. Although Michael has not completely changed (he still tells a horrible lie just to keep Elizabeth- Jane there), we pity him all the more because he is convinced that he is in "Somebody's hand."
The effigy floating in the water serves as a type of ritual offering, similar to Abraham's sacrifice of the sheep for Issac. Since the townspeople cannot kill Michael, they will sacrifice the effigy by tossing it in the river. At the same time, it serves as a "resurrection" for Michael. When he contemplates suicide, only to see his "dead image" floating in the water, Michael returns to life and becomes fully aware of the consequences of his actions. After this form of resurrection, Michael will go on to save his own world, making him a Christ-like figure.
Michael fears that Newson will return for Elizabeth-Jane despite his new attitude. Casterbridge buries Lucetta and quickly forgets her. After a while Farfrae learns of the events that caused her death. At first, he wishes to punish all those responsible. However, soon he realizes that the townspeople did not want their joke to have such a disastrous effect on Lucetta, and he reasons that keeping her history secret will protect all the parties involved. The town council again sets up a seed shop for Michael, allowing him and Elizabeth-Jane to make a respectable living. As Michael continues to worry that Elizabeth-Jane will be taken away, Farfrae decides that his life with Lucetta was doomed to unhappiness from the beginning.
A year passes. Elizabeth-Jane frequently walks on the road to Budmouth twice a week, and she ends up with expensive trinkets, such as muffs and new books, that Michael knows she cannot afford. Upon seeing Farfrae's eyes upon Elizabeth-Jane in the marketplace, however, he begins to suspect that Farfrae is returning to his former love, and he worries that Farfrae will take Elizabeth-Jane away.
Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane first meet accidentally, but very soon they habitually meet each other as they walk into town. Michael watches from the Ring as Farfrae presents Elizabeth-Jane with a new book everyday. Very soon Farfrae kisses Elizabeth-Jane. Michael, watching the scene, reasons that Farfrae's love will force Elizabeth-Jane to turn against him. He thinks that telling the secret of Elizabeth-Jane's birth to Farfrae will ward the young man off, but cannot bring himself to tell.
Even near the end of the book, Hardy introduces some elements of suspense. Will he return, and if he does, what will Elizabeth-Jane do? Will Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane finally be joined in marriage? Will Michael do anything to halt the wedding or the return of Newson?
Apparently Elizabeth-Jane has finally become learned enough in Latin to be interesting to everyone. As if to reflect her new status, this chapter contains more mythological allusions and Latin phrases to refer to her and those around her. The other young women in the town are compared to the plumes of "Juno's bird" (the peacock) with "Argus eyes." Not only are the townspeople connected to nature (through the comparison to birds), but they are also the gossiping people of before, watching with their own "eyes." Michael has a "solicitus timor" (worrisome fear) for her love. As usual, however, Elizabeth-Jane does not understand the references--remaining unaware of the eyes upon her and the fear Michael has for her.
Michael is beginning another cycle of success with his seed shop, but we are braced for his downfall. Yet Michael is a changed man this time. He is so weak that he now takes orders from Elizabeth-Jane, "schooling himself to accept her will." He also has more of a regard for his feelings and their effects on others. He is able to consign his emotions on revealing her birth to "the devil," and he feels remorse about his previous actions.
The townspeople are shocked that Farfrae is interested in "that bankrupt Henchard's stepdaughter." The young ladies of town indignantly ignore Farfrae. The lower classes, however, are quite pleased with his choice. However, public opinion soon ignores the whole issue entirely, since no one knows what will come of their courtship. Michael worries about his place in Elizabeth-Jane's life. He has now began to watch the daily meetings from an ancient fort called Mai Dun. One day, a stranger walks down the road from Budmouth. Michael realizes that the stranger is Newson, and fears the worst. At home, Elizabeth-Jane shows him a mysterious letter from someone who wants to meet her at Farfrae's this evening. Michael says she may go, and then says he will leave Casterbridge. Despite his stepdaughter's protests, he leaves that evening. Elizabeth-Jane accompanies him to the stone bridge, then watches him walk away. Michael stops for a moment to express his anguish, then continues on his way.
On the walk back to town, Elizabeth-Jane meets Farfrae, who quickly takes her to his house. When she discovers Newson, their reunion is joyful. They eagerly plan the wedding, which will take place with any difficulties now that Michael is gone. Newson tells the shocked Elizabeth-Jane how Michael kept her away with a lie. Although Newson defends Michael, Elizabeth-Jane is disgusted.
Chance and irony strike again. Just as Michael seems to have gained his happiness, Newson has met Farfrae and found that his daughter lives. Although we do not know how Farfrae and Newson met, we can assume that it was merely another chance occurrence, another attempt of Fate to bring down Michael.
Michael describes himself as "Cain... an outcast and a vagabond" in this chapter. His behavior does parallel that of Cain here. Michael, like Cain, suffered from jealousy of Newson and Farfrae. After killing his daughter in keeping her away from her father, he refuses to be her keeper and leaves her in Casterbridge. However, unlike Cain, Michael feels remorse. While his behavior was horrible, Hardy has succeeded in making us feel for Michael by describing his viewpoint. We know now that Michael is sorry for his actions and only acts out of love for Elizabeth-Jane.
We hope that there will be a chance for forgiveness. Yet the one person who can forgive Michael, Elizabeth-Jane, refuses to do so. She refuses for the same reasons that other characters refused: she is too deeply rooted in the past. She feels sorry for Michael until her father tells her of the past lie. Although Newson tries to defend Michael's ways, the past lies are so important to her that she refuses to see past them. This will eventually lead her to a smaller downfall--a refusal to see the man who loved her so well.
Michael travels for five days. As he travels, he gazes longingly at some of Elizabeth-Jane's things--gloves, handwriting, hair clippings, and the like. He reaches Weydon-Priors, where he reflects on the auction and his failed attempts to fix the wrongs made then. After he has finished there, he leaves for a farm situated on a highway. As he again becomes a hay-trusser, he constantly worries about Elizabeth-Jane's welfare.
One day a passing farmer tells Michael that he has heard of a wedding occurring in Casterbridge on St. Martin's Day. Although he feels his presence in town would not be welcomed, he decides to go there for a chance at forgiveness from Elizabeth-Jane. He stops to buy a wedding gift, a little goldfinch in a cage wrapped in newspaper. Finally he reaches town. Although he regrets his arrival, he nevertheless presents himself as a "humble old friend." He is led into the kitchen, but the housekeeper stops him, asking him to wait until the dance ends. Michael watches the dance, and notices that Elizabeth-Jane is dancing with Newson. When the dance ends, Michael begs for some love from her, but she says she cannot feel love for him. Although he has prepared a list of ways in which he was deceived, Michael merely says that he will not bother them again, and leaves.
Michael's travels in this chapter are reflected in the metaphor of the circle: "is wandering... became part of a circle of which Casterbridge formed the center." Once again, Michael returns to the state that he held in the beginning of the novel. He returns to Weydon-Priors, and again takes the job of hay-trusser. However, as before, he comes to realize the importance of the lost child to his happiness. The metaphor also works to describe the cycle of his rises and falls to power. Frequently, he begins in despair, but slowly works his way to the top of the cycle--reaching a success through his desires. Once he has reached his highest height, fate intervenes to utterly ruin him. There is an implication that the same will occur to Elizabeth-Jane in the way Michael thinks of her day in equal portions: "her sitting down and rising up, her goings and comings."
Yet it is also obvious that this time, Michael's rise to power will be quite different. This is the first time he has truly loved someone enough to constantly think of him. Here Elizabeth-Jane is always on his mind, from his keeping her trinkets to his waiting for any news from Casterbridge. He also has changed in that he feels real remorse for his deed, unlike any of his other decisions within the novel. His love is the one motivation that changes him. Of course, each time he has thought that the person he loved would not forgive him, only to be proven wrong. Ironically, this time he is correct--Elizabeth-Jane, the one person he truly wanted to love, does refuse him. Nevertheless, he still reaches the height of his success. Instead of trying to attach himself to Elizabeth-Jane, he turns and walks away because she wishes it That is the greatest action Michael could do for the angry girl he loves.
The bird serves as a metaphor for Michael himself. The cage represents the self-made prison of his flaws, "plain and small." The bird is a goldfinch, symbolizing the true, golden nature of Michael's character. The newspaper represents the public opinion that covers Michael, just as it covers the bird. What has happened to the bird when Michael leaves the house? We will learn in the next chapter.
A month has passed since the wedding. Farfrae hurries home from work everyday, and Elizabeth-Jane is pleased with her new station. Newson stayed in Casterbridge for three days, but his need for the sea is so great that he moves to Budmouth, a place where the sea can be seen.
A week after the wedding, Elizabeth-Jane found a birdcage wrapped in paper with a dead finch inside. Now, a month later, a maid enters the parlor and announces that they understood why it was there. Another maid saw Michael with it as he came to the wedding. Elizabeth-Jane reasons that the bird must have been a wedding gift, and from that moment she feels pity for her stepfather. She asks Farfrae to help her find him.
They finally trace his steps along the road of Weatherbury to Anglebury. Soon the road becomes difficult, and they decide to stop. A man passes them and goes into a nearby cottage. At Elizabeth-Jane's insistence that the man is Abel Whittle, they turn to visit the cottage. Whittle tells them that Michael has died a half-hour before. He gives them a piece of paper that is Michael's will. The will states that Elizabeth-Jane is not to learn of his death, and that no man is to remember him in any way. Although she weeps that she has just missed her last chance with him, she follows Michael's instructions to the best of her ability. She lives in marriage happily, but also ever sure that she could be pitched into a deep despair at any moment by fate.
Hardy delivers the most emotional situations of irony in this final chapter. Just as Elizabeth-Jane has found her father, she again loses him to the sea--and although Newson just lives in Budmouth to see the sea, we know that it is only a matter of time before he leaves again. Michael has been forced to spend the last days of his life with the man whom he considered the lowest of the low. Elizabeth-Jane finally understands the meaning of the present, and goes to find Michael, but arrives too late to extend her love. Even as Elizabeth-Jane lives in a state of contentment, she does not enjoy it for fear that the unkind fate will descend upon her too.
Abel Whittle again takes the role of a Christ figure. Although Michael was a cruel boss to him, he "turns the other cheek" because Michael was kind to his mother years ago. He continues to care for Michael, walking with him despite Michael's order to go back, feeding him and letting him stay in his cottage. Although he is the lowest character in the novel, his kindness makes him the most noble character in the novel.
Michael's connection to Nature is complete as his life ends. His connection to the goldfinch is completed. The goldfish dies of starvation, and Michael will die because he cannot take nourishment. (His starvation is also a metaphor for his life without Elizabeth- Jane: without her love, he is starved for affection.) However, the whole earth seems to become unusually fertile in the wake of Michael's exit. The Farfraes cannot find him because he "had apparently sunk into the earth." Michael's travels have lead him through "Weatherbury," the place that the farmers planned for Farfrae during the skimmity ride. The burial mounds on the road also become fertile places as "the full breasts of Diana Multimammia." The cottage in which Michael spends the last days of his life has Nature entering, with its clay walls, held together by vines of ivy and a floor of leaves. In his loving and forgiving state, Michael and Nature are finally connected. Although fate has dogged him for most of his life, the love for Elizabeth-Jane has brought him to a level of goodness--one that makes him more able to join with Nature.
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