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Whether a function of calculation, inspiration or genuine sentiment, Thomas Hardy's secured himself a permanent place in critic's hearts by first writing with profound pessimism about Victorian England and then abandoning novels altogether in order to write poetry.  Even were he a total hack, this one-two punch of political correctness and literary pretense would have at least ensured that he was overrated.  But the fact that he was also a capable writer has ensured that he is one of the most overestimated novelists in the English language.

Mayor of Casterbridge, though not as dark as some of his final work, is a fairly representative novel.  The Mayor of the title is a respected grain merchant with a dark secret in his past.  When he was a young man and a bad drunk, he auctioned off his wife and daughter to a sailor at a county fair while in his cups.  Given a chance to redeem himself when his widowed ex-wife tracks him down, he remarries her and tries to be a good husband and father, figuring that no one need ever know of the scandal in their past.  Needless to say, things don't quite work out.  The wife dies. The sailor turns up alive. The daughter is revealed to be the sailor's and not the Mayor's.  And the Mayor loses his fortune and dies alone and broke.

To quote my wife; Whoopty Flippin damn doo!  Believe it or not, it's hard to work up any sympathy for the Mayor.  And what is the message of the novel supposed to be other than this seemingly obvious one about not selling your family?  Hardy is a facile enough writer and the book is fun in the same way as The Book of Job or the Zapruder film.  But it's hard to escape the suspicion that his lofty reputation rests mostly on his mere determination to write so pessimistically, going against the grain of a fundamentally optimistic age.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Thomas Hardy Links:

-REVIEW: of Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (Bharat Tandon, TLS)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "Thomas Hardy"
    -BIO: Thomas Hardy (Dorset Index)
    -The Thomas Hardy Association
    -The Thomas Hardy Society
    -The Thomas Hardy Resource Library
    -Thomas Hardy MISCELLANY
    -Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)(Biblio, links, etc.)
    -Bruce's Thomas Hardy Photo Archive
    -The Academy of American Poets - Poetry Exhibits - Thomas Hardy
    -An Outline of the English Novel: The Short List (San Antonio College LitWeb)
    -ETEXT: Hardy, Thomas. 1898. Wessex Poems & Other Verses
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS HARDY A Biography By Michael Millgate ( GEORGE LEVINE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THOMAS HARDY A Biography By Michael Millgate (Anatole Broyard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HARDY By Martin Seymour-Smith (James R. Kincaid, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Ellen Moers: Hardy Perennial, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy by Irving Howe
    -REVIEW: John Bayley: The Two Hardys, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy: A Biography by Michael Millgate
        The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy by Kristin Brady
        The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume 3, 1902-1908
    -REVIEW: Stephen Spender: Hardy Hardy, NY Review of Books
        Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years edited by Lance St John Butler
        Thomas Hardy's Later Years by Robert Gittings
        Young Thomas Hardy by Robert Gittings
        An Essay on Hardy by John Bayley
        The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy: Volume I, 1840-1892
        Thomas Hardy and the British Tradition by Donald Davie
        The Complete Poems of Thomas Hardy edited by James Gibson
    -REVIEW: Irving Howe: Hardly Hardy, NY Review of Books
        Providence and Mr. Hardy by Lois Deacon and Terry Coleman
        Thomas Hardy's Personal Writings edited by Harold Orel
        The Architectural Notebook of Thomas Hardy Introduction by C.J.P. Beatty
    -STUDY GUIDE: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.  (SparkNote by Rebecca Gaines)

    -The Poetry Archives


This book is crapola! all long words and ladeda!

- xx Moi xx

- Nov-23-2006, 05:59


Just two things. First, I laughed at loud at "And what is the message of the novel supposed to be other than this seemingly obvious one about not selling your family?" Second, and I'm not asking in a rhetorical manner, but I'm really thinking about it: Is it accurate to generally characterize Victorian England as a fundamentally optimistic age? Don't get me wrong, I agree with your assessment that Hardy's writing was unsubtle and unpleasant, and that his use of themes is especially cynical in comparison to his relative contemporaries. But maybe "optimism" and "pessimism" are insufficient to distinguish Hardy. There is drear in most all of the remembered works of the day, aren't there, that typify the Victorian novel? Hardy, in my opinion, is simply more cynical and less trusting of his readership and his society. I'm not certain that I'm disagreeing with your characterization, just thinking about it.

- jrm

- Jun-04-2004, 11:33


I have to take issue with the assessment of Hardy being quite so superficial, even though my overall rating of the novel is about the same. The basic idea of the Mayor of Casterbridge is quite relevant today, despite the picturesque trappings. At the time Hardy was writing, the divorce laws were undergoing a lot of change but divorce was still a time-consuming and expensive process. Among the poorer agricultural classes of England, couples wishing to separate often resorted to wife-selling instead, just as couples in the fifties and sixties made a quick trip to Mexico. Hardy, who was very unhappy with his wife (as she was with him), took a great interest in the increasing liberalization of the marriage laws and wrote about it in many of his novels. Think of the mayor as someone haunted by the consequences of a quick and impulsive divorce of his own devising, and his plight becomes analogous to many deadbeat husbands and fathers today.

So there is nothing trivial about Hardy's choice of subject. The problem is with his treatment of it. In the Mayor, as in so many of his other novels, Hardy sidles up to an important issue and then backs away from it.

Hardy rarely wrote anything more acute than the scene in which Henchard reveals to Elizabeth Jane that he is (as he believes) her father. Her grief at the idea that the man who brought her up is not a blood relation, her confusion in how to behave towards someone she had never seen until only a few months previously, Henchard's agonized pleas for her to recognize his claims on her as a parent -- all of these are easily recognizable to anyone who has had dealings with adopted children, particularly if they discover their identity in their late teens. They have become increasingly common as the nuclear family gets more and more fragmented. Scenes like the one between Henchard and Elizabeth are being repeated every day all over the country.

But immediately afterwards, Henchard finds Susan's letter, which contains the revelation that Elizabeth Jane is Newson's daughter after all. I still remember the sinking feeling I experienced when I first read that passage. I knew immediately that the real father would come back from the dead, that Elizabeth Jane would joyfully re-unite with him, and that the issue of whether or not Henchard could resume the paternal role after twenty years of neglect would be completely shelved -- which, of course, is exactly what happened.

Hardy could have produced a stronger and ultimately a more moving novel if he had maintained Elizabeth Jane's identity as Henchard's daughter and delved into the question of how she is to divide her loyalties between her adoptive father and her real one. He doesn't even the poor excuse of treading on unfamiliar ground. George Eliot's Silas Marner uses some very strong language indeed about men who wish to act like fathers towards children they abandoned twenty years earlier, and Eppie emphatically maintains that filial affection depends on much more than paternal biology.

So -- despite Hardy's considerable insights on the effects of the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one, his keen eye for natural detail, his great skill in evoking the setting of a city with a long history extending to Roman times -- there is ultimately something lacking in the bulk of his novels: a sense that he was on the verge of significance without quite attaining it. His reputation is not quite as inflated as Mr. Judd implies; the novels do in fact contain many passages full of insight and they provide a great deal of useful information on social trends of his time, but they rarely, if ever, add up to a thoroughly satisfying whole.

Grade: B

- Josh Silverman

- Dec-12-2002, 18:16