Micheal Henchard wanders into a country fair with his wife and baby daughter and sits down in the furmenty tent to have supper. The tent’s landlord laces his furmenty with rum, Henchard gets drunk and sells his wife to a sailor by the name of Newson. When he wakes up in the morning, he realizes what he’s done, is dreadfully sorry and sets off to find them. Unable to do so, he swears off alcohol for the next 21 years and feeling that she might be better off with someone else anyway, settles down to make a life for himself alone in Casterbridge. Nearly 21 years later, having stuck to his vow of abstinence, he finds himself an upright citizen and Mayor of Casterbridge. Although the township knows there is something is his past he is deeply ashamed of, he’s very close with his information and lets them assume his wife has died. Unfortunately for him, his past catches up with him when his former wife and daughter return to find him after Newson’s death.
Sometimes I think Hardy could make the happiest of scenes sombre without even thinking about it. This book is no exception. The whole novel feels as if there’s a sheet of grey dullness pulled over it and no one who lives anywhere near his characters are ever happy, even when the laugh. His sobriety is why his novels are often better as televised dramas rather than read. OK, maybe not better, but at least easier to swallow.
His main character Henchard is a real rogue. Despite his feeling true remorse over his past deeds, he never learns from any of his failings. Instead, he chooses to find another person or even to blame his misfortune on. In this sense, he is a true forerunner of today’s society – always make someone else responsible. We see from the beginning that he blames the alcohol for his rash actions, but while he may never have done the same when he was sober, if you accept that alcohol only serves to lower our level of inhibition, than the sale of his wife is still a sign of evil that lurks in the bottom of the man’s soul. Later in the novel, he blames friends, family and business colleagues for the turn of his fortunes instead of owning up to his own mistakes. Had he taken the blame himself and thus given himself the opportunity to learn from his mistakes, he might have been able to stem the course of the tide and save himself.
That he has not learned from his first mistake is evident in just about every action he later takes. Instead of standing up to what he has done, he lies to cover it up, which leads to lie after lie after lie, and also sets up a pattern for all of his other dealings. Instead of learning to tell the truth and standing up for his failings, he continues to try and hide them, which just worsens his position. What’s truly sad about the story is that he does have quite deep feelings of sorrow and guilt for his wrong doings, but he allows his pride to overwhelm his remorse every time and thus continues on in the same self-destructive vein.
Perhaps his most fatal flaw is the deep jealousy he feels, which can be ignited by the silliest things. As soon as any man shows himself more adept at anything than himself, Henchard becomes terribly jealous. He then takes actions he later regrets and instead of later apologizing for his behaviour, he allows his pride to get the better of him and thus runs his friends and family off.
These flaws are the dominant theme of the novel and pretty much bury every other subject that might have arisen. It’s almost like a Bildungsroman in reverse since instead of developing his character, Henchard allows his own failings to swallow him up and isolate him from the rest of the world. It makes for very sombre reading and I was glad when it finally finished. Having said that, I still feel that it’s a good book, it’s just not a very uplifting one.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5, good but don’t read it when you’re depressed.