Michael Henchard, a down-on-his-luck, unemployed hay trusser, succumbs to the siren call of alcohol at a country fair. Subconsciously feeling his wife, Susan, is holding him back from success in this world, he awakes to sobriety the next morning and realizes that, in a foolish fit of pique, he has auctioned her and his daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, off to a sailor. Despite his frantic efforts to find them, they have disappeared. Ravaged with guilt over his selfish, impulsive act, he swears he will not take another drink for twenty-one years.
Whether his wife was indeed one of Henchard's problems is left for the reader to ponder as Henchard moves to Casterbridge, prospers wildly in business and eventually becomes the town's leading citizen and mayor. Henchard's wheel of fortune, however, begins to spin on a wobbly axle as Donald Farfrae, an enterprising young Scot travelling to seek his fortune, enters his employ as the manager of his business. At the same time, Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, re-enter Henchard's life believing that Michael Newson, the sailor who had purchased them some nineteen years earlier, has perished at sea. Henchard's life truly begins to come apart when Lucetta Templeman, a former lover, also moves to Casterbridge and, ashamed of her past romantic entanglement with Henchard, seeks to hold him to his promise of marriage!
Hardy raises many issues but, not expressing his own opinion through an unequivocal direction in the story's plot line, seems content to leave these issues as topics for sober analysis by his readers. Hardy questions the conflict between the merits of tradition vs modernization. There is the enormous irony that Henchard's success as a business person seems clearly attributable in part to his tee-totalling vow but is founded upon the five guineas seed capital raised through the auction of his wife and daughter! Henchard seems to epitomize the constant personal conflicts we all face between decisiveness and strength of character as opposed to impulsiveness and stubborn bullheaded intransigence! One wonders whether Lucetta is flighty, coquettish, thoughtless and selfish or is she an early manifestation of modern woman sadly out of time and years ahead of the ladies around her? Is Farfrae to be admired or scorned for his meteoric rise to power in Casterbridge and his complete devastation of Henchard's place among his peers?
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the entire novel comes with the discovery of Henchard's will and his words directing that the world leave him to rest in forgotten isolation and that no person mark or mourn his passing in any fashion. Once again, we are left to decide for ourselves whether Henchard's life should be pitied, forgiven, admired or looked upon with scorn and disgust.
To the readers of the day, "The Mayor of Casterbridge" would have been perceived as a darkly pessimistic tragedy that might have evoked emotions akin to those raised by Shakespeare's "Hamlet" or Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex". A classic worthy of the term, "The Mayor of Casterbridge", certainly never cheerful or uplifting, is however many, many things - compelling, moving, disturbing, thought-provoking and poignant. Above all, it is worthy of being read and enjoyed by any lover of classic 19th century British Literature.
To the readers of the day, "The Mayor of Casterbridge" would have been perceived as a darkly pessimistic tragedy that might have evoked emotions akin to those raised by Shakespeare's "Hamlet" or Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex".
If this audiobook were a movie, it might drain the entire West End to replace the single voice of Tony Britton. Not only does he display extraordinary command of old dialects, but he also reveals deep understanding of the rural inhabitants of 18th-century Wessex. So skilled is the reading that it could be the colorful characters themselves sounding off at The Three Mariners in the center of Casterbridge. Of course author Hardy (Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Audio Reviews, LJ 5/15/92) has done his part. This novel is one of his most inspiring creations. It is about a common field laborer, Michael Henshard, who becomes a leader in this small market town and then?through his own failure?sinks back miserably to his humble beginnings. As this tragic figure moves across the landscape of Hardy's native Dorset, descriptions of the countryside are as evocative as paintings by John Constable and as lively as scenes by Peter Brueghel. Highly recommended.?Jo Carr, Sarasota, Fla. Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to theAudio Cassetteedition.