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The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy
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The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece "The Mayor of Casterbridge" proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that “character is destiny”, and in writing it Hardy proved that a tragedy can be one of the most enjoyable forms of literature. As in ancient Greek tragedies, the protagonist of the novel is carried from greatness to ruin (which he seems to have been seeking) all because of his character.

   The characters in the novel seem to be motivated by forces unknown to them. What most of them fail to understand is that this mysterious force is their own character, over which they have no control. Henchard, the man of character, falls because of his character, just as Farfrae, the calculating man of principle, rises because of his character.

   As Martin Seymour Smith explains “for Hardy tragedy lies in man’s puzzling incapacity to avoid defeat despite his limited but certainly existent freedom of choice”. This is vividly exemplified in the wife-selling scene, which is one of the most original and powerful in English literature. Henchard sells his wife in an attempt to achieve freedom, but only achieves to enslave himself for life- to put himself under a curse. As a result of his guilt and sense of disgrace, Henchard invites the harshest of punishments, seeks the most terrible of fates in order to suffer and understand his existence. What Henchard is actually doing is arranging his destiny, inviting tragedy!

   An integral part of Henchard’s tragedy, however, lies in the fact that he’s a character that is misunderstood; a character with the most kind and genuine intentions, but one that usually makes the worst of impressions. This is mostly due to his inability to express his feelings in words. What he does pronounce is banal, and not expressions of his true self. Similarly, Henchard has a fierce need to love and be loved, and yet he cannot speak his love. Does that make him a “highly dramatized portrait of all men”? Perhaps. It certainly makes him the object of the reader’s compassion and concern, despite his often apparently brutal behavior.

   With this novel Hardy justifies his title as a “poet miscast as a novelist”. Let’s not forget that poetry is where Hardy first tried his talent. His approach to situation and plot is never strictly realistic. As for character, it is presented in a mythopoeic or symbolic manner, but still the characters are believable and psychologically convincing.

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