Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy
Published 1886

The Mayor of Casterbridge was my choice for a tragic novel in the Back-to-the-Classics challenge because anything I have ever read by Thomas Hardy has been either moderately or extremely tragic. I knew I could not go wrong.

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This was rather moderately tragic, considering the long stretches of success and joy and happiness, though only temporary. The story began very melancholy, but soon after sought to correct itself. The main character, who was responsible for the pain and chaos, was genuinely regretful and sought a life of penance. Always the story was on the verge of amends and reconciliation, which was a good direction; however, there were often set backs, and happiness was brief and fleeting. 

As is typical with Hardy, the characters are complex and their lives are entangled, making the story complicated, while covering a broad range of emotions. Most of the characters are decently good at heart, or at least mean to be, and it is safe to have empathy for them, even when they make mistakes. 

But sometimes the circumstances are frustrating, which is a common response from me when reading a Hardy novel. Nonetheless, I remind myself that the author was a complicated man, and he alone created these outrageous scenarios. So why continue reading him? I suppose it is mostly curiosity of what he will make of the mess he caused. Sure enough, at the very ending of his story he said,
And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain. 
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That's because, according to the pessimistic Hardy, happiness was momentary, interim, and insecure. Life was mostly painful, with fleeting moments of happiness. Such is the expression about the water in the glass: half empty or half full? Obviously, to Hardy, it was half empty. Or more like 3/4 empty, with a slow leak. That may be harsh, and apparently, he took offense to his philosophy of life being condemned as pessimistic, "as if that were a very wicked adjective," he declared. Maybe this is true, as it is possible to have very bad luck and poor timing and awful circumstances throughout one's life. But he certainly was obsessed about it, and I do not think it is very healthy.

Would you want to read this?

Again, this is a Hardy novel. It is well written -- such beautiful, lyrical prose. It is considered one of his very best novels, and I would agree (though not like my favorite Far From the Madding Crowd). It is melancholy, then redeeming, and even promising, but tragic to the very end. Most of all, the story, which is 400 pages, is worth your time or emotional investment because there is never a dull moment or plot vacancy or shallow characters. Let me say: if you like a lot of drama with your classics...this is for you.

I added The Mayor of Casterbridge to my personal canon and hope to read it again.

8 comments:

Paula Vince said...

Yes, you just need to see the name Thomas Hardy to know that a fair bit of tragedy will seep through somehow. He was what he was, that's for sure, and as you say, it's pointless to get frustrated about his characters' poor choices. Since it's on your Personal Canon, I'm definitely interested to find out more about The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Anonymous said...

Jude the Obscure is another Hardy novel chock full of drama. It's also quite complex, frustrating as heck, and tragic...obviously an expected trait with Hardy's works. It's full of allusion and metaphor, and overflowing with biblical references with winks and nods to Hardy's literary ancestors; Milton, Shelley and Wordsworth. It is quite frank sexually I have to say. I wasn't expecting that. I haven't read the Mayor of Casterbridge yet, but this post makes me want to start today - except that I've been reading a lot of pessimistic and tragic literature of late, not that I don't enjoy white-knuckling my chair or pulling out my hair on occasion, but perhaps something a little lighter and lovelier is in order for my next book. Have you read any of his poetry? I like some of it, others...not so much. I do like the poems 'Thoughts of Phena,' and ' The Darkling Thrush.' Great post, have a great week!

Ruth said...

Even though I am apprehensive about recommending a Hardy to anyone, unless I know for sure they "like" him (which is few and far between), I would recommend this one, after Madding Crowd. But Mayor is really worth it, too.

Ruth said...

Yes Jude is! That's what I mean by "drama." And it never lets up...neither novels do. They grip you and keep you wanted to find out what's next. How much more can go wrong?

And yes, Jude was shocking, but also done tastefully, if I may say so.

Luci said...

I just bought Far from the Madding Crowd. I'm hoping to get to it within the next couple of months. I remember reading your review when you read it. I also have Mayor of Casterbridge as well as Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'urbervilles on my TBR list.

Ruth said...

Another thing....the film version of Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) was pretty good, too, if you haven't seen it. I haven't seen any films for the other three.

Luci said...

I'll have to check out the movie after I read the book. I also need to watch the Return of the Native movie you suggested in your review of that book, as well. It's the only Hardy I've read so far. It was tragic (typical), but it didn't bring me down, so I hope that's an indication Hardy won't affect me too badly.

Ruth said...

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of his happier endings....even after all the disappointments. LOL!!!