Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Spokes on the Literary Wheel: Hardy, Henchard and Rekindling the Fire

I have now been long absent from my Musings and while I am embroiled in research, in the formulation of the next work, in the devising of plot and character, I miss the torment and rapture of composition. For while research is devoid of such particular pleasures – it contains, I find, a different kind of intermittent thrill when one stumbles across some resonant theme; a literary gleam in the dark pregnant with fictional possibilities. But to write! That is something else altogether. So I return to my humble fireside and attempt to resurrect a faint and flickering spark slumbering within the cold ash. How well I succeed (these rusted fingers are prompted to movement by equally sluggish neurons), remains to be seen, but the endeavor serves to satisfy my own inclination and perhaps be of some minor interest to those who kindly follow…

As I return to the Musings, I gravitate again, as I have done so many times before, to Thomas Hardy. My reading life is as a literary centrifuge where beloved authors are visited and revisited, with an intermission of months or years, but accompanied nonetheless by an ever-deepening appreciation for the poignant lyricism of the English language (alas, the only one in which I am reading-proficient, much to my chagrin). Or perhaps a wooden wheel might serve as a better literary analogy. Just as wood mellows to a rich and polished hue, each travel-worn spoke is representative of repeated reads - from an initial and awkward adolescent acquaintance to the patient pleasure of more advanced years, with our understanding and appreciation of these fine works only deepening over time. For there is always more to be found between the covers of deeply thoughtful books such as these, lessons lost in youth that resonate in maturity.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is one such well-traveled spoke on my literary excursion. My copy, purchased over twenty years ago, is a well-worn edition, yellowed at the peripheries, and creased at the spine; it includes, as testament to its age, quaint instructions at the book’s end on how to procure print copies via mailed checks to various Penguin offices worldwide. This particular book has accompanied my various perambulations across the seas, from one continent to another, from the bookshelf of an inquiring teen to that of a still-questing adult. For like Socrates, who certainly had a far greater claim to knowledge than myself, I know nothing but am ever-eager to learn. And novels such as these are humanity's emotionally turbulent heart made vividly manifest in ink and paper.

The allure of this novel, to my mind, lie in the tragic stature, the pathos and power, of the primary character: Michael Henchard. At the novel’s onset we meet the ambitious hay-trusser,  listless wife and child in tow, at Weydon-Priors Fair where he, in a state of inebriation, relieves himself of his familial burden by selling wife and child to a stranger. Later, sober, repentant, and consumed by shame, Henchard vows to abstain from drinking one year for each that he has been alive; a vow that deliciously anticipates his own ruination. A lesser man might have sworn never to drink again and either relented or maintained, Henchard, however, is made of sterner stuff; the architect of his own defeat. Coincidence plays a role and Hardy’s evocation of the terrible neutrality of fate, of the silent witness of indifferent gods, bring Oedipal thoughts to mind… 

When we (in the company of wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane) meet Henchard again, eighteen years later, he is at his apogee – authoritative and commanding,  a thriving corn merchant and the Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard is also a coarse and untutored fellow, endowed with a sinister laugh that “was not encouraging to strangers.” He remains unable to articulate his emotions, and reverts to an indifferent, solitary life defined by a casual contempt for the failings of others and a lust for commercial success and power.  Despite these flaws, Henchard, when confronted by his previously sold wife and child is determined to rectify the situation as best he may – which he proceeds to do by courting and marrying Susan and acknowledging Elizabeth-Jane as step-daughter most dear (for she must not know of his past transgression!) After Susan’s untimely death shortly thereafter, however, a letter informs Henchard that Elizabeth-Jane was born not of his loins but of those of the stranger to whom her mother had been sold eighteen years previous, and this luckless step-daughter is treated forthwith with a cold and dismissive condescension. 

A ballad-singing Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, off to seek fame and fortune in the New World, does the mayor a good turn and impulsively the latter persuades him to employment with generous terms – the die is cast. Farfrae is, upon brief inspection, a man of principles and charm; as the narrative unfolds, however, he is subtly revealed by Hardy to be somewhat less than the sum of his pretty parts. Spurning Elizabeth-Jane for the wealthy heiress, Lucetta (whose dark past conceals a torrid affair with Henchard himself), Farfrae’s star rises as Henchard’s falls.  Even as the mayor’s fortunes decline, as he publicly acknowledges his old ‘disgrace’, the sale of wife and child, his strength of character grows. At the peak of his contrition, Henchard realizes that not only is he unable to kill Farfae, who has, he feels, so cruelly usurped his life and love, but he cannot bring himself to reveal Lucetta’s past shame. In a flash of insight, Henchard's heavy heart is for the first time buoyed by unselfish affection for another – the oft-spurned Elizabeth-Jane. And this fallen man, devoid of position, penny, and pride, finds himself ambitious now not for political power or commercial success, but for the love of a serious-minded girl born to another.  

Living as proprietor of a modest seed shop, Henchard, enjoying the sweet affections of his step-daughter, is at last content. Hardy would not let him rest overlong. This peaceful existence is interrupted by the arrival of Newson, the merchant sailor to whom his family had been sold so many years ago, and the biological father of Elizabeth-Jane. Desperate to maintain his hold upon the heart of his now beloved step-daughter, Henchard informs Newson of his daughter's death several years before - concealing both his visit and his true paternity from Elizabeth-Jane. Regardless, all will out in the end. Upon discovering his deception, Elizabeth-Jane spurns Henchard who leaves Casterbridge to aimlessly wander the hill and the heath and find, at book's end, a pauper's grave; he leaves behind only a crumpled scrap of paper with dismal instructions for his life to be unremembered, his death unmourned and his body to be interred in unconsecrated ground.

The tragic heights of Hardy’s character lie in Henchard’s conviction that his fate lay in “Somebody’s hand”, that events conspired to ruin him, without realizing that this hand so referred to was in fact his own, that he sought his own destiny with a terrible vigor, his penance the self-imposed punishment that he, ultimately a man of high-conscience, deemed to be his own just deserts. For unlike other repentant men who embrace the harshest of penalties, Henchard did not anticipate redemption through suffering or any lessening of life’s scourge; instead he sought, most fiercely, to secure the happiness of Elizabeth-Jane and in this great and wondrous love, this selfless devotion to another, Henchard finally, in death, becomes something much more; he is elevated beyond the shallow calculations of Farfrae and the fleeting affections of Newson, beyond Lucetta's excessive concern for scandal and even beyond Elizabeth-Jane who could not realize the depth and intensity of her step-father's affection until it was too late. The pantheon of literary characters made room at the table for Michael Henchard.

While I am uncertain as to whether this humble fireside provides anything more than a pale, lackluster warmth, one may at least be assured that my zest for the long-winded remains undiminished! It does feel blissful to move the fingers in such a fashion and I hope to be able to attend the fire with greater regularity henceforth. I return The Mayor to the shelf and wonder what the wheel's turn will suggest next...


  1. Dear P.J Your delicious evocation Of Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge brings back memories of the sheer delight when reading and understanding his work many years ago. Thank you. Now I shall read it again. Regds Chris

    1. Thank you, dear Chris, for taking the time to stop by my rekindled fireside and for leaving your lovely comment. It warms my heart. But I must ask, did you bring the marshmellows?

  2. Wonderful recapitulation of the Hardy classic and a welcome return to the fireside with PJ Royal and the Humble Musings!

    1. Thank you Shari! I am so thrilled that you enjoyed this humble musing, it is little indeed without the company of my esteemed friends and colleagues and fellow writers!