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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Why The Mayor of Casterbridge fails as a tragic novel

It does strike me that there's nobody really likable in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge - a few of the characters seem at the start as if they'll be noble and good, thinking mainly for Donald Farfrae here, but he falls so easily for the scheming Lucetta and is so utterly stupid in his inability to see whatever secrets tarnish her "dark past" in Jersey - it's hard to have any positive feelings for him. There's no one who's the equivalent to or even similar to the tragic Hardy heroes/heroines like Tess or like the poor guy whose name I don't remember who goes partially blind and continues working cutting furze or whatever he did in Return of the Native - certainly no Jude. The lead characters, mainly the eponymous mayor (#1), Henchard, are foolish and blustering and we can see their fate from far off and they seem to deserve their fate as well - they're not tragic heroes but they're victims of their own weaknesses, which inevitably undo all of their good fortune. Hardy could have built sympathy for two of the women - Susan Henchard and her daughter Elizabeth (Newson), but he conveniently dispatches Susan to set the plot in motion - she's just a zero on the register - and, though we feel sad for Elizabeth she's such bland and unlikable character with her moral rectitude that we, or at least I, don't feel any deep sorrow or pity for her - even when her stepfather is at his meanest toward her. Hardy has created a reasonably well-designed plot, and there is the great opening scene in which Henchard sells wife and daughter at auction, and some vintage Hardy passages about agricultural life (not pastoral life - this is grimly realistic rather than farm labor as seen from the POV of someone who never did any) - but it's a novel that never fully takes hold because the characters are victims of fate rather than torn between opposing impulses, desires, dreams, or beliefs.

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