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

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Why The Mayor of Casterbridge is on high-school reading lists - and why it's not a tragedy

As any reader could foretell, Henchard's fortunes continue to decline, as Farfrae's rise - F. marries the now-wealthy woman (Lucetta) to whom H. aspired (once he'd learned she was wealthy of course), H. loses all of his money through poor speculation in grain, though he's very honest and forthright in paying his debts he's now homeless more or less - living in a borrowed room in a laborer's cottage (what this says about the living conditions of all of the laborers is something that Hardy does not examine) and working as a hay-baler for arch-rival Farfrae. Quite incredibly, F knows nothing about Henhard's past history with his wife, Lucetta, and Henchard, now back on the bottle after 21 years' abstention, drops some nasty and painfully obvious hints to F about his past involvement w/ Lucetta - F either is incredibly dumb in the ways of love or intentionally doesn't put the clues together. All told, The Mayor of Casterbridge is not a tragic novel in the way of Tess or Return of the Native, e.g., in that we don't feel sorrow and pity for the protagonists - the two mayors of casterbridge, in fact; rather, it's almost medieval in its conception, as if every is bound to a wheel of fortune and that what rises must inevitably later fall. Oddly, the one potentially tragic figure is Henchard's step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, whom Hardy keeps to the sidelines - she doesn't have much to do except lurk on the fringes of the action looking and seeming pitiful - and it doesn't help that she's such a prude and stickler for morality (though Hardy notes that none of us should blame her for that, given the uncertainty of parentage w/ which she grew up - it's no wonder that she would focus, as an adult, on moral strictures and paternal validity). The novel has a strong, driving plot, it's well-paced - probably the easiest of all Hardy novels to read (which is probably why it's on h.s. reading lists - also because there's not the moral uncertainties of, gulp, premarital sex) but it's chilly at heart, without the passion and moral ambiguities of Tess or Return (2 that I've re-read fairly recently): the main characters are not torn between conflicting forces nor are they victims of their own nature but are blunderous and in fact foolish: if they'd only tell the truth to one another their life pathways would be much more clear.

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