Monday, November 21, 2011

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I finished The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, and honestly, I'm having a hard time finding anything to say about it.  (Which shocks me, because I'm rarely at a loss for words).  I guess I can sum it up by saying I was underwhelmed.

If you haven't read it, here's the setup:  the story begins with Michael Henchard and his wife walking down a country lane with their baby, in England circa 1830 (if I've gotten the dates wrong, I apologize).  Anyhow, he's an itinerant farm worker, looking to find a job gathering hay.  They wander into a town where an auction is going on, and stop for something to eat called furmity, which is some kind of porridge.  The old hag serving up the furmity laces Michael's bowl with rum (which sounds disgusting -- who puts rum in a savory dinner dish?  It should be reserved for tropical drinks served with an umbrella).  The upshot is that Michael gets drunk and angry because he's young and poor, and starts complaining about being saddled with a wife and child.  He threatens to sell them to the highest bidder, just like at the nearby auction.  The other drunkards go along with this, thinking it's a big joke, but a sailor passing through takes him up on his offer.  The wife, who's had enough of his bad behavior, decides she's better off without him and leaves with this complete stranger.  Michael must have been a pretty poor husband.

Later, he sobers up and realizes what he's done, but it's too late, and he swears off drinking.  Years later, the wife and grown daughter show up looking for him, and by now he's sober and respectable, and he's a wealthy upstanding citizen; in fact, he's the town Mayor.  And this is where things start to get interesting, because he feels obligated to this wife and child, but he doesn't want anyone to know about the terrible thing he's done in the past.  If you've read Hardy, you know this will all end badly.

I've read quite a few classics books that I like to think of as fascinating train wrecks -- if you've followed my blog, you'll know they include some of my favorite classics, like Madam Bovary, The House of Mirth, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Emile Zola -- you know, people on downward spirals.  They're not always very nice characters, yet I can't stop reading about them.  The Mayor of Casterbridge had the potential to fall into this category, but sadly, I didn't find it so fascinating.  It was an easy read, but somehow, I didn't find the characters all that compelling.  I just really didn't care about any of them.

This the second novel I've read by Hardy.  My first was Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I read several years ago for an online book group.  I remember distinctly that after it was nominated, one of the members posted a comment that said (and I paraphrase) that he'd rather poke himself in the eye with a sharp stick than discuss Tess again.  I don't know if he was sick to death of it, or he hated it, or he was just being a jerk, but that's all I could think about when it came time to read Casterbridge.  I didn't hate Tess, but boy, it took forever for anything to happen.  Having seen the movie years ago, I was familiar with the plot, and it really seemed like endless description of farm life in England.  Tess was forever digging up turnips or haying or milking cows, et cetera.   (To be fair,  I probably shouldn't have been reading it while on vacation in Costa Rica -- really, it was geographically inappropriate.  Hard to get excited about rural England while enjoying a gorgeous vista of banana plants and coffee trees.)

I love Victorian novels, but I'm having a tough time with Hardy.  How is it his books are both readable and slow at the same time?  His books aren't densely written, like Dickens and Eliot can be, but sometimes it takes forever for stuff to happen.  I'm getting a kinda frustrated with Hardy.  Amanda from Ramblings has sworn to me that Jude the Obscure is much better, and I have promised to read Return of the Native, which she loved. If things don't improve, I'm going to delete his books from my to-read list.

Has anyone else read Hardy?  What did you think?  Should I give up or give him another try?


  1. It's so funny -- I remember one summer when I devoured every book by Hardy I could get my hands on. Then I seem to have burned myself out, because I haven't read one in years. If it makes you feel any better, I had my own issues with another Victorian author this week -- Trollope! Thanks for the honest review!

  2. I will warn you that Jude is VERY slow to start, a lot like Tess. There's a lot of meandering and very little happens for the first 2/3rds of the book. Return of the Native, on the other hand, is fantastic from the beginning, and if you can ILL the Alan Rickman audio version, it's even better. :D

  3. I read this a few years ago and based on my very short summary, I seem to have enjoyed it ok (I rated it 7.5/10). I think I just really like books about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, though! And I am not sure if I would feel the same way now...

  4. I very much like both Tess and Jude, but every other Hardy that I have tried to read has given me fits. I have a goal, however, to give them another go sometime soon as I do like his writing and his ideas.

  5. Tess of the d'Urbervilles is one of my favorite books but I have never read anything else by Hardy. Maybe I will skip this one for now and go with one of his other books!

  6. I love Hardy, but bear in mind that I have a weakness for the rural that takes in some horribly unfashionable authors, like mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith.

    That said, this is not one of my favourites, but Jude is.

  7. I am something of a Hardy fanatic. I can't say why exactly because it's a sort of visceral love that defies all reason. I love his language and his story, and his dark sensibilities are right up my alley.

    Mayor is one I haven't read for at least 10 years, and although it was my first Hardy, I don't consider it one of my favorites. Tess, or perhaps Jude, would be my favorite, followed by Return of the Native.

  8. Return of the Native is by far my favorite of the novels although I liked Far from the Madding Crowd and I generally enjoy enjoy his short works. I am a big fan of the poetry thanks to Claire Tomalin's biography.

  9. I read Tess when I was 12-ish and loathed it. I keep meaning to give Hardy another chance now that I'm older, and various Hardy fans have suggested Far From the Madding Crowd (which I thought was Maddening for ages) for that purpose. We'll see!

    The only famous Victorian writer that I really don't like is Charles Dickens. I felt a bit meh about Margaret Oliphant when I tried her a few months ago, and I can go either way on Gaskell's novels (some I love, some I think are too didactic), but I'd read all of them before any more Dickens!

    >>I'm having a hard time finding anything to say about it. (Which shocks me, because I'm rarely at a loss for words). I guess I can sum it up by saying I was underwhelmed.

    is exactly how I felt when I read Maugham for first time last year (Cakes and Ale). I ended up never blogging about it, because I just felt kind of indistinctly blah about it all.

  10. Col -- sorry to hear about Trollope. I've only read a couple of the Barchester books, which I quite enjoyed, and The Way We Live Now, which was just great. I have a bunch more on the TBR shelf so I hope they're not all disappointing.

    Amanda -- wow, if the slow part of Jude is the first 2/3, I may not make it through. I'll give Return of the Native a shot first. Good idea about ILLing the Rickman audio!

    Aarti -- I like the Industrial Revolution too, but this one seems pretty much centered on rural life. There's a small mention of some new sowing or haying machine, but it's a minor detail.

    Anbolyn -- I'm going to give Jude a try someday. One of my online groups read it and though I didn't have time, it was very popular with the group, which is encouraging.

    Lola -- if you liked Tess, you might really like this one. Maybe I just don't click with Hardy.

    Fleur -- I keep hearing good things about Jude, so I'll try that one someday.

    Teresa -- I feel the same way about Zola and Wharton.

    AJ -- I've heard good things about Madding Crowd as well. I also have a copy of Under the Greenwood Tree which I bought for a group read and never started.

    Eva -- I quite like Dickens, though some are of course better than others. I've never been impressed by A Christmas Carol, and I thought Hard Times was wretched; however, I adored Bleak House and Oliver Twist, plus I really enjoyed some of the others. He's kind of over the top sometimes but I still enjoy the melodrama.

    I've read Cakes and Ale but it was so long ago I've forgotten it. It didn't make much of an impression, so maybe that was one of the Maughams I didn't care for.

  11. Must admit, Ive never been a big fan of Thomas Hardy. I didn't like Tess of the D'Urbervilles, I wasn't overimpressed with Far From The Madding Crowd, either - though it actually has a happy ending, of a kind (about the happiest ending you'll find in a Hardy novel). So I think I'll give this one a miss!

  12. Eva said - is exactly how I felt when I read Maugham for first time last year (Cakes and Ale). I ended up never blogging about it, because I just felt kind of indistinctly blah about it all.
    We read it for bookclub a few years ago - and that's exactly how we all felt about it, too - distinctly underwhelmed.

  13. I read loads of Hardy books when I was a teenager and I think all the doom and gloom was part of the charm of them then. I think he was writing about rural life as a way of preserving the memories as it was all disappearing fast due to industrialisation. Luckily I enjoy those bits. Jude the Obscure should have a warning on it that it can be a real downer!

  14. I read this book for my English Literature class in high school. I didn't mind it at the time, but maybe it's also because we were able to discuss it as a class? I picked up about the daughter and I remember one of my class mates turning around and saying, how did I work that out? Maybe I remember the book fondly because of working something out before the conclusion? Anyway I always say persevere with the classics, but only up to your age....

    This is when you minus your age from a hundred and the remaining number is how many pages you read. For example, if you are thirty years old you would therefore read seventy pages. The idea is that the older you get the less time you give to books you may consider unreadable. :)

  15. I've only ever read Tess by Hardy and remember liking it very much, but he does seem slow going. I've always meant to read more but you know how it goes--so many books to choose from. I really must pick up another book, but for some reason Mayor of C. doesn't appeal to me as much as his other books. I did see the BBC production of this and your post brought it all back to me--though I must admit I forget how it ends (or maybe I just didn't finish watching it...hmm). Love your post though! :)

  16. Try FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD or THE WOODLANDERS--rare Hardy novels that have (relatively) happy endings.

    Because he stopped writing novels in the 1890s, it's easy to forget that Hardy lived until 1927. What a shame he didn't write a novel about the Jazz Age!

  17. I love Hardy & the Mayor is one of my favourites. Tess is my least favourite Hardy, I just wanted to shake her & Angel. I suppose I love novels about Fate & Hardy is the master of showing how one action can lead to that downward spiral. I was fascinated by Henchard & his life, all the time knowing that his time as a respected member of society was coming to an end through his own actions all those years ago. If you decide to tackle another Hardy, maybe Far From the Madding Crowd would be a good choice. Just as much Fate but more appealing characters. Gabriel Oak is my favourite Hardy hero.

  18. I used to love Hardy when I was young--read Tess a few times, Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd but never Mayor of Casterbridge, which my sister loves. Last time I read Tess I was struck by the beauty of the writing but got bogged down mid-way and never completed it. Hardy is definitely not my favorite anymore. Isn't it odd to be at a loss for words about a book? Happens to me sometimes too :)

  19. I haven't yet read Hardy's novels. But I know some bloggers who LOVE him (Teresa) and then I read a post like this and think "oh dear." I just need to give him a try. Sounds like there are plenty to try. Sorry this one was so disappointing.

    I have Return of the Native on my shelf, and of course all of them on gutenberg. We'll see where I go when I do give him a chance.

  20. I read all the big Hardy novels when I was 14,15,16 and think that's about the right age. I was a bit of a mopey adolescent.

    It was me who put Amanda on to the Rickman audio of Return of the Native and so I also highly recommend it!

  21. I can totally sympathize with your thoughts on The Mayor of Castorbridge. I think if I had read it on my own, I would have felt similarly. Luckily, I read it in a class with an amazing and wonderful professor who brought the novel to life for me. I ended up loving it so much that I wrote my thesis on it.

    So I moved on to some other Hardy, and I have felt almost the same about every other novel of Hardy's as you do about this one - easy to read, but with not so compelling characters.

    In the end, though, I do think that Tess and Jude are really worth a good read. Thanks for your thoughtful and honest post!

  22. I think I have never read a more accurate review about The Mayor of Casterbridge.
    I felt EXACTLY the same when I read it.
    In general I am fascinated with stories about a fall from grace (which could explain my obsession with greek tragedies!)and although parts of Hardy's book were really promising I didn't care for it as much as I could have.
    I don't say I hated it, just that I was disappointed, perhaps I should give Hardy another try. Tess of D'Urbervilles?

    By the way: I love your blog almost as much as my favourite creamy milk chocolate ;)


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