Places: The Mayor of Casterbridge

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1886

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Places DiscussedCasterbridge

Casterbridge. Mayor of Casterbridge, TheBustling market town in Hardy’s fictional Wessex countryside in southern England. Its origins date back to Roman times, and several of its features remain from that era: a Roman amphitheater, a graveyard, and the straight roads connecting Casterbridge with adjacent towns. Hardy describes Casterbridge from two opposite perspectives. On one hand, from Yalbury Hill a mile away, it appears a well-defined urban community, set square in rolling, open countryside, sharply divided from the country by a wall, tree-lined avenues, and a river. On the other hand, from a worm’s-eye view, it seems to be a sprawling, confusing set of streets in which boundaries are constantly eroded. Market stalls cover sidewalks; carts jostle for right-of-way; smart private residences abut commercial premises. Secret back alleys lead to houses and pubs.

This double perspective of the town symbolizes the ambiguity of protagonist Michael Henchard’s own rise and fall. From one perspective his downfall seems to be brought about by a cruel but clear-cut fate; from another, by the muddle of his own character and choices. The tensions created by these opposite perspectives create the power of the novel.

Recurring geographical features of the town include High Street; St. Peter’s Church; the market house; the town hall, in which magistrates preside over the police court; two inns, the Mariner’s Arms and the King’s Arms Hotel; and the Bull Stake, an open area. The buildings are typically either timber houses with overhanging stories dating from Tudor times, or stone Georgian structures. Stores serve a variety of agricultural needs. The houses have no front yards, opening straight onto sidewalks, though they often have long rear courtyards and gardens.

Casterbridge corresponds to the real Dorchester in the county of Dorset in southwestern England. Hardy knew the town intimately, for it was there he received his high school education, practiced as an architect, and built his own house, Max Gate.

Henchard’s house

Henchard’s house. Home of Michael Henchard on Casterbridge’s Corn Street–a suitable address for the town’s official corn factor. The house’s change of ownership from Henchard to the grain merchant Donald Farfrae marks the decisive change of balance of power between the men.

High-Place Hall

High-Place Hall. Old stone house near Casterbridge’s market that Lucetta Le Sueur leases on her departure from Jersey, one of the British Channel Islands off the French coast. The hall is built in the fashion of a country mansion but sits in the center of town, thereby symbolizing the ambiguity of Lucetta’s position. From its windows, Lucetta and Elizabeth-Jane Newson watch the commercial transactions of Henchard and Farfrae. The hidden relationships of these four characters is suggested by the hidden entrance to the house.

The Ring

The Ring. Old Roman amphitheater immediately outside Casterbridge’s southern boundary, just off the Budmouth (Weymouth) road. The amphitheater is described as being as large as the Colosseum in Rome; what goes on inside it is hidden, but such secretiveness does little good: It is a “dismal privacy,” as if ghosts were watching it. Likewise, Henchard’s first meeting with Susan, his later meeting with Lucetta, his spying on Farfrae’s meeting with Elizabeth-Jane, and his observing Newson’s return never lead to anything open and healthful, and contribute only to the continuation of the secrets and lies that finally enmesh him.

Durnover

Durnover. Casterbridge’s only suburb, located to the east and northeast of the town, along the river. The river itself embodies “mournful phases” of Casterbridge life, and the slum area of Mixen Lane abuts it. A form of public humiliation known as a skimmity ride is planned in Durnovers’ low-class pub, Peter’s Finger; Henchard finds lodgings with Jopp in Durnover when both are down on their luck; the “chorus of yokels” lives in Durnover.

Bridges

Bridges. Casterbridge’s two bridges symbolize the town’s social class divisions and tragedies. The brick bridge at the end of High Street is frequented by low-class characters down on their luck, while the stone bridge, situated in the meadows, is a more secluded place, one to which the better classes go when in misfortune. People occasionally jump off the bridges to commit suicide, and their bodies end up in Blackwater Pool or Ten Hatches Hole, which is where Henchard sees his straw effigy or double after the skimmity ride, a ghastly omen of his own impending death.

Weydon Priors

Weydon Priors. Village in Upper Wessex, some six days’ walk from Casterbridge, that is the only important location outside Casterbridge in the novel. Weydon Priors is in economic decline, marked by the decline of its annual fair and individualized in the downfall of the Furmity woman, who knows Henchard’s dark secret. Her arrest in Casterbridge, where their fated paths cross, precipitates Henchard’s downfall.

BibliographyBerger, Sheila. Thomas Hardy and Visual Structures: Framing, Disruption, Process. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Berger takes a look at the narrative style in Hardy’s novels, focusing on acts of storytelling, subjective points of view, and the construction of the “omniscient” narrator.Enstice, Andrew. Thomas Hardy: Landscapes of the Mind. London: Macmillan, 1979. A good historical analysis of the novel, in which Enstice uses a thorough discussion of nineteenth century Dorset and its economic circumstances to interpret Hardy’s rendition of Casterbridge’s history and society in The Mayor of Casterbridge.Milligate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist. London: Bodley Head, 1971. A thorough study of Hardy’s life and his concerns, attitudes, values, and problems as they affected his writing and its reception; a critically acclaimed work that offers a fair perspective on Hardy’s personal and artistic development.Widdowson, Peter. Hardy in History: A Study in Literary Sociology. New York: Routledge, 1989. An interesting analysis of traditional readings of Hardy’s novels that argues that Hardy has been produced as a “rural” novelist in the literary imagination; in reality, his writing deals with his urban vision of Wessex. This work lends a new perspective to the relationship of Casterbridge to the countryside and London, a relationship central to Michael Henchard’s fate.Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. A seminal book on the class relations and rural-urban dislocations that underlie Hardy’s representation of Wessex and the lives and fortunes of his “rural” characters.
Categories: Places