Thomas Hardy wrote the tragic novel The Mayor of Casterbrige (1886), setting it in the fictional town Casterbridge which was based on his childhood town Dorchester. Hardy’s novel explores the life of a rural hay-trusser, Michael Henchard and his rise and fall in Casterbridge. It was set in 1846, before the Corn Laws, when England was experiencing scientific and technical advancement and new ways of working. In addition, social values were also changing.
Hardy is well known for his very pictorial descriptions and was a writer in the realist/naturalist tradition and used real places in Dorchester to describe rural Casterbrige. The functions of Hardy’s descriptive language creates a vivid picture; illustrates and reflects the personality of the characters concerned; creates a strong sense of atmosphere often using pathetic fallacy and gives a sense of social history.
Throughout the novel, Hardy describes many exterior settings such as Casterbridge and its surrounding area including Weydon Priors, The Ring and the market-place. Interior settings include Henchard and Lucetta’s home and the three public houses, the King’s Arms, the Three Mariners and Peter’s Finger. What would the modern reader think about the vivid descriptions Hardy creates that contribute greatly to the novel?
When Casterbridge is first introduced, it is described as being an isolated old-fashioned agricultural town that was cut off from the outside world.
“Casterbridge- at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism.”
There is a great contrast with the surrounding countryside and the town.
“The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements.”
Hardy creates an in-depth account of Casterbridge to engage the reader so they can connect with the town itself where most if not all the action of the novel takes place.
The town relies on the agricultural and pastoral people of Casterbridge for its existence and the jobs were linked with the countryside. Hardy shows this by including a list of occupations in his colourful description,
“The yeomen, farmers, dairymen, and townsfolk, who came to transact business in these ancient streets…”
The prosperous market town reveals to the reader the long-standing tools and objects that used to be used by the townspeople which puts their world into context with the modern world.
“Scythes, reap-hooks, sheep-shears, bill-hooks, spades, mattocks and hoes, at the ironmonger’s: bee-hives, butter firkins, churns, milking stools and pails…”
Even though it is remote from more modernised towns we see it being affected by the Industrial Revolution and Hardy shows the changes by introducing the horse drill.
“Its arrival created about as much sensation in the corn-market as a flying machine would create at Charing Cross.”
The townspeople find it strange and technologically advanced because Hardy as the narrator describes uses a comparison to a “flying machine” which was being invented around that period of time. He also shows how the townspeople are affected as they will lose their jobs due to this new machine. In addition, it shows the contrast between some of the two main characters such as Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane and their reactions to the new horse drill.
“It will revolutionise sowing herabout.”
This illustrates and reflects the personality of the characters concerned. Farfrae is a supporter of the horse drill and this shows he can adapt to change and is more modern. However, Elizabeth-Jane is against the horse drill. She is not used to technology because she comes from a poor background. She is a simple young woman and believes that the agricultural world that Casterbridge belongs to will be lost to a machine.
Additionally, another function used by Hardy in his setting descriptions is pathetic fallacy.
“The river-slow, noiseless and dark- the Schwarzwsser of Casterbridge…”
Hardy makes a connection with the setting and the emotions Henchard is going through at this stage of the novel by using pathetic fallacy. This is a very effective technique to use when Henchard shows the softer and more vulnerable side of his character.
A further exterior setting that Hardy describes in great detail to create a strong sense of atmosphere which gives a sense of social history is The Ring.
“It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome.”
This location is filled with a lot of secrecy, privacy and where some of the key events in the novel take place, when Henchard is reunited with Susan after their long absence and when he meets Lucetta returning from Jersey. The atmosphere of The Ring has a negative impact as this is where violent fights and deaths would take place in Roman times as it used to be used by the gladiators and for public executions. This contributes to the sense of inevitable doom and eventual death of Henchard.
As well as the exterior settings that Hardy intensely describes throughout the novel he also includes a range of interior settings such as Lucetta’s home and the three inns Hardy uses to show class divisions within society in Victorian England.
The King’s Arms, the gathering place for higher class citizens play an important setting.
At the beginning of the novel we meet the wealthy Henchard here, when Susan and Elizabeth-Jane return to find him.
“The interior of the hotel dining room was spread out before her, with its tables, and glass, and plate, and inmates.”
Without the vital description of The Kings Arms, the reader would not be able to see the flourished Henchard, from a poor hay-trusser, to a prosperous mayor and hay merchant. Another meeting place for the middle-class townspeople was The Three Mariners.
“Outside the house they had stood and considered whether even this homely place, though recommended as moderate, might not be too serious in its prices for their light pockets.”
This is a significant place because this is where the reader sees the respectable Elizabeth-Jane trying to make her way in life and provide for her mother. Henchard and Farfrae also meet here to discuss business plans. In addition this is where Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae first see each other, with their encountering on the staircase.
The gathering place for the lower class people of Casterbridge was Peter’s Finger.
“It was centrally situate, as such places should be, and bore about the same social relation to the Three Mariners as the latter bore to the King’s Arms.”
Key events take place in this public house and this is when Joshua Jopp reveals to the lower-class townspeople of Lucetta’s and Henchard’s former affair. This is a turning point in the novel and we see the town’s superstitions with the skimmington ride. It was illegal in the past but rebellious townspeople used it to humiliate mainly women who were unfaithful. This shows the superstitious beliefs that people had in those times and how they contributed to the dramatic description of the novel.
Lucetta’s home at High Place Hall illustrates her femininity and exoticness by the description of her dï¿½cor and furniture.
“The room disclosed was prettily furnished as a boudoir or small drawing room, and on a sofa with two cylindrical pillows…”
All of her possessions are foreign to the people in Casterbridge because of her Channel Islands background. Hardy includes a description of large windows that look over the bustling market place.
“They sat adjoining windows of the same room in Lucetta’s mansion, netting, and looking out upon the market, which formed an animated scene.”
This shows the distinction between the interior lives of women in the nineteenth century with the men’s industrious business lives. Victorian women had no freedom and had to obey men. Women who were not married and remained single were looked upon in disappointed and pity. Their only purpose was to marry, have children, bring them up and look after the family home. Clothing symbolised their wealth which is what Hardy does to show the reader Lucetta’s fortune left to her by her aunt.
“Elizabeth saw the gowns spread out on the bed, one of a deep cherry colour, the other lighter- a glove lying at the end of each sleeve, a bonnet at the top of each neck..”
Hardy shows Lucetta’s somewhat dissolute personality by reflecting it with her fashion and the dï¿½cor of her home. He also shows that she is not like an everyday Victorian woman as she is not married and has no children. The description builds a personality for one of the main characters and illustrates what women were expected to be like in former years. Hardy shows how Casterbridge is being influenced by outside factors.
The young reader may consider The Mayor of Casterbridge to be a long winded novel with endless amounts of description that could be considered to be too excessive. Nevertheless the descriptions contribute to the novel by adding a vivid picture, exemplifying character’s personalities, creating a strong sense of atmosphere and using pathetic fallacy and giving a sense of social history. Hardy creates a genuine and believable world for the characters by setting it in an existing town that he could relate it to. The descriptions in the novel are vital and without it, The Mayor of Casterbridge would be no different to other novels. Hardy is able to create bonds with the reader and the characters in the book by using description to demonstrate their personality, for example Lucetta’s house and use different settings for different classes of people – the three public houses. The exterior settings give the novel an overview of the time period for example the detailed descriptions of Casterbridge, which makes the reader’s ability to associate with the novel stronger.