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The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge, subtitled "The Life and Death of a Man of Character", is a novel by British author Thomas Hardy. It is set in the fictional town of Casterbridge.

Storyline of The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge was written in 1886 by British author Thomas Hardy (an epic Victorian era author). The story follows Michael Henchard who, in a drunken stupor, sold his wife and baby. Carefully guarding his secret, eighteen years later, he had become the mayor of Casterbridge. He has an affair, but his wife and daughter find him again. For appearances, they decide to publicly court and pretend to marry again. Upon her death, Henchard finds out from his wife that their daughter is not really his daughter, and he becomes cold to the girl.

She moves in with a wealthy woman who happens to be the girl that Henchard was having an affair with. When she discovers how he sold his wife and daughter, she is no longer interested in him. Henchard tries to reconcile with his supposed daughter, when suddenly her real father appears. Henchard lies to him about the girl so that he will not lose her, so her father leaves. His daughter becomes engaged and discovers the truth about Henchard sending her father away. Angry, she abandons him. After getting married, however, she feels sorry for him and searches for him, but find that he has died. 

Common literary themes

One of the themes of The Mayor of Casterbridge is fate versus free will. Henchard deals with a great bit of misfortunes throughout his life. However, the vast majority of these occurrences are entirely the fault of his bad decision making. On the other hand, it seems like the characters of The Mayor of Casterbridge are unable to control their personality traits. Yes, Henchard makes bad decisions, but he was also born with a bad temper and without the ability to control his emotions. When he becomes jealous or angry, he acts on these emotions.

His mistakes are sometimes a consequence of the personality flaws he was born with (also known as a fatal flaw), so are his misfortunes a result of free will or were these things out of his control? The book examines how free the will of humans really is and if we are able to control the flaws we were born with. 

Critical response and movie adaptations

The Mayor of Casterbridge received some criticism and negative attention because of its sexuality. Though it would not be considered crude or inappropriate by today’s standards, it is still a Victorian works, meaning that any mention, or even the mere implication, of sex outside the marriage is considered scandalous. Henchard spends a lot of time alone with Lucetta despite the fact that they are not married. This causes people to think that they have had pre-marital sex. Though Henchard adamantly denies that that is true, it ruins Lucetta’s reputation anyway. In addition, his wife has sex with another man because Henchard’s ‘daughter’ was actually fathered by another man. Though this is only implied and not described, the book was regarded as sexually salacious at the time. 

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been adapted several times for television, feature films, and other mediums. The first was done in 1921 when silent film was made based on the book and directed by Sidney Morgan. Thirty years later, in 1951, the book was adapted into an opera by British composer Peter Tranchell. In 1978, Dennis Potter produced a television series on BBC staring Alan Bates, Anne Stallybrass, and Anna Massey. This version was broadcast on PBS in the United States as part of their Masterpiece Theatre. Though the setting was changed, the story was adapted again in 2000, titled “The Claim”. The town took place, instead, in a nineteenth century American West town. Michael Winterbottom directed the film and the screenplay was done by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

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