When I was in school, the fiction section in the library was well stocked with the likes of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy among others. I can recall going through all his novels except Jude the Obscure and Well Beloved.
Almost 40 years have passed since that time. I can be forgiven for forgetting the exact contents of the book I read so many years ago. Yet, to my surprise, the story came back to me in snatches as I read on.
Thomas Hardy's plots are quite like hill roads, full of twists and turns. I was surprised to find so much happening in the lives of the main characters. It kept me glued to the book, I was loath to put it down.
The Plot : Micheal Henchard is on the road looking for work as a hay trusser with a young wife and a baby in tow. He stops for supper in a furmity tent in a fair in a village they are passing through. He opts for rum to go with his furmity and soon becomes intoxicated. He auctions his wife off to a Sailor before passing out. His wife, Susan, disgusted by his action, goes off with the Sailor in a huff.
Next morning, Henchard is overcome with remorse and swears not to drink for next 21 years. He tries to track Susan and the Sailor down, but does not succeed. His sobriety and hard work finds him, 18 years later, a prosperous man, and the Mayor of the town of Casterbridge.
It is at this time that Susan and Elizabeth Jane, a grown young woman now, reach Casterbridge. The Sailor, Newson, is lost at sea, presumed dead. Susan wants to look for Henchard and see if she can find some support for her daughter. Henchard is repentant of his previous misdeed, and wants to make amends. Not wanting anyone to know of the circumstances which made them part, Henchard opts to pretend to woo the good widow and marry her.
About the same time, he hires a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae as his manager to look after his dealings in corn. Farfrae is a very capable man and helps Henchard's business grow. Henchard looks upon Donald as a close friend and associate and confides in him his past secret. He tells Donald about Susan and also about another lady in Jersey. He had happened to get intimate with her and promised marriage. But with the appearance of Susan, he has to let the other lady go.
Henchard settles into domesticity with Susan and Elizabeth Jane. But his life is not settled yet. Susan's death reveals a secret that throws him off his equilibrium and he finds himself sinking into a mire he cannot get out of.
Micheal Henchard, our principal character, is given to deep impulses. He has sworn off drink, hoping it will make him more temperate, but his impetuousness makes him take rash decisions that sink him into a mire.
He hires Donald Farfrae as his manager, recognizing his talent and hard work. His impulsiveness makes him confess to Donald all about his past. He regards the younger man as his friend and confidante. But at the first shade of doubt, he casts Donald out into the cold and turns a true friend into an enemy.
Similarly, he loses Susan because of a rash, alcohol driven impulse. Yet, in a hurry to redress his wrong, he fails to try and understand the woman he abandoned so easily many years ago, and fails to benefit from her wisdom. He fails to allow Susan to turn his later years blissful. He foists his prosperity upon a simple woman looking for some security and a safe haven.
He treats his daughter Elizabeth Jane with the same wavering to the extremes. He loves her deeply one day and the next he is gruff and distant. Even though he has a good reason to be distant, he is too impulsive to allow reason to temper his actions.
Because of this, his admirers and friends, Susan, Donald and Elizabeth Jane find themselves perplexed and hurt and thwarted by him. They are unable to reach out and be his friend and support him when he is in need. His pride does not allow him to soften to them, and he finds himself a bitter and a lonely man.
He does meet his match in Lucette, the woman with whom he had an intimacy in Jersey. When Lucette resettles in Casterbridge after Susan's death, his intention is to do the noble deed and offer to marry her to repair his past misdemeanor. However, Lucette proves to be as fickle as he, and falls for another man.
Donald Farfrae is another Henchard in the making, but with a lot more temperance. He is swayed by the beauty of Lucette and forgets about Elizabeth Jane. When faced with the prospect of becoming a Mayor, he is swayed by ambition and is in danger of becoming too drunk with power. Like Henchard, he likes the good life and acquires Henchard's old house and fine furniture. The people of Casterbridge, who loved the Scotsman ready to burst into a dance and a song, do not like his transformation into a powerful man and are ready with their criticism of him.
On the other hand, he is not as impulsive as Henchard and is able to make level headed decisions. At the begining when Henchard seeks Farfrae's advice in his personal matters, we find Farfrae comes up with some sensible words. He loses his head over Lucette, but returns to sanity when he regains the affection of Elizabeth Jane.
Lucette is the most intriguing character of the lot. She happened to nurse Henchard back to health when he fell sick on a visit to Jersey. She became deeply attached to him and attained notoriety in Jersey because of her liaison with Henchard. This prompted Henchard to offer to marry her, but just then, Susan and Elizabeth Jane came back into his life.
Impulsive Lucette kept firing piteous epistles to Henchard about her misery without him. But things take a good turn for her when she comes into an inheritance when a rich aunt of her dies. She moves to Casterbridge because she is still hurting over Henchard's rejection. But the fickle girl is soon bewitched by the handsome and successful Donald Farfrae.
She does feel a measure of guilt about having married Donald despite being attached to Henchard. She brings about her downfall when she tries to bury her secret and unwittingly reveals her previous dalliance.
Elizabeth Jane is the archetypal heroine of the Victorian era. Beautiful but prim, intelligent but muted, loving but silent, always doing the right thing; she can be chided on only one account, being too strict. She is the epitome of virtue, and to possess of the affection of Elizabeth Jane is to possess all that is good and correct in this world. That is a heavy burden for any woman to bear. But Elizabeth Jane rises to the occasion, as heroines must.
She puts up with the harshness of Henchard, just when she is beginning to accept him as a father, not knowing the reason why he is suddenly harsh. Donald Farfrae smites her heart when he falls for the coquettish Lucette right under her nose. Yet she keeps her equanimity and is rewarded when Henchard warms to her finally. Later, she finds Donald Farfrae returning her affection as well and her virtue is rewarded.
Susan appears in the book more as a catalyst, changing the course of the story by her presence or action. She appears in Casterbridge and sets the story in motion. She is anxious to provide a good life for her daughter Elizabeth Jane. For herself, she does not set much store by her husband's riches and position. Yet the secret behind the birth of Elizabeth Jane weighs heavily on her. Her letter to Henchard about the truth, sets the story moving in another direction altogether.
These are the major characters whose doings shape the events of the novel, make it a compulsive read. Thomas Hardy sets the novel in his beloved Wessex and the scent of the country pervades through the novel.; through the mentions of the Hay trussing, the corn sowing, the simple folk dancing and singing over ale. Hardy's prose lacks the elegance of many of his colleagues. But it is matter of fact, direct and befitting a folk who live close to the earth.