Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Few Unresearched Thoughts On The Mayor Of Casterbridge


A few unresearched thoughts on The Mayor Of Casterbridge:

Elizabeth Jane after regretting her final coldness to and rejection of Henchard reaches some equipoise and calm in her life. That her regret and guilt are short lived is due in part to her understanding that Henchard, apart from cruelly and selfishly keeping her real father, Newson, from her, is not of her blood and is in the way of blood a stranger to her save for how circumstances forged a temporary and false relation between them.

At novel's end she finds herself in a "latitude of calm weather" and "...doubly so after the Capharnaum in which some of her preceding years had been spent." So her discovery of an actual blood relation, her father, who finally chooses to live in a town nearby so that, old salt that he is, he can see the sea yet still be close enough to his daughter, contributes as much to her final equanimity as her escape from the darkness of a false and fraught relation with Henchard.

Yet her final attitude to Henchard is balanced and fitting.

While she finally moves past the darkness he had created for her, and while she at first, in her last acts towards him, coldly rebuffs him, all that she has gone through with him thinking he was her father registers in her regret and proaction in acting on her regret. She tries to find him after she at last understands the provenance of the dead goldfinch at the bottom of the bird-cage:

....When her husband came in she told him her solution of the bird-cage mystery; and begged Donald to help her in finding out, as soon as possible, whither Henchard had banished himself, that she might make her peace with him; try to do something to render his life less that of an outcast, and more tolerable to him. Although Farfrae had never so passionately liked Henchard as Henchard had liked him, he had, on the other hand, never so passionately hated in the same direction as his former friend had done, and he was therefore not the least indisposed to assist Elizabeth-Jane in her laudable plan....

She understands Henchard well enough to see his Will reflecting the man he was: "She knew the directions to be a piece of the same stuff that his whole life was made of, and hence were not to be tampered with to give herself a mournful pleasure, or her husband credit for large-heartedness." And so she obeys its austere strictures.

Her final being at peace with herself derives from the happiness she has found in marriage to Farfrae, her discovery of her true father, her relief at her emergence from what had been a certain kind of darkly veiled life imposed upon her, her largeness of spirt that has her try to do justice to what had been for years a kind of filial relation to  Henchard. That doing justice involves knowing him well enough to do in the end, his end, what he has willed, and involves, too, the good mature sense finally to leave in the past what has passed, that past containing no turpitude that will haunt her and that she must always answer to.

In this, in her innocence, in her passivity later evolving to a certain temperate strength, she differs from Henchard, whose demons, essentially comprised by his overpowering and unflinching singularity, selfishness, pride and wilfulness, allow him no peace even as they coexist with some instinct for compassion, with longing for fellowship and relationship, and with outbreaks of resolve to do good and their sudden breaches.

Henchard, however, cannot deny or surmount his own nature. So even when he has achieved some temporary respite from himself in his reconciliation with Elizabeth Jane, feels sympathy for her, is tender and solicitous towards her, he is as much as anything else prompted by his fear of losing her, is irritated by what seem to him signs of her profligacy with her expensive new muff and the profusion of new books in her room, is jealous of what is evidently growing between her and Farfrae and, ultimately, is utterly deceitful and life-denying in telling Newson that she died some years ago.

With Elizabeth Jane's calmness so derived, come her insights into the nature of her fortunate being in the world. What are at first excitement and enthusiasm in marriage settle into "equable serenity."  The key to her ongoing contentment  is to enlarge to an extent possible the bits of pleasure that come to most save those in complete pain. Elizabeth Jane understands that enlarging these specks of satisfaction in life are as inspiring as is the cursory embrace of "wider interests." (The oddness of this insight as conveyed by the narrator is not to be overlooked or gainsaid. It contains some seeds of its own subversion for reasons I'll soon set out.)

Her insights do contain for her their own liberating dynamism, allowing her a healthy indifference to how she is seen by rich and by poor. Rather, she is quietly thankful for her good lot in life, quietly thankful because demonstrativeness is both not in her nature and is at odds with what she has learned of the world: life is too sorrowful for effusion even when one's lot, as has Elizabeth Jane's, turns out (at least for a time) well.

Rather, what is wanted is an understanding that chance can visit anyway it chooses and that all are subject to contingency for good and for ill. None deserve any less than what has been accorded them even as many deserve more. Elizabeth Jane is in the end full of wonder at how chance and contingency have blessed her even as when younger she saw, felt and thought that, in the novel's last words, "...happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."

Yet for all her new found equanimity, I find that a tension exists between these life calming insights and the inescapable shadow cast by Henchard's towering stature, even when he is reduced and broken at the end. The resoluteness of his will evident in his Will reminds us for all his good and greater ill, for all his strength and greater weakness, for all his continual resolve and its continual  breaking, reminds us, that is to say, what a towering figure he has been and perhaps, and this would be my argument, how pallid and colourless in comparison are all the others, including those notably admirable and good like Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane.

They and all the others are passionless pale shadows next to Henchard's strengths, despondent weaknesses, massive flaws, and utter humanness writ large. If the others are life, if Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane's marriage is life as happiness and contentment, if Elizabeth Jane's final understandings, insights and due behaviour, balanced and measured, reflect  a kind of golden mean, a moral, then I say, and I'd argue, Henchard is larger than life.

In the explosions of his life, his fall, rise and fall, capped off by his final indomitable yet selfless will as writ in his Will, abrim with self-unforgiving, austere rectitude, signing his name to direct his ultimate namelessness, exists a man beyond, in a Nietzschean way, life that is smaller than larger than life, beyond burgher life, beyond Elizabeth Jane's balancing final insights. These insights seem in contrast to the explosions of his life, lighting up then darkening down this novel, bromidic.

In these contrasts, explosions against pallidity, do I see the essence of this novel, which gives what its title promises: a story about The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.

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