About The Mayor of Casterbridge
On every page of Hardy's Wessex novels is displayed the influence of Hardy's upbringing, regional background, and architectural studies. His characters are often primitive — as is the case in The Mayor of Casterbridge — and exhibit all the passions, hates, loves, and jealousies that rustic life seems to inspire. Yet these characters are at all times real, for they are based on people he had grown up with, people he had heard about in legends and ballads, people whose tragic histories he had unearthed during his early architectural apprenticeship. There are also long, well-wrought, descriptive passages of the surrounding countryside, the buildings, the roads, the commerce, and the amusements that make up the environment of Casterbridge. It is Hardy's naturalness in handling this particular environment, which he called "Wessex," that puts us at our ease and infuses the work with a life and a reality all its own.
Hardy's philosophy dramatizes the human condition as a struggle between man and man, and between man and his fate. Usually it is fate — or the arbitrary forces of the universe — that wins. Fate is all-powerful, and in its blindness human suffering is of no importance. This malevolence of fate certainly seems at times to be demonstrated in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Yet the victim of fate, Henchard, is also the greatest offender against morality, which would indicate purpose in the suffering he endures. Moreover, the novel ends on a note of hope because of Henchard's strength of will and his determination to undergo suffering and deprivation in order to expiate his sins. It is this element which makes the book a unique outgrowth of Hardy's philosophy.
Whether or not Hardy's pessimism seems valid, one should remember that during his lifetime, Darwin's The Origin of Species undermined the prevailing concept of the divine descent of man; the "higher criticism" recreated biblical figures as humans, not divinities; science reversed prevailing opinions and superstitions; and life in general grew faster, harsher, less concerned with beauty and art, and more preoccupied with practical economics. Hardy, as a product of his age, was profoundly affected by the violent changes and forces which seemed to toss man about like a rag doll. It was natural that the events of his age should have created in him a deep pessimism, but it was also an exemplary virtue of his spirit that in one of his finest works, The Mayor of Casterbridge, he posed the solution of the dilemma: Man will overcome because he has the nobility and strength to endure.