My neighborhood book club has read many contemporary works, but what happened when they agreed to read a classic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge?
It was the night of my neighborhood book club meeting, and I was nervous.
The club usually reads and discusses contemporary genre fiction and bestselling nonfiction. In recent months we had discussed Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, Lansing’s Endurance, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls (a love story set in Syria at the time of the Armenian Genocide), Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife (based on the Anne Morrow Lindbergh story), Mundy’s Code Girls (on the role women played in codebreaking in WW II), and more.
But this time was different. This time I had persuaded them to read a classic. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was to be the one.
The club members are smart people with rich career backgrounds who love to read, and they read a lot; but no one was in the habit of reading older works. Great works from earlier times often differ enough from current writing to make the reading experience significantly different.
How would they respond to a work written not just about an earlier time, but in an earlier time?
How Reading Classics Might Be Different
In older works, language can be more ornate and picturesque; values and assumptions of what makes good or bad characters can differ; cultural knowledge, beliefs, themes, and preoccupations are bound to diverge from current ones.
Even the form of the fiction can differ. Plot may not be the central focus, while other fictional elements like characterization, description, and thematic motifs may alternate taking center stage.
All these variables in classic works can change the texture of the reading experience, making some readers feel they have entered an unfamiliar realm.
But in my view, entering unfamiliar realms is exactly the reason to read a classic. The Greats from past times help us experience and think like people from an earlier time; no other way I know of does that better. The effort we make to see how others saw, to perceive how they thought, to encounter differing values and beliefs about the world from past times challenges and broadens our minds. Encountering more of our human history also gives us more perspective on our own world today.
But of course, as devoted readers of classics know, not everything in a classic work will seem unfamiliar. People are still people, no matter how many years have passed since a classic was written. Most classic works are valued precisely because their observations on humans and the human condition are still valid, fresh, universal, and wise.
What Did the Book Club Say?
So, is that what my fellow book club members found in Thomas Hardy?
Before I give the long answer, here’s the short one: For most, definitely yes. For others, not so much, at least not before our discussion. Some members reported trouble getting their heads around the kind of language used. Others found the characters and situations strange. They did not immediately perceive why Hardy had created them the way he did or figure out how to judge or estimate the characters.
In the end, after a lively discussion, I thought that everyone was glad we had taken on this book. They got something unique from reading a classic that does not come from reading more contemporary, more popular-oriented works.
I learned something too. First, I learned more about what roadblocks classics can present to contemporary readers. I also learned not only how these blocks can be overcome, but that contemporary readers report how rewarding it is to do it.
I’ll take up some of these roadblocks to appreciating classics in a minute, but first, here’s a quick look at this novel by Hardy that challenged the group. Warning: there are a few plot spoilers!
About The Mayor of Casterbridge
From Farm Worker to Rich Mayor in the Midst of Cultural Change
Thomas Hardy’s story of The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, takes place in the fictional agricultural county of Wessex, England in the mid-1800s. It begins with the central character Michael Henchard, a 21-year-old unemployed farm worker. Henchard is walking along the road with his young wife and baby daughter, seeking work as a hay trusser (that is, as a specialist in bundling hay). Henchard is angry and resentful; he feels his early marriage has held him back in establishing himself, because of the difficulty of feeding three mouths instead of just one.
Reaching an unfamiliar town on its market day, no job yet in sight, Henchard gets very drunk in the tent where porridge laced with rum is being sold to the crowd gathered there. Partly as a sick joke, he auctions off his wife and child for 5 pounds (about $25 in 19th century American money) to a kindly sailor, Newson, who is also passing through. Susan and his baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane disappear from Michael’s life for 21 years.
By the time the now widowed and destitute Susan and a grown-up Elizabeth-Jane reconnect with Henchard, he is a successful grain merchant and elected Mayor of the ancient agricultural town of Casterbridge. However, as the story unfolds, character, fate, and cultural change conspire to topple Henchard from his position, exalting other types of men and women in his place.
In one aspect, Hardy’s work is a straightforward classic tragedy. The central character’s tragic flaw leads to an early unfeeling act he tries to overcome, but that nonetheless returns years later to destroy his life. But also, the work depicts how ancient English ways are changing.
As Hardy’s tale unfolds, modern ways of thinking and doing business reach the little farm village of Casterbridge, which has been doing things the same way for centuries. These changes in culture eventually bypass a rough-mannered man like Henchard, who has relied on energy and instinct, quick and deep emotions, pride, and strong will to impress his fellow townsmen. Instead, they buoy the fortunes of Donald Farfrae, the young Scotsman newly employed by Henchard in his corn merchant business. The smooth, analytical, and pleasing Farfrae represents the new kind of man who will become successful in the modern world.
Two Remarkable Women
Hardy’s Casterbridge tale also features two young women who are both struggling to overcome their pasts and carve out a role for themselves in the society of Casterbridge, even while the town itself becomes a crucible for infusing new ways into the old. Elizabeth-Jane Newson/Henchard, who grew up in a poor working class background, longs for education and refinement, but is self-effacing, losing confidence at every fresh proof that her habits, speech, and willingness to work for herself don’t fit well with the middle class town culture she is trying to enter.
Lucetta Templeman, who moves to Casterbridge from another town, has all the manners, refinement, and self-possession that Elizabeth-Jane admires. But she lacks Elizabeth-Jane’s humble, moral innocence, having had unapproved romantic dealings with Henchard in the past that damaged her character in her home town. Lucetta moves to Casterbridge to rehabilitate her character by getting Henchard to marry her.
As the characters’ stories unfold, Hardy induces readers to ponder what happens to people as cultures evolve, but also what human qualities, rules, and values might remain the same even in the midst of sweeping cultural change.
How the Book Club Responded to Hardy’s Classic
Even from the discussion’s beginning, it was clear that the members were interested and intrigued by Hardy’s book. Some, however, had run into a couple of obstacles while reading. Let me share how we talked through the roadblocks to arrive at the meaty characters, plot points, and themes.
Roadblock One: Understanding Older Language
As our Book Club began our discussion of Hardy’s novel, some members said they had found Hardy’s old- fashioned prose hard to read. One person did not finish reading the book. Two others found movie versions of the story that helped them get the setting and characters straight. After that, they were able to go back and read the novel itself with pleasure and interest. One member was especially enthusiastic about how much she enjoyed the twists and turns of the many plot incidents.
Not everyone found the language difficult. This was exciting for me! A few really enjoyed Hardy’s more ornate and visual style. “I loved the sound of the language,” reported one member. “And I could just see everything that happened in my mind.” It’s interesting that this person had listened to the audio book version of Hardy’s novel, which suggests that hearing a book aloud may make non-contemporary language more understandable.
Roadblock Two: The Characters Seem So Weird!
As the club got more deeply into analyzing and discussing the characters, it became clear that we don’t describe human personality or judge good and bad character traits today the same way Hardy did in 1886. Initially that posed some problems for book club readers in understanding what Hardy was doing with these characters and what story he really meant to tell.
For instance, to a couple of the members, Henchard’s impulsiveness, quick anger, and intense desire for revenge against Farfrae’s success made him seem like he had a psychological disorder. He didn’t need a tragic comeuppance, he needed therapy!
Other members talked about their initial dislike for Elizabeth-Jane. She seemed too self-effacing, too willing to give in to other people, so lacking in confidence that she too could profit from time with a counselor. Then there was Lucetta, who seemed so capricious and thoughtless that many members of the club just didn’t like her. Only Farfrae seemed sort of a nice guy, but he switched up his feelings so quickly from Elizabeth-Jane to Lucetta back to Elizabeth again, so that he was scarcely a favorite.
To someone like me who has read Victorian classics for years, it seems clear that Hardy did not intend to depict characters suffering from mental illness. For one thing, the components of mental illness would have been defined quite differently in the 1880s.
But if these characters weren’t meant to be mentally ill, what kind of people were they?
Look for Cultural Differences
Here, I suggested that we consider the cultural expectations, restrictions, moral values, and taboos that operated for these characters, and how they were different from those today. For instance, if we keep in mind that Victorians valued humility and self-effacement in women, does that change how we see Elizabeth-Jane’s character?
Immediately, the book club readers began to see her differently. They pointed out that, in that light, she actually had quite a strong character: she knew herself well and never flattered herself. She was always true to herself, shrewd and yet forgiving of others and their motives, and strong in doing what she believed was right, even when that made things harder for her. No matter how many dreams were crushed, she always squared her shoulders and did the work that fell to her. Now her character seemed more admirable, and more likable.
This point was so striking that members kept talking about Elizabeth-Jane after the regular meeting while we were eating refreshments! It hardly ever happens that we are still discussing the book after the regular discussion ends.
We tried the same tack with analyzing Lucetta. We discussed how the people from her home in Jersey had judged and shamed her, a young single woman, for keeping indiscreet company with Henchard. After we consider this cultural taboo from Hardy’s day, no longer such a taboo in our own time, Lucetta seemed less capricious and more just like a woman trying to navigate the conflict between untenable cultural demands and her own romantic feelings.
Ultimately, cultural judgment does her in, but in some ways she could be seen as a modern woman pioneer when she decides to ignore any social demands to rehabilitate her character by refusing to marry Henchard. “I won’t be a slave to the past! I’ll love where I choose!” is her cry for independence.
Roadblock Three: Missing the Themes and Grand Ideas
This discussion we had about Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta, two women characters who were held back by cultural expectations, ultimately led one member to remark, “Now I’m wondering if Hardy was actually trying to point out that the culture of the day treated women unfairly?” After a little more discussion, everyone seemed to agree that indeed, he was.
This is an exciting moment in discussion of a great work, when readers move from talking about specific characters and their dilemmas and how we feel about them on to the ideas that may have led the writer to shape the work as he or she did.
Many readers never come to the point of grappling with ideas presented in a novel. When reading classics especially, that is a great loss, given that classics are treasured not just for their interesting characters and plotlines, or for great descriptions of scenes and settings, but because they offer some “Grand Ideas” and themes for us to ponder. [For more on Finding Themes in Classic Fiction, see this article.]
At this point in our discussion of Casterbridge, we went back a bit to take up our initial impressions of Henchard, who at first seemed to some of the members like a mentally ill or pathological person. I suggested that Hardy may have had in mind a particular concept that he wanted Henchard to illustrate. This concept might explain some of his excesses.
“We’ve seen lots of signs in the novel about how modern ideas are coming to Casterbridge. What if,” I asked, “Hardy wants to show us how different kinds of people responded to the modern world? What if he created Henchard as a more primal, simple, ancient kind of person, and Farfrae as his foil, or opposite, which is the new modern man? What qualities does Henchard have that seem more primitive? In what ways is Farfrae his opposite?”
Posing that Henchard and Farfrae were purposely designed as contrasts makes Henchard’s character traits make more sense. Members noted that Henchard is large, imposing, hairy, dark with a commanding voice, and physically strong; Farfrae is small and elegant, handsome, fair-haired, bright-eyed, cheerful, and lithe.
As a more primitive type of person, Henchard is an expert in manual labor who wins his high position solely through energy, ambition, and strength of character. He does business in a very old-fashioned way, based on instinct, estimated measures, and deals made by handshake. In his personal relationships he strives to act according to his simple unsophisticated code of justice.
But just as the fields are at the mercy of a changeable and unpredictable climate, Henchard is at the mercy of his inner emotional weather, reacting quickly before thinking with either handshake or blow depending on the emotion of the moment.
Farfrae, on the other hand, may represent the new modern type of man who Hardy predicts will displace the more elemental Michael Henchards. He fits pleasingly into whatever social setting he falls into, just as he transfers his affections easily from one woman to another. In his business dealings, however, he is cautious and methodical, making deals by contract based on exact weights and measures, reckoning out every penny, and promoting the latest agricultural machinery that will of course put agricultural workers like the younger Michael Henchard out of work.
Having reached this point, book club members started to discuss whether Hardy welcomed the coming ascendency of the modern man, or whether he had a soft spot for the Michael Henchards of the world. Did he totally hail the coming of Farfrae, or suggest that we might be losing something when the Henchards of the world disappear? We discussed the good points in Henchard’s character, such as his ultimate openness to the love of Elizabeth-Jane, and the weak ones in Farfrae’s, such as penny-pinching and shallowness of feeling. When Elizabeth-Jane remarks upon seeing the new seed drill that Farfrae has urged be brought to Casterbridge, “The romance of the sower is dead,” it’s hard to argue that Hardy welcomes the new modern ways with unmixed praise.
Roadblock 4: Missing the Motifs
Most of the great classic novels offer not only great plots, characters, settings, and themes, but also incorporate repeated symbols and motifs to suggest larger meanings or perspectives on the details portrayed in the novel. Even ardent contemporary readers tend to skip right over these.
In this case of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy turns elements of the setting into a thematic motif, but I don’t think anyone in the book club noticed it until I drew attention to it with my final discussion question: Why does Hardy so much emphasize his descriptions of old things, such as the ancient Roman ruins and structures and the medieval buildings in the town of Casterbridge?
One member mentioned that she really liked these descriptions because they gave life and detail to the story; she enjoyed being able to see the characters in their settings within her mind’s eye. Very true—Hardy’s descriptive pictures help place characters firmly into a particular time and place. They are lovely to read and to imagine.
But he also might want to make a bigger point. What is the effect of setting all the life dramas of these characters, with their varying fortunes and emotional highs and lows, into the midst of objects that have endured centuries longer than they or their troubles will last? Does this point bring some sense of peacefulness and perspective, because troubles won’t last that long? Or is the implication more melancholy: people think their lives are so significant, but in light of the vast reaches of centuries of time, in the end, no individual means that much.
I don’t know exactly what Hardy wanted to suggest with his motif, but it’s clear he put those repeated descriptions into the book deliberately. Once you perceive such motifs and symbols, you can ponder and discuss what larger perspectives Hardy is offering on the incidents of the tale. Especially when reading classics, be alert to repetitions of related objects and images that may reveal larger thoughts underlying the drama.
Some Final Takeaways: Dealing with Roadblocks to Reading the Classics
After our fun evening discussing The Mayor of Casterbridge with the Book Club, I think we all learned more about possible obstacles that older works present. We also learned quite a bit about how to overcome them to enjoy and appreciate a classic to the fullest. Here’s a summary, incorporating some members’ advice and some of mine:
- If language is troublesome, try listening to a work being read aloud, or watch a film, JUST SO LONG as you promise to come back and read the work itself! Most likely there will be much more to the novel than an average-length film can possibly cover, so don’t miss out by not reading.
- Plot summaries from sites like Sparknotes.com may help you untangle difficulties as well.
- Practice! If you want to read classics better, just keep reading them, so that interpreting older language gets easier and easier.
- Keep in mind that people in earlier times did not define or judge character the same way that we do today. Read on for a while before you judge, letting the novel unfold its own set of values by the way it seems to define characters as more positive or negative. Especially note comments from the narrator or minor characters.
- Consider how cultural rules and taboos may lead or constrain a character in different ways from the ones we have today, thus explaining why the characters behave in ways that seem unusual to a modern reader.
- If characters seem very strange, ask whether they are fashioned in part to represent a particular theme or idea. Or perhaps they were created as opposition characters or foils to highlight certain qualities in a central character. Themes and ideas may account for some aspects of characters that seem unusual or outsize.
- Notice when related objects or images keep repeating; they may have been inserted as thematic motifs to offer larger perspectives on the characters and events in the work.
Straight Roads: Not Everything in a Classic is Mysterious!
Works written in older times may pose some obstacles to modern readers. But certainly not everything in a great work of fiction, however old, is hard to understand or experience.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, for instance, is built around a straightforward tragic plot line that everyone in the book club noticed. A man does an unfeeling and immoral action in his youth that brings him immediate shame. He tries to live it down by refusing to drink alcohol for many years and by becoming a rich and successful businessperson and town leader. But ultimately this error comes back to haunt him and bring him down. I think we all enjoyed talking about whether Henchard deserved what he got and whether he had grown and changed by the end of the tale.
We needed only our expertise as humans to perceive and discuss this topic!
In addition, most everyone in the club reported enjoying the fast pacing, the high drama of the incidents, the frequent plot twists, and the emotional dilemmas of the characters in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
At the end of the discussion, one member asked me, “Are all Hardy novels like this?” When I replied, “Yes, pretty much!” she said with enthusiasm, “Then I think I will read some more!”
Is your Book Club ready to meet a Classic?
I say, Go for it!
(To get some ideas for classics your Book Club might enjoy reading, take a look at the evolving Reading Lists of Classics on Read Great Literature.)
Thomas Hardy portrait. Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Casterbridge book illustration--Henchard with young family. Robert Barnes (d. 1895) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Dorchester Town Pump and Corn Exchange. By Nigel Freeman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9178097.
Jenny Lind portrait. Eduard Magnus [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Hay Trussing. By Jean-François Millet – Web Gallery of Art [Public Domain] Via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.