The first book I read for my 2019 reading challenge, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is compelling because of its characters. Though there are many, it focuses on a man named Michael Henchard, a man none of us would envy. It is the story of a mistake he made as a young man and how this mistake haunted him, even when he achieved success and power.
The first chapter in which he made the mistake stood out to me in color. Henchard’s great mistake was to sell his wife and daughter to a sailor for some coin. Word choice made the drama play out before me in shades of brown and gray. It is one of the best introductory chapters I’ve read, setting a consistent foundation for the novel to follow.
Chapter one makes Henchard look pathetic, rather than evil. The colors in word choice reveal that he is not taking the quarrel seriously. He thinks it’s one of many others he’s had with his wife. By the end of the chapter, when Henchard wakes up to find his wife’s wedding ring on the pub floor, I did not hate him. I pitied him.
Consumed by remorse for his great mistake, Henchard achieved power but never shed his chains. His jealousy of competition, his desperation to regain the trust of his daughter, and the defeated manner in which he ended his life—it all made him real. Though I wanted to hate him, I had the sense he needed someone to love him found no one willing.
Sometimes the protagonist of a great novel is not himself great or impressive; sometimes he’s a man you wouldn’t trust with your life, your money, or an ounce of your time. Memorable characters are defined by flaws. They become famous because we want to slap or hug them. The best characters tap into the saddest aspects of humanity.
The novel has a depth I’ve noticed in many classics which began as serialized publications, such as Dickens’ work. The Mayor of Casterbridge was long enough to keep me immersed, but not so long that I wanted to fling it away and read something else. It pulled me into the amusing society aptly painted by Hardy’s word choice. Punctuated with love triangles, humorous mistakes, and the ever-present threat of gossip, it was never boring.
The Mayor of Casterbridge has made it to my list of favorite novels, along with Swann’s Way and David Copperfield. These books are about more than characters. They’re about setting and time period, prose and morality. An attentive read of these books reveals why they made it to the title of classic. Written at a time when life was slower, these novels have elegance that will never grow outdated.
I have already started my second read for the challenge, The Story of King Arthur and His Knights by Howard Pyle. This trip through literary history is being enjoyable as I had planned. Wait for a post about King Arthur in the next week or two.