The Mayor of Casterbridge

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Themes and Colors
Self-Destruction Theme Icon
Familial and Romantic Love Theme Icon
Loyalty to Duty and Commitments Theme Icon
Humans and Nature Theme Icon
The Past and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Character Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Mayor of Casterbridge, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Humans and Nature Theme Icon

The natural landscape of the English countryside is the source of livelihood for the inhabitants of Casterbridge. The chance occurrences of nature impact human fates and outcomes in the novel. A bad harvest causes Henchard to lose money reselling his grain when he attempts to drive Farfrae out of business. Henchard angrily says to Jopp after his loss, “you can never be sure of weather till ‘tis past.” Weather, although uncertain, hurts some and helps others. Farfrae is blessed by his harvests, as if he has the ability to foresee the weather. The unpredictable factor of the weather increases the emotional and economic divide between Henchard and Farfrae, and further angers and frustrates Henchard.

Yet, Henchard is also saved by the natural world. The river sweeps Henchard’s effigy to him, which stops him from killing himself. While Henchard attributes his survival to the skimmington with the effigies, it is the chance movements of the river that present the effigy to him at the critical moment. The landscape affects and reflects human emotions. Like a human character, the landscape is changeable, dynamic, and expressive, while directly affecting the plot of the novel. The rural farmers see a “god” in the weather directing their lives. Because of its direct affects on the villagers’ livelihood, “sun elated them; quiet rain sobered them; weeks of watery tempest stupefied them.”

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Humans and Nature Quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge

Below you will find the important quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge related to the theme of Humans and Nature.
Chapter 1 Quotes

In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey. Outside the fair, in the valleys and woods, all was quiet. The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.

Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

After the ghastly scene in the tent where Henchard attempts to auction off his own wife, Susan chooses to leave Henchard and takes their daughter. Once she leaves, this passage paints a scene of the natural world at peace in the wake of Henchard’s cruelty. Details from this quote collectively create a sense of relaxation and harmony, from the two horses nuzzling “lovingly” to the sky with “rosy cloud.” The horses who stand together represent a different type of union than the unkind marriage between Henchard and Susan. Because Henchard compared the selling of his wife to a horse auction, it is easy to see the calm presence of these horses as a commentary on the animosity between Henchard and his wife, and among humans in general. As this passage points out, by juxtaposing this natural scene with Henchard’s drunken behavior, it is easy to see mankind as the worst inhabitants of the natural world.

However, this passage is more complex than this, as it concludes that, “mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.” There are times when the "quiet objects" of nature, such as weather, plants, and animals, are cruel and destructive, while, in contrast, humans appear meek. Therefore, the main idea of this passage is that humans and the natural world are not always in tune with each other.


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Chapter 5 Quotes

"If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure. But it can't be done."

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Restoring Wheat
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard becomes the mayor of Casterbridge and a successful wheat merchant, but his business is criticized one summer when he sells a large amount of rotten wheat to farmers and citizens in Casterbridge. In this scene, Henchard defends his actions, arguing that he cannot change the bad wheat back into wholesome wheat. This is a significant passage because a comment about a literal problem—the rotten wheat—provides commentary on a larger problem: the inability of any person to turn back time. Henchard wished he could turn back time after he sold his wife and daughter. He saw that he had made something that was once wholesome—his family and his marriage—into something rotten. This passage shows his life philosophy, as well as his understanding of wheat. The past cannot be changed, Henchard believes; something rotten cannot be made wholesome again.

This quote also shows Henchard’s rather underhanded business dealings. He is not willing to take the blame or the responsibility for having sold bad wheat, and he will not replace the product he sold with good wheat. He sees that the sale, once complete, is finished, regardless of the outcome for his costumers. Instead, he blames the problem on the impossibility of restoring wheat that has gone by, encouraging others to blame fate, the weather, science—anything other than Henchard himself.

Chapter 26 Quotes

The farmer's income was ruled by the wheat-crop within his own horizon, and the wheat-crop by the weather. Thus in person, he became a sort of flesh-barometer, with feelers always directed to the sky and wind around him. The local atmosphere was everything to him; the atmospheres of other countries a matter of indifference. The people, too, who were not farmers, the rural multitude, saw in the god of the weather a more important personage than they do now….After midsummer they watched the weather-cocks as men waiting in antechambers watch the lackey. Sun elated them; quiet rain sobered them; weeks of watery tempest stupefied them. That aspect of the sky which they now regard as disagreeable they then beheld as maleficent.

Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout Hardy's novel, the agriculture of the region forms an ever-present background to the personal relationships and struggles of the characters. At times, the dependence of this region on farming directly impacts the plot of the novel, as when Henchard is criticized for selling rotten wheat or when he tries to outcompete Farfrae by predicting the weather. In this passage, the relationship between farmer and weather is explained. The farmer is carefully attuned to the weather, a “flesh-barometer,” meaning he is a human tool for detecting a shift in air pressure. This passage, in which the narrator steps back and delivers a larger description of nature, allows Hardy to put his characters in perspective and to establish the larger relationship between humans and nature that is ever-present in the novel.

Dependence on the weather is not limited to the farmers who need healthy crops for their income and survival. The local people are also attuned to the weather because it impacts their lives in many ways. A shortage of certain products will limit food for humans, food for animals, and will affect the economy. Farming is the source of life here, and it impacts each person directly or indirectly—but this source of life is irregular and unpredictable, which is why it is equated with a “god” whose reason and actions are beyond the control of humans.

Chapter 40 Quotes

When within a few yards of Farfrae's he saw the door gently opened, and a servant raise her hand to the knocker, to untie the piece of cloth which had muffled it. He went across, the sparrows in his way scarcely flying up from the road-litter, so little did they believe in human aggression at so early a time.
"Why do you take off that?" said Henchard. She turned in some surprise at his presence, and did not answer for an instant or two. Recognizing him, she said,
"Because they may knock as loud as they will; she will never hear it any more."

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Lucetta Templeman
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucetta falls sick after she witnesses the villagers of Casterbridge publically reveal the truth about and mock her amorous past with Henchard. Henchard fearfully awaits news of Lucetta’s condition, only to learn that she has died when the muffler on the door knocker is removed. Henchard’s way of learning about Lucetta’s death is a poignant metaphor for suffering. The knocker was muffled to protect the dying woman from any stressful sounds, but it is removed once “she will never hear it any more.” While alive, Lucetta suffered from external interference—gossip and rumors about her, Henchard’s threats, and the skimmington-ride. She overheard Henchard reading her letters aloud to her husband. What she could hear and witness brought Lucetta much suffering in life, as the knocking of the doorbell might. Once dead, Lucetta won’t be able to hear anymore, neither the door knocker nor any of the vicious rumors that impacted her life.

This passage uses the detail about the sparrows in the street to again bring nature in close relationship to the life and death of humans. The presence of the sparrows, and their calm lack of fear, places them near Lucetta’s death, but unaware of it. Nature is unconcerned with human suffering. At the same time, the sparrows might fear “human aggression,” which shows that humans and nature certainly do impact each other.

Chapter 41 Quotes

In the circular current imparted by the central flow the form was brought forward, till it passed under his eyes; and then he perceived with a sense of horror that it was himself. Not a man somewhat resembling him, but one in all respects his counterpart, his actual double, was floating as if dead in Ten Hatches Hole. The sense of the supernatural was strong in this unhappy man, and he turned away as one might have done in the actual presence of an appalling miracle. He covered his eyes and bowed his head. Without looking again into the stream he took his coat and hat, and went slowly away.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard
Related Symbols: The Second Bridge, The Effigies
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard reaches new levels of despair when he thinks he will lose Elizabeth-Jane to Newson, just as he has grown to depend on her as his only source of happiness. Henchard’s character grows more sympathetic through this relationship: he loves Elizabeth-Jane and begins to see her virtues and value her as a person, but fears he will lose her. Newson’s reappearance emphasizes that Henchard cannot escape from his past. Having once given up his wife and daughter, it seems fated that he will not be able to keep them by his side forever. In his despair Henchard considers throwing himself into the river, but he is confronted with the effigy of himself from the skimmington-ride. The image of himself in the water seems to show him the future. This is what he will look like if he floats dead in the river. This surreal image changes his mind, and effectively saves his life.

The confrontation between man and effigy awakens Henchard from his despair because it seems to him that a miracle has occurred. He understands that the effigy is from the skimmington-ride, but it seems to him more than chance that it would appear in that place at that time. This gives him hope, or at least startles him out of his despair, because it seems that some mysterious force has intervened to protect him. And regardless of whether or not God or Fate has placed the effigy there, it has certainly appeared at that place because of the currents of the river. Therefore, although it seems a miracle to Henchard, the mysterious force at work is most notably nature itself. Nature has helped Henchard, whereas at other points in the novel it has harmed him.

“That performance of theirs killed her, but kept me alive!”

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Lucetta Templeman
Related Symbols: The Effigies
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard realizes that witnessing the effigy from the skimmington-ride has saved him, whereas witnessing the effigy of herself killed Lucetta. This is the type of irony that appears multiple times in the novel: the same event can have the opposite effect for different characters, and characters can completely reverse situations in life. While Hardy is certainly rather heavy-handed in the ironies of his plotting, his characters also witness these ironies within the plot itself: particularly Henchard, as in this passage. Henchard is awed by these ironies, and his reaction is due to his sense that something beyond his control is occurring. Irony often seems like fate because the reversal or change is so dramatic and complete. And yet despite this fatalistic quality of many of the events in this book, there are always other explanations provided for these events, such as the choices characters make or chance events of nature. 

Chapter 44 Quotes

Very often, as he wandered on, he would survey mankind and say to himself, "Here and everywhere be folk dying before their time like frosted leaves, though wanted by the world, the country, and their own families, as badly as can be; while I, an outcast, an incumbrance, wanted by nobody, I live on, and can’t die if I try.”

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker)
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard leaves Casterbridge once Elizabeth-Jane learns the truth of her parentage and is reunited with her father Richard Newson. He is friendless and homeless, and, once again, aware of the irony of his situation. In this passage, he points out the irony that many who are loved die before their time, yet he, who is unloved, does not die. This highlights the role of chance and the indifference of nature. Chance guides life and death, rather than some rationale, such as the one Henchard suggests here: that loved people should live and the unloved should pass quietly away. Death is part of nature, as the language of this quote reminds the reader. Henchard compares the deaths of people who pass on before their time to “frosted leaves” that whither and die in the fall. Just as leaves die according to the patterns of nature, and according to the fickle behavior of the weather, so too do people die seemingly without rhyme or reason. The relationship between humans and nature, sometimes one of impact, sometimes one of coexistence, is repeatedly highlighted in the work.

Toward the end of the novel, Henchard is walking through the countryside, just as he was at the beginning of the novel. Once again he is poor, despite having passed through a period of wealth and success. His life has completed a full circle, and this isolation seems to be partly his fate and partly the result of his self-destructive behavior throughout the book.

Chapter 45 Quotes


"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me.
"& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground.
"& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
"& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
"& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
"& that no flours be planted on my grave,
"& that no man remember me.
"To this I put my name.


Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Elizabeth-Jane Newson
Page Number: 321
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel ends with Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae seeking out Henchard and finding news of him from Abel Whittle after his death. All Henchard has left behind is a will, in which he cannot bequeath anything—having no possessions, nor offspring—so what he leaves is an absence of things. He asks that nothing be done—that he not be buried, mourned, or remembered. Therefore, this “will” serves the purpose of capturing Henchard’s isolation, loneliness, and despair at the end of the novel. He has been brought to this place through his self-destructive characteristics, through the chance events of nature, and through past cruelties that were not forgiven by others.

But, Hardy suggests, forgiveness is sometimes possible against all odds. Henchard is tended in his last hours of life by Abel Whittle, whom he once treated cruelly. Elizabeth-Jane also forgives Henchard and attempts to find him, although her forgiveness comes too late to be expressed to him during his life.