The Mayor of Casterbridge

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Loyalty to Duty and Commitments Theme Analysis

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.
Loyalty to Duty and Commitments Theme Icon

Loyalty is a defining aspect of the characters Elizabeth-Jane and Susan in this novel. Both women fulfill the expectations of their duties as women, wives, and daughters, while also upholding their past commitments. Duty in the novel is any abstract idea of what is expected of an individual because of her or his position in society. Commitments are any specific agreements made in the past above and beyond one’s duties.

After Susan remarries Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane is remarkably motivated by a sense of duty to her father and her new position to better herself through education and proper speech. “‘If I am not well-informed it shall be by no fault of my own,’ she would say to herself,” while studying diligently. Only Susan’s belief that her sale to Newson was binding keeps her committed to him rather than to Henchard. When she learns the truth, she feels it is her duty to return to her true husband.

Other characters in the novel have more complex relationships to loyalty. Henchard’s awareness of his past wrongs is connected to the guilt he feels when he does not fulfill his duty to his wife, daughter, or Lucetta. Henchard wishes to remarry Susan for his daughter’s sake. But Henchard also is anxious to atone for his past in which he did not maintain his commitment to his wife. Henchard feels he must marry Lucetta once his wife dies because of their past relationship. Lucetta must decide between her past commitment to Henchard and her love for Farfrae when she moves to Casterbridge. Elizabeth-Jane believes Lucetta must marry Henchard because of their past and their agreement. Lucetta struggles against this commitment because of her love for Farfrae, ultimately choosing love over commitment, which hurts both Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane, who are more driven by loyalty to others.

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Loyalty to Duty and Commitments Quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge

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

“For my part I don’t see why men who have got wives, and don’t want ‘em, shouldn’t get rid of ‘em as these gipsy fellows do their old horses…why shouldn’t they put them up and sell ‘em by auction to men who are in want of such articles? Hey? Why, begad, I’d sell mine this minute, if anybody would buy her!”

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Susan Henchard
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Early in the novel, Michael Henchard and his wife and child are traveling and stop at a country fair for a meal, where Henchard, intoxicated, grows angry with his lot in life. Henchard turns his bitterness on his wife, as he no longer wishes to be married. In this passage, he wonders aloud to the listening occupants of the food tent why unhappy men cannot sell their wives to other men. Henchard’s complaints are set against the sounds of a horse auction, which he mentions as a point of comparison. The language of this passage is quite obviously belittling and hurtful. Not only does Henchard compare his wife to an “old horse” that could be auctioned off, but he calls this “getting rid” of her because he doesn’t “want her.” This language treats women as the property of men as well as material possessions (Henchard refers to wives as “articles,” like articles of clothing).

Henchard’s "character" is established early in the novel, though he later grows into a more complex figure, and is haunted by this scene of extreme boorishness. To the modern audience, this scene is horrifying, but it is also upsetting to the other people who witness Henchard’s behavior, particularly the kind man Richard Newson who takes in Henchard’s wife and child. Henchard’s cruelty is attributed in part to his drunkenness, as he later, when sober, regrets his actions. His drinking problem results in self-destructive behavior. While drunk, he foregoes the sense of duty he has to his family, particularly to his young daughter, which resurfaces later in the novel.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“I, Michael Henchard, on this morning of the sixteenth of September, do take an oath before God here in this solemn place that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come, being a year for every year that I have lived. And this I swear upon the book before me; and may I be stricken dumb, blind, and helpless, if I break this my oath!”

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In a pivotal moment for his character, Henchard vows to give up drinking any alcohol for twenty-one years after seeing the effect of his drunkenness at the country fair. Henchard acts partly out of regret for his poor treatment of his wife and child, and partly out of embarrassment about his publicly humiliating behavior. Despite these mixed motives, Henchard’s vow is a productive one. He has identified an aspect of his character that has been self-destructive and hurtful to others and he seeks to improve. And indeed, he upholds this vow loyally for twenty-one years because he has made a commitment.

The “solemn place” in which Henchard makes his oath before God is a church, which lends significance to his vow because it occurs in a place that is traditionally the site of praying and seeking repentance. Henchard later asks Susan directly for forgiveness, which demonstrates some true feeling of guilt and desire to repent. However, Henchard, true to his character, is also inclined to exaggerated and theatrical behavior. It is not enough to seek to change himself in private—instead he makes an extreme oath, featuring a full twenty-one years of abstinence from alcohol and the condition that he be struck “dumb, blind, and helpless” if he doesn’t follow his promise. Ironically, Henchard ends the novel in a helpless state, despite having kept his oath, because he returns after twenty-one years to the self-destructive behavior of drinking.

Chapter 10 Quotes

"Meet me at eight o'clock this evening, if you can, at the Ring on the Budmouth road. The place is easy to find. I can say no more now. The news upsets me almost. The girl seems to be in ignorance. Keep her so till I have seen you. M. H."
He said nothing about the enclosure of five guineas. The amount was significant; it may tacitly have said to her that he bought her back again.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Susan Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane Newson
Related Symbols: Five Guineas, The Ring
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard and Susan are reunited through a letter that is brought from Susan to Henchard via Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard responds with a note asking Susan to meet him, and includes with it five guineas. Two important symbols appear in this pivotal passage: the Ring and the five guineas. The Ring is a local remnant of the ancient Roman culture in this part of England. As a landmark site, it is linked to the bloody history of the Romans would invaded England; it is an amphitheater for battle as a form of entertainment. Because of its role as a visual reminder of a painful past, the Ring seems a fateful place for Henchard and Susan to meet and address their own painful past.

The second symbol of the five guineas is acknowledged by Henchard, who remembers that this is the sum Newson paid to buy Susan from him years earlier. By enclosing this amount, Henchard intentionally suggests that he wishes Susan to return to him, that he symbolically wishes to “buy her back.”

The language of Henchard’s note focuses on his commitment to and concern for Elizabeth-Jane. He wants to keep her ignorant of his connection to her, which suggests that he feels guilt over his past wrongs. But he also feels a duty to her and to Susan because of their family connection. This sense of duty seems more prevalent than any feelings of real love or attachment, as the language of his letter to Susan is matter-of-fact, rather than romantic or apologetic. Duty to family also influences Susan when she reaches out to her past husband, once Richard Newson is supposedly dead. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

"Right," said Henchard. "But just one word. Do you forgive me, Susan?"
She murmured something; but seemed to find it difficult to frame her answer.
"Never mind--all in good time," said he. "Judge me by my future works--good-bye!"

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Susan Henchard
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

When Henchard and Susan meet at the Ring, their conversation focuses on the future and how to reintegrate Susan and Elizabeth-Jane into the life of the now-successful Henchard. Henchard does, however, turn to discussion of the past briefly when he asks if Susan forgives him. This moment shows Henchard’s unwillingness to hear an unfavorable answer, as he dismisses Susan's reply and instead requests that Susan “judge” him by his “future works.” But why does Henchard desire Susan’s good opinion at this point in the novel? Henchard is concerned throughout this scene about his current moral character and his reputation as mayor of Casterbridge, and it seems that he cannot bear to have anyone, even Susan, think ill of him. His comment about his “future works” shows Henchard’s belief that the past can be outweighed by the future. Henchard is a complex character, and this novel works to develop his nuances and changes. He argued that the past could not be changed when his wheat was rotten, but is quick to have Susan overlook the past in favor of the future.

For her part, Susan’s murmured response to Henchard’s request for forgiveness shows her conflicted feelings about her reunion with her ex-husband. As with many characters in the novel, Susan is concealing some information (here about her motives for returning to Henchard). Henchard might have foreseen this, but he is too self-focused to be troubled by her lack of a legitimate response to his question.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Hence, when she felt her heart going out to him, she would say to herself with a mock pleasantry that carried an ache with it, "No, no, Elizabeth-Jane--such dreams are not for you!" She tried to prevent herself from seeing him, and thinking of him; succeeding fairly well in the former attempt, in the latter not so completely.

Related Characters: Elizabeth-Jane Newson , Donald Farfrae
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth-Jane and Farfrae share a strong connection, but Elizabeth-Jane tries to persuade herself to stop developing romantic feelings for him. She sees Farfrae as her father’s competitor, an idea supported by Henchard’s anger about Farfrae opening a separate business in the same field. Henchard then openly forbids Elizabeth-Jane to see Farfrae, and Elizabeth-Jane heeds her father’s wishes. This quote shows Elizabeth-Jane’s strong sense of duty. She is loyal to her father and obeys his wishes, even when they go against her own desires. Yet despite her attempt to avoid seeing Farfrae and even thinking of him, Elizabeth-Jane’s feelings are clearly too strong to repress.

In Elizabeth-Jane, two types of love are at odds. She feels love and loyalty to Henchard, even though she doesn’t yet know the story of his past with her mother or that he believes himself to be her father. She is grateful to him for taking her and her mother in when they were in need. Yet she also feels a youthful romantic love for Farfrae. Tragically, Henchard’s conflict with Farfrae means Elizabeth-Jane must choose one type of love or the other—in this situation at least, she can't have both.

Chapter 19 Quotes

"Don't cry--don't cry!" said Henchard, with vehement pathos, "I can't bear it, I won't bear it. I am your father; why should you cry? Am I so dreadful, so hateful to 'ee? Don't take against me, Elizabeth-Jane!" he cried, grasping her wet hand. "Don't take against me--though I was a drinking man once, and used your mother roughly--I'll be kinder to you than he was! I'll do anything, if you will only look upon me as your father!"

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Elizabeth-Jane Newson
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

After Susan’s death, Henchard feels he can tell Elizabeth-Jane the truth (as he understands it) of her parentage. When Henchard confesses that he is Elizabeth-Jane’s father, and then tells the story of his sale of wife and daughter to Richard Newson, Elizabeth-Jane begins to cry. Henchard is deeply moved by her tears, pleading with her with “vehement pathos” (expressive, pitiable sadness). He begs for her approval and recognition of the father-daughter relationship between them. As in his reunion with Susan, Henchard focuses on overcoming the woes of the past with promises for the future. He promises to be kinder to Elizabeth-Jane than "he" (either Richard Newson or Henchard's own past self) was, if she will only accept him as her father.

Notably, Henchard’s promises of kindness depend upon Elizabeth-Jane’s behavior: she must treat him as her father. Henchard also asks that she change her last name to his to reflect their relationship. These details show that Henchard sets a lot of value on their father-daughter relationship. He cares deeply for her because she is his daughter. Her worth in his eyes is based on that connection. He does not care about Elizabeth-Jane because of the person she is, independent of that connection. This is due in part to his duty to his family, and in part to happiness he derives from familial love. Henchard’s obsession with Elizabeth-Jane’s care and support escalates at the end of the novel.

I can hardly write it, but here it is. Elizabeth-Jane is not your Elizabeth-Jane--the child who was in my arms when you sold me. No; she died three months after that, and this living one is my other husband's. I christened her by the same name we had given to the first, and she filled up the ache I felt at the other's loss. Michael, I am dying, and I might have held my tongue; but I could not.

Related Characters: Susan Henchard (speaker), Michael Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane Newson
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

After Susan’s death, Henchard finds a letter left among her belongings with the instructions that it should be opened and read on Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding day. Henchard, ignoring these instructions, opens the letter and discovers that Elizabeth-Jane is not his biological child, but a child of Richard Newson's who bears the same name. This passage shows Susan’s anguish at her confession. She “can hardly write” the truth and might have kept to herself, but feels a need to let it be known because she is dying. Susan’s reluctance to admit the truth, and her instructions on the letter, show an awareness of how Henchard will react to the news. She knows he is capable of bitterness and spite, and she must have labeled the letter in order to save this news until Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding day, because only at that point will Elizabeth-Jane be
"free" (because technically "belonging" to her husband) from Henchard’s protection and influence.

Why does Susan confess the truth? The pair has each behaved unfairly in the past and sought forgiveness. The love Susan feels for a child is clear in this quote, as she speaks of the “ache” she felt at the loss of her first daughter. It seems clear that her loyalty and love belongs first and foremost to Elizabeth-Jane, but it does not exclude a sense of familial duty to her husband Henchard.

Henchard bent and kissed her cheek. The moment and the act he had prefigured for weeks with a thrill of pleasure; yet it was no less than a miserable insipidity to him now that it had come. His reinstation of her mother had been chiefly for the girl's sake, and the fruition of the whole scheme was such dust and ashes as this.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard, Susan Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane Newson
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Elizabeth-Jane has reconciled herself to the truth of her parentage as told to her by Henchard, just as Henchard has learned that she is not, in fact, his daughter. The irony of this—that Elizabeth-Jane should accept him as her father, just as Henchard rejects her because she is not his biological daughter—is not lost on Henchard. He feels the bitterness of a situation that he had longed for as he embraces his daughter, who is not his daughter. Henchard’s bitterness also reveals his motivation for taking in Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, for the “reinstation of her mother had chiefly been for the girl’s sake.” This means that Henchard was eager for Susan’s goodwill and forgiveness primarily because of Elizabeth-Jane, and was eager to support Elizabeth-Jane because she was his biological daughter. He refers to this process of reconciliation as a "scheme," which implies some strategic effort on Henchard’s part. He is partly frustrated in this scene because a plan of his, into which he put effort, is foiled. Henchard’s character is not generous. He expects to get his way when he inputs money and resources.

Henchard places a lot of value on familial “love,” although his feelings about Elizabeth-Jane focus on himself and his needs, which does not seem like a very expansive kind of love. He wants his daughter to be a part of his life, and sees Elizabeth-Jane’s connection to him as part of his identity as a father. He treats her less like an independent person than a possession, and he now feels little affection for her or duty to her without their biological connection.

Chapter 25 Quotes

"I will love him!" she cried passionately; "as for him--he's hot-tempered and stern, and it would be madness to bind myself to him knowing that. I won't be a slave to the past--I'll love where I choose!"

Related Characters: Lucetta Templeman (speaker), Michael Henchard, Donald Farfrae
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:

Lucetta appears in Casterbridge after Susan’s death and meets Elizabeth-Jane, as well as Henchard, whom she once loved. At first, Elizabeth-Jane is unaware of the connection between Henchard and Lucetta, but when she comes to understand it she and her father agree for once: Lucetta is duty-bound to Henchard because she confessed her love to him and publically displayed her affection. Lucetta’s feelings change when she meets Farfrae and when she witnesses Henchard’s true character, which she refers to as “hot-tempered” and “stern.” After Henchard forces Lucetta to promise to marry him by threatening that he will otherwise reveal their past relationship, Lucetta must make a pivotal decision.

In this passage, Lucetta is torn between the emotion she feels in the present and her sense of duty to actions in the past. Tension between past and present, in which the past influences the present, is a common motif in this novel. Henchard and Susan feel guilt about the past and let it guide their actions in the present. Lucetta rejects this—throwing away her sense of duty to Henchard—and chooses to follow romantic love for Farfrae. She says she won’t be “a slave to the past,” as she believes that to live according to the past leads to unhappiness. It is certainly true that Elizabeth-Jane, guided by feelings of duty, is unhappy. Lucetta rejects duty in favor of happiness, partly because of romantic love and partly because she sees Henchard’s poor character and feels it would be “madness” to marry him.

Chapter 29 Quotes

Married him?" said Henchard at length. "My good--what, married him whilst--bound to marry me?" "It was like this," she explained, with tears in her eyes and quavers in her voice; "don't--don't be cruel! I loved him so much, and I thought you might tell him of the past--and that grieved me! And then, when I had promised you, I learnt of the rumor that you had--sold your first wife at a fair like a horse or cow! How could I keep my promise after hearing that?”

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Lucetta Templeman (speaker), Donald Farfrae
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

The truth of Henchard’s treatment of Susan in the past is revealed to the occupants of Casterbridge when the furmity-woman is on trial. One consequence of this is Henchard’s further decline in popularity, and another is Lucetta’s secret marriage to Farfrae. Lucetta confesses the truth to Henchard with “tears in her eyes” and a “quaver in her voice.” Her emotions may be the result of fear of Henchard’s reaction, guilt over her actions, or an attempt to gain his sympathy for her plight. She implores him to not be cruel and to attempt to understand that she saw herself released from her promise once she learned the truth about his past.

Lucetta’s motivation for her secret marriage shows in two ways that the past cannot ever be entirely overcome, overlooked, or forgiven. First, she is unable to think that Henchard might have changed in twenty-five years. She sees the actions of his past as a permanent mark of his character. She speaks of his actions in the most horrifying terms, equating his sale of his wife to treating her like a horse or cow. This is an accurate assessment, but one that overlooks Henchard’s later reunion with and kindness toward Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard’s past has come back to haunt him, preventing him from being with this woman he loves and wants to marry. Second, Lucetta’s secret marriage shows that she believes the past connection between herself and Henchard will mark her unfavorably in the present. She married Farfrae quickly because she worried that he would see her in a negative light if he learned of her past, just as she sees Henchard in a negative light because of his past.

Chapter 34 Quotes

The truth was that, as may be divined, he had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard, Donald Farfrae, Lucetta Templeman
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard plans to tell Farfrae of his past romantic connection with Lucetta in the hope of turning Farfrae against his wife and poisoning their relationship. To this end, he reads some of Lucetta’s letters aloud to Farfrae, pretending he simply wants to share these stories with a friend. Farfrae isn’t suspicious of his actions, and is indulgent of a friend’s oddity in reading old love letters. Henchard finds that he cannot, in a calm and measured way, reveal the hurtful truth by reading Lucetta’s name aloud at the end of one of the letters. This quote shows a key aspect of Henchard’s character. He could have “annihilated them both in the heat of action,” meaning he is capable of great cruelty in moments of heightened emotion, but he cannot be cruel when his emotions are not stirred. In this calm atmosphere, when he is not provoked by Farfrae, it is “beyond the nerve of his enmity” to inflict great pain. “Enmity” means hostility, which he feels towards both Farfrae and Lucetta, and the “nerve of his enmity” describes what Henchard is capable of doing due to his hatred.

This passage draws an important distinction about Henchard's character. Henchard is more likely to be self-destructive than destructive to others, because he cannot inflict pain “in cold blood.” Hurting others often requires forethought, but Henchard mostly lashes out when emotional, and his anger is often public, which turns other people against his anger to hurt himself more than anyone else.

Chapter 38 Quotes

"Now," said Henchard between his gasps, "this is the end of what you began this morning. Your life is in my hands." "Then take it, take it!" said Farfrae. "Ye've wished to long enough!" Henchard looked down upon him in silence, and their eyes met. "O Farfrae!--that's not true!" he said bitterly. "God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time....And now--though I came here to kill 'ee, I cannot hurt thee! Go and give me in charge--do what you will--I care nothing for what comes of me!"

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Donald Farfrae (speaker)
Page Number: 271
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard attempts to interrupt the proceedings of a formal event greeting a royal personage in Casterbridge, but he is bodily removed by Farfrae, and then he overhears Lucetta speaking ill of him to others. This is the final straw for Henchard who, in anger and bitterness, seeks out Farfrae and attacks him. The two men struggle and Henchard gains the upper hand, but finds that he cannot kill Farfrae. Farfrae says that he knows Henchard has long desired to take his life. This comment interrupts Henchard’s anger because it isn’t true. This is a turning point in Henchard’s understanding of himself: he moves past anger at another to anger at himself. He realizes how much he is to blame for his own situation because he once loved a man he now wants to kill. Farfrae has not changed, but Henchard has changed how he feels about him.

Henchard’s is not generally a sympathetic character, because he brings many of his misfortunes upon himself through self-destructive behavior and cruelty toward others. This quote is a rare moment of vulnerability for Henchard, which shows him in a new light to the reader and evokes more sympathy than usual. Henchard must have been deeply hurt in order to want to lash out against someone he cared for. He cannot overcome his past actions, but he begins to feel a new type of remorse, self-hatred, and self-awareness.