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.
Self-Destruction Theme Icon

Throughout the novel, protagonist Michael Henchard makes decisions while drunk, angry, proud, or jealous. These choices ultimately harm Henchard himself and lead to the loss of his family, his fortune, and his position in society. The novel opens with Michael Henchard’s cruel act of selling his wife Susan and child Elizabeth-Jane while he is drunk. Henchard’s drinking early in the novel causes an emotional riff between himself and his wife, and allows her to happily leave him for Richard Newson.

After the loss of his wife and daughter, Henchard vows to not drink for twenty years. This vow allows Henchard to be successful and prosperous, rising to prominence in Casterbridge as the mayor and as the owner of a successful corn and wheat business. His subsequent return to alcoholism contributes to his poor plan to kill Donald Farfrae. Henchard’s alcoholism is linked to his pride, as he uses drinking to compensate for feelings of self-hatred. His pride causes him to lose his partnership with Farfrae and to eventually go bankrupt because he cannot accept that the younger man might be more popular and more successful than himself. Henchard’s pride produces his jealousy of Farfrae. After Farfrae’s holiday celebrations are more popular than Henchard’s, Henchard in a “jealous temper” says that the young man’s time as his business manager is drawing to a close.

As Farfrae starts his own separate business and continues to excel within Casterbridge society, Henchard loses family and fortune as his jealousy harms himself and his reputation. For example, Henchard’s attempt to ruin Farfrae’s business backfires and causes his own business to go into debt. Despite Farfrae’s kindness, Henchard establishes himself as Farfrae’s rival in business and in romance. Henchard’s interest in Lucetta increases, primarily because of her transfer of her affections to Farfrae. Henchard jealously tries to force her to agree to marry him. When Lucetta marries Farfrae secretly, Henchard is angry and obsessed with her betrayal. Henchard is driven crazy by the thought of Farfrae taking a position as the new mayor, and their positions are completely reversed by the end of the novel. Farfrae is a successful and prominent figure in Casterbridge, and he lives in the grand house that was once Henchard’s. Henchard dies, virtually alone and friendless.

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Self-Destruction Quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge

Below you will find the important quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge related to the theme of Self-Destruction.
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 15 Quotes

But Henchard continued moody and silent, and when one of the men inquired of him if some oats should be hoisted to an upper floor or not, he said shortly, "Ask Mr. Farfrae. He's master here!" Morally he was; there could be no doubt of it. Henchard, who had hitherto been the most admired man in his circle, was the most admired no longer.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Donald Farfrae
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Farfrae works as Henchard’s manager, but the men disagree on the treatment of their workers. This disagreement comes to a head over the habitually tardy Abel Whittle. Their public disagreement shows Farfrae to be a better man than Henchard, more level-headed and kind, and he wins over the support of the other workers. The disagreement also shows that Farfrae is willing to stand up to Henchard and does not follow all his orders. Henchard responds to both aspects of this situation negatively. He is upset by what he sees to be Farfrae’s betrayal and upset that Farfrae is more popular than himself. This passage captures the shifting power dynamic between these two men. Henchard is no longer “the most admired man in his circle” because Farfrae now fills this space.

Henchard’s bitterness and childishness is obvious to everyone. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions and continuing to lead his workers, Henchard mockingly says that Farfrae is the master when he is asked questions. This behavior is petty, as is his “moody and silent” sulking. This passage reveals another aspect of Henchard’s character: he does not react well to failure. When he fails, he worsens the problem, rather than mending it, by acting childishly. His inability to address the problem of Farfrae’s popularity and leadership means that his own popularity and control fail further. This is the very beginning of a downward spiral for Henchard who, once upset and angry, makes his situation worse by acting more upset and angry.

Chapter 16 Quotes

"Mr. Farfrae's time as my manager is drawing to a close--isn't it, Farfrae?"
The young man, who could now read the lines and folds of Henchard's strongly-traced face as if they were clear verbal inscriptions, quietly assented; and when people deplored the fact, and asked why it was, he simply replied that Mr. Henchard no longer required his help. Henchard went home, apparently satisfied. But in the morning, when his jealous temper had passed away, his heart sank within him at what he had said and done. He was the
more disturbed when he found that this time Farfrae was determined to take him at his word.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Donald Farfrae
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard’s jealousy and anger over Farfrae’s popularity and willfulness is critical in this scene, in which Henchard publically dismisses Farfrae. In company, he says that Farfrae will soon be leaving his employ. He does not talk to Farfrae about this beforehand, nor does he explicitly fire Farfrae. However, Farfrae can tell from Henchard’s mood that it will no longer work to be Henchard’s manager. Farfrae’s decency is shown in his quietness about this problem. When it is addressed, he simply tells others that “Mr. Henchard no longer required his help.” He doesn’t speak ill of Henchard, despite having been mistreated by him, which shows his respectable and kind character.

Henchard, on the other hand, has acted rashly, which he later realizes, and then attempts to retract his statement that Farfrae should leave his employ. Although Henchard is sober at the time of his rash statement, a clear parallel can be drawn between this scene and the scene in which Henchard sells his wife and child. In both cases, Henchard later regrets his behavior and attempts to reverse the situation, but without success. Farfrae’s refusal to return to Henchard’s business is notable because it shows another strong difference in the two men's characters. Farfrae has a strong resolve and does not make decisions lightly, while Henchard repeatedly makes decisions that he later regrets—a trait that mostly hurts himself rather than others.

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.

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 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 32 Quotes

"I have heard that you think of emigrating, Mr. Henchard?" he said. "Is it true? I have a real reason for asking." Henchard withheld his answer for several instants, and then said, "Yes; it is true. I am going where you were going to a few years ago, when I prevented you and got you to bide here. 'Tis turn and turn about, isn't it! Do ye mind how we stood like this in the Chalk Walk when I persuaded 'ee to stay? You then stood without a chattel to your name, and I was the master of the house in corn Street. But now I stand without a stick or a rag, and the master of that house is you."

Related Characters: Michael Henchard (speaker), Donald Farfrae (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Second Bridge
Page Number: 223-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Henchard has fallen dramatically: he has lost his role as mayor, his business, his love, and his home. Farfrae purchases Henchard's home and moves there with Lucetta, strangely reversing his and Henchard’s situations. When these two men meet and share a few words on the street, Henchard acknowledges the irony of this reversal of situation and status. Farfrae is kind to Henchard, as he always has been. He asks about Henchard’s plans to leave Casterbridge, and this highlights another reversal in situation between the two men, who once stood on the street discussing Farfrae’s plans to travel on from Casterbridge. Henchard’s acknowledgement of this situation attributes these changes to fate. It is “turn and turn about,” he says, as if the passage of time alone has caused this change in fortunes. He does not admit any fault of his own character in his fall from grace, excluding his bitterness and jealousy, his rash decisions, or his drinking habit that continues to haunt him. His self-destructive tendencies are unacknowledged, and he is left bitter at Farfrae’s rise and his fall.

"Michael Henchard have busted out drinking after taking nothing for twenty-one years!"

Related Characters: Michael Henchard
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

The moment Henchard’s twenty-five year oath ends he begins drinking again. Not only does he drink, but he drinks in excess, casting himself into a downward spiral of bitterness and rash decisions. This new behavior is the talk of the town, which once respected its mayor for his notable restraint. This is a key turning point in the novel for a few reasons. First, Henchard’s drinking has already been strongly equated with cruel and rash behavior. Therefore, when he begins to drink again, the reader expects that this self-destructive tendency will cause his fortunes to take a turn for the worse, even though he has already lost a lot. Second, Henchard has been anticipating this moment in recent weeks, whereas he once seemed settled in his habit of abstaining from alcohol. He seeks refugee in alcohol because he is unhappy, and looks forward to drinking as a way of relieving or escaping from his unhappiness. Finally, this quote shows that Henchard, despite years of change for the better because of his oath, cannot escape his past and his character. He returns to his old habits, even though he has lived for as many years as a sober man as he did as a drinking one.

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.

Chapter 41 Quotes

He watched the distant highway expecting to see Newson return on foot, enlightened and indignant, to claim his child. But no figure appeared. Possibly he had spoken to nobody on the coach, but buried his grief in his own heart. His grief!--what was it, after all, to that which he, Henchard, would feel at the loss of her? Newson's affection cooled by years, could not equal his who had been constantly in her presence. And thus his jealous soul speciously argued to excuse the separation of father and child.

Related Characters: Michael Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane Newson , Richard Newson
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard Newson arrives in Casterbridge and seeks his daughter Elizabeth-Jane. Newson was not dead, but lost at sea, and has spent a long time searching for his missing family, guided by love for Susan and Elizabeth-Jane. Henchard, overwhelmed to meet him, tells him in a spur of the moment decision that both women have died. Newson’s grief at this news shows the true love he feels for both women. Henchard again exhibits his characteristic rash decisions and his anxiety about these decisions after the fact. Henchard dreads Newson’s return because he has grown close to Elizabeth-Jane and expects her to be a part of his life. He is once again guided by jealousy, which also motivated him in his treatment of Farfrae.

This moment is established as a parallel to Henchard’s discovery of the truth of Elizabeth-Jane’s parentage. In that moment, Henchard had achieved what he wanted—Elizabeth-Jane’s love and loyalty—only to find it lose meaning for him. In this moment, Henchard has found meaning in Elizabeth-Jane’s love and loyalty, only to find out that she could be separated from him. He had her by his side for a long time when he didn’t care to, and now that he cares for her, he may lose her. Like so many other plot twists in Hardy's work, the irony is clear and tragic.

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.