Throughout the novel, the darkness of past events haunts individual characters as well as the landscape of the countryside around Casterbridge. The ancient Roman history of the region is referenced multiple times. The Ring, where Henchard meets both Susan and Lucetta is an ancient architectural remnant that once served as an amphitheater for violence and entertainment. In the time period of the novel, the Ring is used only for furtive meetings, primarily of a romantic nature, but the bloody history of the Roman Empire presents a backdrop for the events of the novel. As Henchard and Susan reunite at the Ring, their own past is as filled with pain and wrongdoing as the ancient place in which they stand.
The past in this novel often represents suffering and violence, both physical and emotional. Henchard both desperately desires forgiveness and receives it, in many cases, for his past wrongs. Henchard wishes to earn Susan’s forgiveness for his past action of selling her and their daughter. Guilt drives his desire for forgiveness for past wrongdoing, causing him to ask her to ‘judge [him] by [his] future works” after the couple is reunited. Farfrae forgives Henchard for their business separation and continues to be generous with him. Farfrae purchases Henchard’s home and furniture, but he invites Henchard to live with him and he offers to give him some of his furniture without charge. Abel Whittle forgives Henchard in the final hours of his life, despite Henchard having treated him cruelly while he was Henchard’s worker. Abel is the only one with Henchard when he dies. Henchard’s emotional awareness of his past wrongs, and his need for forgiveness, contribute to his isolation at the end of the novel. Henchard leaves Elizabeth-Jane after lying to Newson, her biological father, and saying she had died. He wishes for Elizabeth-Jane’s forgiveness, but Elizabeth-Jane’s forgiveness comes too late.
The Past and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
The Past and Forgiveness Quotes in The Mayor of Casterbridge
“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!”
"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.
"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!"
"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!"
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.
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.
"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!"
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?”
"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."
"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!"
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."
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.
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.”
MICHAEL HENCHARD'S WILL
"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.