Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge
Sex is so intertwined in our society that it pervades each facet, including television, books, advertising, and conversation. Movies like The Matrix toss in gratuitous sex because the audience nearly expects it. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, therefore, is exceptional in its lack of sexual situations. The subject of sexual motivation and its inherent ambiguity with regard to Henchard’s actions is a topic that caught my attention from the very first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Continually in the novel there is tension, but it is never described as sexual.
Much the same, there are countless marriages during the novel but no related sexual attraction is discussed. The topics of sex and sexuality are simply expected in most literature, because they are such dominant themes in everyday life. Hence, the absence of sex is more noticeable than its inclusion in this novel. The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with what I believe to be the single most important event of the entire novel. Michael Henchard sells his wife and daughter to a passing sailor for five guineas. This is a perfect example of a dominant man, which sets the stage for Henchard’s character through the rest of the book.
The portrayal of Michael and Susan Henchard on their walk to Weydon-Priors reaffirms this dominant man/victimized woman viewpoint. The sexual tension is evident both on an emotional level, “perfect silence they preserved… the woman enjoyed no society whatever from his presence” (5), and physically, “sometimes the man’s bent elbow almost touched her shoulder, for she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact; but she seemed to have no idea of taking his arm, nor he of offering it” (5).
This “stale familiarity” (5) between Henchard and Susan is an example of another common theme in the novel, which is that of frustrating and imprisoning relationships. It seems that for Henchard, “maturity involves a kind of assimilation of female suffering, an identification with a woman which is also an effort to come to terms with with [his] own deepest sel[f]” (Showalter, 394). It is not until the end of the novel that Henchard realizes this, withdraws from society, and loses his will to live. However, his wrongdoings are not completely restricted to women.
For this reason, I believe that this indicates not misdirected sexual energy, but a general lack of knowledge. Henchard’s act of selling his wife had clearly been mentioned between husband and wife prior to the actual incident, but that does not mean that it was well thought out. In fact, it seems that Henchard rarely thought things out to a full extent. Selling his wife in the first place would lead me to believe that he never loved Susan at all. “I married at eighteen, like the fool that I was; and this is the consequence o’t…
But a fellow never knows these little things till all chance of acting upon ’em is past” (9). Further, this quote shows that Henchard did not even think thoroughly about marrying Susan. He claims that he was a fool because he was eighteen; I say that at this point in the novel, he had not grown emotionally in the least. Likewise, Henchard’s relationship with Lucetta seems to be centered on a debt he felt he owed her for nursing him while he was in Jersey, rather than on actual love or lust.
Throughout the novel, Henchard continually acts on what he believes to be moral obligations instead of true feelings. It is plausible to suggest that Henchard completely lacks sexuality, which sharply contrasts his energetic, masculine, aggressive nature. Perhaps his sexual energy has been channeled solely into the acquisition of power. Henchard seems to have chosen the pursuit of money and power over the pleasures of sexuality. He later tells Farfrae that he is “by nature something of a woman-hater” and found it “no hardship to keep mostly at a distance from the sex” (61).
Between the times of selling his wife and child and when they come back to find him in Casterbridge, Henchard is almost entirely successful at avoiding females, save for his obligation to Lucetta. “Orphaned, divorced, without mother or sisters, wife or daughter, he has effectively severed all his bonds with the community of women, and re-enters society alone… Henchard commits his life entirely to the male community, defining his human relationships by the male codes of money, paternity, honour, and legal contract… Henchard… ivorces his own ‘feminine’ self” (Showalter, 396).
This is an extremely important observation, because Henchard basically gives up the rights to his supposedly feminine emotions, such as passion and tenderness. Emotions like these are essential to sexual motivation and lust, and without them, Henchard becomes a non-sexual entity, almost verging in being anti-sexual. However, when Elizabeth-Jane and Susan return to his life, Henchard is forced to “confront the tragic inadequacy of his codes, the arid limits of patriarchal power” (Showalter, 396).
It is possible that the presence of females may have awoken a kind of unconscious sexual desire in Henchard, which will tragically lead to his downfall when he cannot properly focus this excess energy. Susan is also a non-sexual character. Irving Howe describes her as a woman of “maddening passivity” (366). The comments by other women in the furmity tent lead us to believe that most women, even during that time period, would not stand for such treatment. Susan accepts her new “owner” (10) quite readily, seeming indifferent more than anything else. Even the sailor who takes her seems to act on kindness, rather than a sexual interest.
He remarks to Henchard, “”Tis quite on the understanding that the young woman is willing. I wouldn’t hurt her feelings for the world” (10). Finally, the deal was completed, and Henchard achieved something that is “insidiously attractive to male fantasy” by “shak[ing] loose from [his] wife” (Howe, 366). Thus, his character is set for the rest of the novel, and he will be able to experience tragedy. In the essay “The Minimisation of Sexuality” by Robert Langbaum, he contends that there is a “minimum of sexual feeling in the novel as a whole and almost an absence of it in…
Henchard; so that talk of frustrated desire or homosexual desire is not entirely applicable” (116). This is a respectable observation, although I would venture to say that that sexuality is so absent from the novel that it becomes noticeable for this very reason. Even Henchard’s sudden affection for Farfrae later in the novel, which suggests homosexuality on Henchard’s part, does not develop in a way which supports this hypothesis, for it “quickly turns into male power rivalry once Farfrae breaks out of Henchard’s proprietorship” (Langbaum, 119).
Ian Gregor notes The Mayor of Casterbridge to be “one of the very few major novels… here sexual relationships are not… the dominant element” (383-84). Hardy’s intent to write a tragic novel may explain the emphasis on moral decisions rather than the usual concern with sexual relationships that dominates most other novels. The lack of sexuality and abundance of questioning moral judgment that fills the early chapters of The Mayor of Casterbridge would support this view and set the style for the rest of the novel. Writers distinguish their works through a multitude of methods-a dynamic character like Hamlet or a revolutionary style like the stream of conscious narrative in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The Mayor of Casterbridge is a unique novel for its obvious lack of sexual references, but it also makes the novel probably more dull than it would have been if sex had been added in with the tragedy, deceit, and distressing problems of morality. However, it may be necessary to put The Mayor of Casterbridge into its own category of novels, because it makes the reader think about life and tragedy in a way unclouded by such distractions that most people cannot do in their own lives.