Dead-White-Male Feminism: Women as Colonized Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge



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Dead-White-Male Feminism: Women as Colonized Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge

The jingoistic spirit of the British in 1886 emphasized the Lacanian social tendency to cast the unfamiliar, they who are not British white males, into the category of the Other. Because England had already begun to assimilate, or at least to tolerate, many of its Others, there were few Others against which to gauge British Man. One of the remaining Others was the opposite sex: women.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy portrays a British town in the 1820s, a period of transition between the xenophobic expansionist period of the turn of the nineteenth century and the more openly tolerant fin de siècle. The development of social tolerance for the Other is depicted by Casterbridge’s embracing Douglas Farfrae, a Scotsman (110), and by the return of Captain Newson, Elizabeth Jane's sea-faring father (286 ff.). Even the line which separates the riff-raff from the gentry is blurred, as hay-trusser Michael Henchard rises to the position of mayor (39), and many of those who frequent the Three Mariners tavern may also be found at the seedier Peter’s Finger (228, 252).

Though the “old” hierarchy is distorted in favor of tolerance, albeit grudgingly, there remains one element of society who are not tolerated: women. Though the fortunes of Susan Henchard, Lucetta Templeman, and Elizabeth Jane are presented, outwardly, as controlled by these women themselves, there is a subtext at work in The Mayor of Casterbridge which ensures that women must always answer to men for their actions. Indeed, many of the shortcomings of the male characters can be directly attributed to the women with whom they interact. I see four major instances in which women are shown to be the last Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge: the sale of Sarah Henchard to Newson, the debate between Michael Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane about proper diction, Lucetta Templeman’s choice of Donald Farfrae over Michael Henchard, and old Mrs. Goodenough’s testimony against Michael Henchard in court.

The sale of Sarah Henchard in the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge is, on the surface of things, not an affirmation of the patriarchy’s control of women. Sarah’s diction, the terms of the sale, and the fact that Michael Henchard is drunk all become extenuating circumstances which Sarah uses to maintain her sangfroid. Sarah says to her husband that “I’ve lived with thee a couple of years, and had nothing but temper! Now I’m no more to ‘ee; I’ll try my luck elsewhere. ‘Twill be better for me and little Elizabeth-Jane, both” (20). Her sale is conducted in ready cash, but the sailor Newson insists that the sale should happen only “on the understanding that the young woman is willing,” adding that he “wouldn’t hurt her feelings for the world” (20). The drunkenness of Michael Henchard is alluded to as an extenuating circumstance by the bystanders, one of whom says that “the woman will be better off, for seafaring natures be very good shelter” (21) in opposition to Henchard’s drunkenness.

These minor circumstances provide a method of preserving Sarah Henchard’s dignity. Although the scene of the wife sale is conducted in deference to Sarah’s “wishes,” she is not, as it may at first seem, in control of her own fate. The fact that she chooses to go with Newson is immaterial; the deal has been concluded by the time she delivers her rebuke to Michael, and her tone sounds more like a rationalization than a conscious choice. Again, Newson’s protestation of a sale against Sarah’s wishes is another social smoke screen, meant to woo Sarah into regarding the sailor as kinder than her husband. The fact that Newson puts foward his money at all shows him to be involved in the commodification of women. Henchard’s drunkenness is no real excuse for Sarah, because Sarah alludes to the fact that this is not the first time that her husband has tried to sell her (19). Thus, the sale may be seen as the first instance in the novel when the patriarchy--represented by both Newson and Michael Henchard--asserts its control over the fortunes of women.

In Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy, Rosemarie Morgan claims that “to all intents and purposes, as Hardy perceives it, there has been little improvement over the years upon the barbaric method of wife-selling as practised by Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge” (137). She also points to the last recorded wife sale in Britain: in Sheffield in 1881 (189). Her basis--and Hardy's--of the incident on historical record indicates that Hardy used an already-existing, albeit dying, practice to show the increasing patriarchal control of men over women--indeed, Morgan states this rather explicitly:

Henchard and Newsom maintain control of the sale, even though it is Sarah who makes all of the (token) decisions during it. Mrs. Goodenough's sale of the rum-laced furmity to Henchard only serves as an outlet of partial blame by which Henchard can exculpate himself. (190)

Hardy pays only lip service to the individuality of his women characters.

The second instance in which women seem to be, but are not actually, responsible for their own actions comes when Michael Henchard chastises Elizabeth-Jane for using slang. That Elizabeth-Jane uses such colloquial phrases as “bide where you be” (131) indicates to Henchard that his step-daughter is not a lady, but a commoner. “Bide where you be,” mocks Henchard, “are you only fit to carry warsh to a pig-trough, that ye use words such as those?” (131). Henchard’s rebuke is especially ironic, in that he uses the rusticisms “pig-trough,” and “warsh” instead of the more genteel “laundry.” Elizabeth-Jane does improve her diction, but of her own accord; Hardy mentions that Elizabeth-Jane is quite a scholar in her own right (140 ff.). A long list of the words which Elizabeth-Jane gave over for more “proper” English are listed at the beginning of Chapter 20 (131). Indeed, she makes an effort not only to comply with Henchard’s wish that she clean up her diction, but she also begins a program of gentrification--which is pleasing to the townsfolk (139) and to Farfrae (140). However, Henchard shows that he wishes to keep Elizabeth-Jane as an Other when he again berates her when she tells him she feels “leery”: “I won’t have you talk like that! Leery, indeed! One would think you worked upon a farm! One day I learn that you lend a hand in public-houses. Then I hear you talk like a clodhopper” (136-7). The irony here is that Elizabeth-Jane does live on a farm--Henchard’s. His characterization of Elizabeth-Jane as a “clodhopper” shows his own rural diction as more colloquial than that which he is upbraiding. Thus, even though his own speech is far less gentrified than Elizabeth-Jane’s, Henchard forcibly asserts his place among the white-male Self by opposing his will, if not his tongue, to the speech of the Other, Elizabeth-Jane. Florence Baer claims that

we can see that [Henchard] is not a traditionalist, nor an innovator, nor a mediator between the old rural agrarian ways and new mechanized society with its cash nexus. Instead he is a traditional man vacillating between acceptance and rejection of traditional customs and values. (34-5)

Baer also sees dialect as an overpowering indication of “social standing” in The Mayor of Casterbridge, and if we take her tack on the dispute over Elizabeth Jane's diction, we can easily see the dispute as Henchard's simultaneous discomfort with--and bow to the necessity of--learning “refined speech”(37). In the case of Elizabeth Jane's diction, Henchard is at a loss, because he wishes to keep her in the place of the Other, while at the same time re-positioning his own concept of the Self by trying to improve his own speech. That Henchard often fails at this task is ironic.

The speech of the Other is also accompanied by the manner in which the Other makes decisions, as in the scene with Lucetta, Farfrae, and Henchard. Lucetta Templeman eventually chooses Donald Farfrae over Michael Henchard. This seems like a very free choice: a woman chooses the gentler, more respectful of two suitors. Indeed, Hardy presents Lucetta’s thoughts on the subject in the form of her comments on the relationship to Elizabeth-Jane, disguised as a narrative about the romantic problems of a “friend”: “This person--a lady--once admired a man much--very much” (171). Lucetta then describes her “friend’s” predicament: that she had been put into a situation which required that she marry another man, yet she is now in a position to marry a man whom she likes better. This thinly-veiled reference to Lucetta’s problem with Henchard and Farfrae alludes to two circumstances which make Lucetta’s choice of Farfrae seem less a choice and more an imperative. The circumstances under which Lucetta’s “friend” was obliged to marry her first suitor are never directly stated, but an unplanned pregnancy as a result of a sexual fling is strongly hinted at when Lucetta elsewhere in the novel requests that Henchard return to her a packet of incriminating letters which speak of his “contract” with her and the promise of “paying me my due,” which secret Henchard describes to Farfrae, who at once discerns the meaning of the legalese (82-83). Such contracts were common in the late eighteenth century in cases of married men having affairs; the wronged woman could thus depend on the law to force her paramour to provide for his offspring. Because Lucetta never receives her packet from Henchard, she is obliged to marry Farfrae, someone who could uphold her good character should Henchard make public the contents of the letters. Secondly, Lucetta’s newly-minted respectability, upon the inheritance of a large sum, makes her even more conscious of her position in society. By marrying Farfrae, the up-and-coming businessman, instead of Henchard, whose star is declining, Lucetta concedes to her class-consciousness. While this is not as strong a force in her decision to marry Farfrae, Lucetta describes Farfrae as “well-educated” and “refined” (171); both terms connote social standing rather than personality traits. In this regard, Lucetta is a victim of social forces in her decision between the two suitors; their influence (or lack of it) is the real controlling factor in Lucetta’s choice.

J. Hillis Miller points to this social-compact-driven romantic triangle. Miller is not overtly concerned with the social milieu of Casterbridge, but in an aside says that Henchard

focuses first on one person and then on another when she seems to promise what he wants, turning from her just as abruptly when she fails to provide it. . . . [He turns] from Susan and Lucetta, one after the other, when they have yielded to him, desiring Lucetta anew when she becomes desirable to Farfrae. (147)

Even though Miller is discussing Henchard's inability to fill an “emotional void” within himself, he uses the language of Male/Self-identification. Lucetta is desirable only if she is desirable to another man. Henchard and Farfrae woo against each other in a fit of one-upmanship, a test of virility and affirmation of the quality of Self. Lucetta is reduced, however much control she exerts over her own schemes and intrigues, to a prize--a “trophy wife” in the most literal sense of the term.

The one instance in the novel where a woman seems to have real control over the outcome of events occurs in the scene when old Mrs. Goodenough, the furmity-woman from the fair, denounces Henchard in the Casterbridge courts as a wife-seller, twenty years after the fact. Mrs. Goodenough is brought into Petty Claims Court on a charge of urinating at the side of a church. Her wits are about her, and she shows her knowledge of the intricacies of the law when she claims that “I was not capable enough to hear what I said, and what is said outside my hearing is not evidence” (198). The fact that Mrs. Goodenough has been in court “so many more times than the magistrates themselves” (199) makes her a formidable adversary, one who knows the procedural niceties of the court even better than those who wish to pass judgement on her. Henchard, as magistrate of the court, is hushed when the old woman begins to narrate the events of the wife sale at Weydon Fair during her turn to question her accuser. Never mind that the narrative is out of order; the clerk even asks Mrs. Goodenough whether it might be politic to “go back to the Creation” with her account of the charge against her (199).

This is the one instance in The Mayor of Casterbridge where the power which can be wielded by man over woman is not used. Henchard has the magisterial power to stop Mrs. Goodenough in mid-sentence, knowing that her testimony is irrelevant to the specific charge of “disorderly female and nuisance” against her. Yet Henchard allows Mrs. Goodenough to complete her narration of the wife sale, and even confesses to his own guilt while on the bench--a condition that would not have escaped Hardy's readers. British magistrates took (and still take today) the same oath of fealty to the principles of law and honesty before they ascended the bench as did accused transgressors. Henchard must make a choice in which any outcome is a bad one. If he stops Mrs. Goodenough in mid-testimony, this is illegal, were the relevance of her story to be found out later: this is suppression of evidence. Henchard confesses to his misdeeds of twenty years ago, hoping that their very remoteness will soften the blow of scandal. Hardy reminds his readers that the opposite is true. The scandal, so long hidden, now blooms afresh. Couple this with Henchard's recent loss to Farfrae in the contest for Lucetta's hand, and we can see Mrs. Goodenough as a necessary, even willing, participant in Henchard’s demise. Yet, she never has full control of the court proceedings. Her testimony is damning, but Henchard has every opportunity to quiet her, deny her testimony, or dismiss her story as irrelevant. Henchard, the policeman Stubberd--all of the men in the court ask the questions, give the sworn testimony, and control the outcome of the proceedings. Indeed, it is only at Henchard's request that Mrs. Goodenough begins what becomes her wife-selling tale (199). Thus, what appears to be an instance of female assertion is handled by--and filtered through--an essentially patriarchal institution: the courtroom.

I have already tangentially discussed Mrs. Goodenough as an exculpatory device in the wife sale. Her furmity is seen by W. Eugene Davis as a traditional symbol of motherhood which Mrs. Goodenough has perverted by spiking it with rum.1 Davis also claims that by re-introducing Mrs. Goodenough at the trial scene, Hardy undermines the individuality of women characters (32). He argues that the entire courtroom scene could have no other ending than the one it does, because of the anti-maternal Mrs. Goodenough. She is “haggish” and “unscrupulous,” and twists the conventions of motherhood about to suit her needs. It is no surprise that Mrs. Goodenough does another “unmotherly” thing to Henchard at court by recalling the wife sale. Since Mrs. Goodenough is trying only to save herself the trouble of paying a fine (not, as John Bayley asserts, actively attempting Henchard's ruin), she uses what ammunition she has to discredit the charges against her, including her “out of hearing” argument. Davis asserts that if one of her arguments can discredit the magistrate Henchard, she must use it, to be all the more certain that her charges are dropped--indeed, they are (200). Because Mrs. Goodenough has control over her own arsenal of defenses, however, does not imply that she has control over the courtroom; such power, though unexercised, rests solely with the men present: Henchard and the constables.

In conclusion, I see the men in The Mayor of Casterbridge as usurping the significance of the actions of their female counterparts, even though Hardy is at pains to represent Susan Henchard, Elizabeth Jane, Lucetta Templeman, and Mrs. Goodenough as characters whose actions may be explained by no one but themselves. Because each of these ladies chooses her words and actions within a patriarchal societal framework, their actions are denied autonomous weight, and take on an aspect of coming from a diaspora within society. In Other words, and the pun is intended, Hardy portrays the Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge not as Scotsmen, not as foreigners, not even as the lower classes, but as the only acceptable “outsiders”: women.


Works Consulted

Baer, Florence E. “Folklore and The Mayor of Casterbridge.” The Thomas Hardy Year Book 19 (1989): 34-43.

Bayley, John. An Essay on Hardy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1978.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. New York: Chelsea, 1988.

Chapman, Raymond. “‘Good Faith, You Do Talk!’: Some Features of Hardy’s Dialogue.” New Perspectives on Thomas Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994. 117-36.

Childers, Mary. “Thomas Hardy, the Man Who ‘Liked’ Women.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts 23.4 (Fall 1981): 317-334.

Davis, W. Eugene. “Of Furmity, Mothers and Sons in The Mayor of Casterbridge.” The Thomas Hardy Year Book 19 (1989): 31-3.

Epstein, Lenora. “Sale and Sacrament: The Wife Auction in The Mayor of Casterbridge.” English Language Notes 24.4 (Jun. 1987): 50-6.

Hardy, Thomas. The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character. London, 1886. New York: Signet, 1962.

King, Jeanette. “The Mayor of Casterbridge: Talking About Character.” The Thomas Hardy Journal 8.3 (Oct. 1992): 32-46.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “Hardy Ruins: Female Spaces and Male Designs.” The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspectives on Hardy. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. 107-31.

Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970.

Millgate, Michael, ed. Thomas Hardy: Selected Letters. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 1988.

Poole, Adrian. “‘Men’s Words’ and Hardy’s Women.” Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism 31.4 (Oct. 1981): 328-45.

Pugh, Jane Richmond. “Woman as Other: Feminine Portraiture and Role in Hardy, Charlotte Brontë, and T. S. Eliot.” Dissertation. Ann Arbor: DAI, 1985.

Taft, Michael. “Hardy’s Manipulation of Folklore and Literary Imagination: The Case of the Wife Sale in The Mayor of Casterbridge.” Studies in the Novel 13.4 (Winter 1981): 399-407.



1“It was one of the traditional dishes for Mothering Sunday, the mid-Sunday in Lent. . . . It is a custom for servants to visit their mother for a meal of furmity with her blessing.” (Davis 31)


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