Women as Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge
By the time of the publication of The Mayor of Casterbridge in 1886, England was firmly in place as an imperial power in India, on the African continent, and across Canada. The jingoistic spirit of the British emphasized the Lacanian social tendency to cast the unfamiliar--those who are not British white males--into the category of the Other.1 Because by 1886 England had already begun to assimilate, or at least to tolerate, many of its Others, there were by that time few Others ready to hand against which to gauge British Man. One of these remaining Others was the opposite sex: women.
In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy portrays a British town of the 1820s, a period of transition between the xenophobic expansionist period of the late 1700s and the more openly tolerant society characterized by the Great Reform Bills at the mid-century. In brief, the development of social tolerance for the Other is depicted in the novel by Casterbridge’s embracing of Douglas Farfrae, a Scotsman (110), and by the eventual return and reinstatement of Captain Newson, Elizabeth Jane's sea-faring father (286 ff.). Even the line of unofficial caste 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 each of these sections of the “old” hierarchy are distorted in favor of tolerance and acceptance, albeit grudgingly, there remains one element of society which is not affected by either tolerance or acceptance: women. Since the fortunes of Susan Henchard, Lucetta, and Elizabeth Jane are presented, outwardly, as controlled by these women themselves, there is an interesting subtext at work in The Mayor of Casterbridge which ensures that the women characters in it must always answer to the men for their actions, thus becoming convenient scapegoats for the foibles of the male characters. Further, many of the shortcomings of the male characters in the book can be directly attributed to the women with whom they have interaction. I see four major instances in which women are shown to be the most readily-available 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. The diction of Sarah Henchard, the terms of the sale itself, and the fact that Michael Henchard is drunk all become extenuating circumstances which Sarah herself uses to maintain a sort of 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). The sale of Sarah is conducted in ready cash, but the sailor Newson insists that the sale should only happen “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 the senselessness of the drunken Michael Henchard.
Each of these minor circumstances of the sale provides an excuse, a back-door method of preserving Sarah Henchard’s dignity. Although the scene of the wife sale is pointedly conducted in deference to Sarah’s opinions and preferences, 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 Henchard, and the tone of her words sound 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 more to woo Sarah into regarding the sailor as kinder than her husband. The fact that Newson put up his money at all shows him to be involved in the literalization of the social type of wives as commodities. Henchard’s drunkenness, however much it exculpates Sarah from her own actions, is no excuse, 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 of Sarah Henchard to Newson 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 fact that the last recorded wife sale in Britain took place in Sheffield in 1881 (189). Morgan calls the wife sale “barbaric,” as a throwback to an antiquated, no longer socially-acceptable practice. Her basis--and Hardy's--of the incident of historical record indicates that Hardy used an already-existing, albeit dying, practice to perpetuate the 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)
In this sense--of bowing to tradition as a Male/Self-perpetuating one--Hardy pays lip service to the individuality of his women characters. Indeed, when Henchard chastizes Elizabeth Jane for her colloquial language, we see further evidence of the pressure to conform to the Male Self ideology, even when that ideology is portrayed as ironic.
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 diction. The fact that Elizabeth-Jane uses such colloquial phrases as “bide where you be” (131) indicate 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 wash to a pig-trough, that ye use words such as those?” (131). Henchard’s rebuke is especially ironic, in that he uses the rustic “pig-trough,” and “wash” instead of the more genteel “laundry.” Henchard’s chiding of Elizabeth-Jane does lead to an improvement in her diction, done of her own accord; Hardy makes mention 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, Elizabeth-Jane makes a conscious 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 in the position of 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. Henchard’s characterization of Elizabeth-Jane as a “clodhopper” is another instance of his own rural diction being more colloquial than that which he is upbraiding. Thus, even though his own diction is far less gentrified than that of Elizabeth-Jane, 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. It is interesting to note that this is an ironic twist on the tradition-upholding wife sale of the previous example. In this case, Henchard wishes Elizaberth-Jane to become more modern through the use of proper diction, but Henchard is robbed of his lingusitic “authority” by his own more colloquial speech.
Florence Baer echoes this irony in “Folklore and The Mayor of Casterbridge.” She claims that
we do not have to select from among the contending look alikes--Lear, Oedipus, etc.; we can see that he [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), as Baer puts it. In the case of Elizabeth Jane's diction, Henchard is at a disadvantage, 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--two tasks which cannot simultaneously be accomplished through Henachard’s method of encouraging Elizabeth-Jane to further widen the gap between the quality of her diction and that of Henchard’s. That Henchard fails at his task is ironic; that he rains down frustrated imprecations on Elizabeth Jane for failing to do so is expected. 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 goes on to describe her “friend’s” predicament: that she had been put into a situation which required that she marry another man, yet she was now in a position to marry a man she liked 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 legal wording (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 make good her contract should her paramour fail to provide for his offspring. Because Lucetta never receives her packet from Henchard, she is obliged to marry Farfrae as champion, someone who could uphold her good character should Henchard make public the contents of the letters. Secondly, Lucetta’s newly-minted respectability at the inheritance of a large sum from her aunt’s estate makes her even more conscious of her own position in society. By marrying Farfrae, the up-and-coming young 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, it is at work in her mind, as when Lucetta describes Farfrae as “well-educated” and “refined” (171): both terms which 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 own influence (or lack of it) is the real controlling factor in Lucetta’s choice.
J. Hillis Miller points, albeit obliquely, to this social-compact-driven romantic triangle in his examination of Henchard's character in Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Miller is not overtly concerned with the social milieu of Casterbridge, nor with the male/female dialectic in his chapter “The Dance of Desire,” but he does bring up one interesting side note about the character of Henchard. Miller 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, emphasis mine)
Notice that 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--in this case, Farfrae. Henchard and Farfrae woo in contest with each other; it seems not so much a fit of love, but 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 “ought” to have been 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, either of the outcomes of which will show ill upon him. If he is to stop Mrs. Goodenough in mid-testimony, this would be an illegal act, were the relevance of her story to be found out later; it is suppression of evidence. Henchard chooses to do nothing illegal in the present moment; he confesses to his misdeeds of twenty years ago, hoping that their very remoteness from the present will somewhat soften the blow of scandal. Hardy reminds his readers that the exact 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 the demise of Henchard. However, 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 bobby Stubberd who apprehended the old woman, 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 to tell 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.2 Davis also claims that by re-introducing Mrs. Goodenough at the trial scene, Hardy also undermines the individuality of women characters--in Davis' words, the “unwitting choices” of Mrs. Goodenough (32). He argues that the entire courtroom scene could have no other ending than the one it does, because of the anti-maternal associations of Mrs. Goodenough. She is described as “haggish” and “unscrupulous,” and twists the conventions of motherhood about to suit her needs. It is no surprise, argues Davis--and I agree with him--that Mrs. Goodenough does another “unmotherly” thing to Henchard at court by recalling the wife sale. Since Mrs. Goodenough is only trying 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, as we have seen in her “out of hearing” argument. Davis also argues 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, as 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 social determinism. In Other words, and the pun is intended, Hardy portrays the Others in The Mayor of Casterbridge not as Scotsmen, not as minorities, not even as the lower classes, but as the only acceptable “outsiders”: women.
Baer, Florence E. “Folklore and The Mayor of Casterbridge.” The Thomas Hardy Year Book 19 (1989): 34-43.
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.
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.
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.
Lacan, Jacques. “Of Structure as an Inmixing of an Otherness Prerequisite to Any Subject Whatever.” The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Eds. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1970. 186-200.
Miller, J. Hillis. Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970.
Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 1988.
Pugh, Jane Richmond. “Woman as Other: Feminine Portraiture and Role in Hardy, Charlotte Brontë, and T. S. Eliot.” Dissertation. Ann Arbor: DAI, 1985.