Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Chico is not a po-dunk little town. It's somewhere between a very large town and a very small city. Without the college we would be a lot more po-dunky. Thanks to the college, we get good shows coming through. We have a thriving arts and culture community. Our library is the most decent one between Sacramento and Redding. We have one decent NPR station, with the slight exception of extremely novice classical music DJs in the afternoon. We also have a hippie public radio station. We have an organic food co-op, pretty much any major store you'd like, a couple of book stores, and coffee places abound. Most people agree that if you are around here and don't want to live here, you at least want to live in short driving distance.

I was surprised at how much I identified with Hardy's description of Casterbridge in the mid-19th century. Although far less of an arts community, Casterbridge in the book seemed to me to be comparable with Chico in size, in surrounding communities and so forth. And having worked for a produce distribution company, I think I had a stronger grasp on some of the agricultural trade talk in the book, at least to the extent that I didn't feel the need to skip over anything. Many of the types of people in the book put me very much in mind of many of the types I see around Chico (especially living on this side of town. The drugs may change, but desperate people are a set human type that doesn't seem to change much over time.) But the more striking parallel I found was that in 1987 much, I am told, to the great chagrin of the serious students and the people who have to live in Chico, Playboy Magazine voted Chico the #1 party school in America. I am told that it was like cancer to a Christian Scientist. It was named and it was caught. Whether Chico State was a party school before that or not, it was carved in stone ever after. Thus spake Hef.

In recent years there has been a push to exorcise the image by the school (and a push to exercise the image by the students.) It hasn't worked. Almost every story you read about trying to polish the image of Chico State is followed within a few days by stories of kids burning couches in the street and throwing bottles at cops. I bring this up because in that regard Chico State is a bit like the main character in the book, in that he may have moments of repentance, but they are short lived. He is of a certain character and barring any true repentance, he will return to his behavior again and again. I don't think Hardy was making the argument that people cannot change. I think it was more of a cautionary tale directed especially to the type who have problems follow them throughout their life, but never grasp the one uniting factor to all of their problems (which is to say "them.")

The book begins with a man, wife, and child entering a tent at a fair in the countryside. The man gets rip-roaring drunk and vocal about how burdensome he finds his wife. He begins trying to auction her and the child off, and to everyone's shock someone takes him up on it. Twenty years later, the wife returns with a grown daughter and the man who sold his wife has risen in the world to become Mayor of Casterbridge. The story begins there and goes through many routes, plots and bi-ways. It is heartbreaking and it is beautiful. The story takes us through consequences of bad actions and people of poor character.

I had wondered why no one reads Thomas Hardy anymore. That's an overstatement. I'm sure there are thousands walking the Earth who have read Thomas Hardy and enjoyed his work. He really is a wonderful author. His descriptions are rich, his study of humanity is keen, and his plot twists, at least in my case, are totally unexpected and surprising. Laurie can confirm that I audibly gasped a few times while reading the book (although she probably thought it had to do with my ear problem.) However this is not a good era for morality tales. They are not terribly popular. People find relativism allows them to write off doing whatever they please, consequences be damned, and they are content to live blissfully and willfully ignorant of the concept of character. You probably anticipate my next statement, that this is precisely why authors like Hardy need to come into vogue.

I don't usually feel an urgency to write a review of 100+ year old classics. As Woollcott said when asked to endorse Thornton Wilder's Our Town, "It doesn't need it! You may as well ask me to endorse the 23rd Psalm!" But in this case I thought I'd post a little note saying, "Hey, this book is really awesome. Thomas Hardy is a remarkable author. If you have not yet, you really should check his work out."


  1. so far as I remember there is hardly anything by Hardy that I have not read except maybe his poems! Unfortunately these are my writing years now and reading years are over at least as of now! maybe they will come back to me! Don't worry lots of people out there read Hardy.

  2. I'm glad to know that. I would like to see more people around me reading him. This is the first I've read by him and I am planning on more soon. I have Far from the Maddening Crowd next.