THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE / Thomas Hardy. 1895 (335 pgs)
First Ten Pages = 2.99% of total book
First Sentence: “One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot.”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third-person narrator. Omniscient – per the style of 19th century novels. Past tense, like a tale.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A man and his wife with their sleeping child approach, from seemingly far away, a place they’ve not been, seeking shelter, on foot. If one hasn’t read a 19th century novel in a while one must reacquaint oneself with longer sentences that wind around a lot of information (like that previous sentence). In these first few paragraphs one learns quite a bit about the man – his dress, manner, swarthy look and hay cutting tools – and very little about the wife and child, as if they are an appendage. As they walk side by side, man and wife are in close proximity, but emotionally far off.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Here is where the story takes off. Before the end of the first ten pages, this man – Henchard, the eventual Mayor of Casterbridge – gets drunk and sells his young wife and child to the highest bidder.
Language: The narrator is outside of the emotional of the story and does not add an opinion or judgment on the events of the story. His role is to present. Instead, the omniscient narrator uses other characters and the many village observers to lend bias and perspective to the actions within the story. Where the narrator is neutral, the several narrative voices create a variety of perspectives for the reader to judge character action.
Setting: Hardy creates detailed setting and ties various types of characters to the setting in which they attend. As Henchard and his wife approach the fair in Weydon-Priors they ask a citizen for lodgings. The unnamed citizen informs them that the people of Weydon-Priors would sooner tear down an abandon abode than have the wrong type of persons moving in. The once prosperous town seems to be in decline and the inhabitants are determined to keep it that way.
Character: In these opening pages the majority of the narrative keeps Henchard in prime focus. The reader cannot foretell that Henchard is about to do something horrible – as Henchard is unaware of what he has done until the morning after. The primary evil is not Henchard. The primary evil is pride, and arrogance, and alcohol. There is much foreshadowing of Henchard as volcano brewing, but it all comes together at the end of the first act when the auction event concludes and he falls asleep with a drink in his hand.
Structure (Rhythm, Tension): The first chapter is just over ten pages and contains the approach to the fair at Weydon-Priors, food and drink in the tent, and selling his wife to an unnamed sailor. It is deliberately paced and shocking at its conclusion. It feels as though the story has been told. What more can be said? For Henchard to sink further would not be impossible, but would become more than the story could bear. Instead, on the eleventh page, Henchard wakes, realizes his folly, searches for his wife and child and when he cannot find them, swears off alcohol for twenty-one years. (Without giving anything away that you can’t find out online, the story skips ahead many years to a woman walking down the approach to Weydon-Priors with her eighteen-year-old daughter looking for a long lost relation.) It is this drastic time-skip that affects the structure of the entire story without the reader having to take park in all the details of Henchard’s fight for sobriety and his rise in social position to that of Mayor of Casterbridge, a booming, if not distant seat of the corn and wheat trade.
Intention: Thank God the intention of Hardy’s story is NOT to moralize on the ill effects and ill judgments made under the influence of alcohol. Instead, due to Henchard’s absolute realization that his actions have landed him in this predicament, he is able to make some significant changes in his habits and attempt culpability – if not with his wife, at least with himself in the world. (What the reader learns as the story continues is that while one can change their habits, one’s basic character requires more stringent modulation.)
Thematic Preamble: None. This story (like the last couple of others reviewed on this blog) jumps directly into action. THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE jumps headlong with force and unveering calamity to the shocking end of the first chapter.
Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: Something’s Gotta Give. The reader (and several of the secondary characters who comment on Henchard and his actions) is clear that Henchard is out of control and the only one who can affect any positive change must be Henchard.
Random Comments: Read this book.