Thomas Hardy's the Mayor of Casterbridge as an Aristotelian Tragedy

Topics: Tragedy, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy Pages: 6 (2341 words) Published: March 13, 2013
Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge As an Aristotelian Tragedy Thomas Hardy incorporates many elements of the classical Aristotlean tragedy in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). In an Aristotelian tragedy, the most important element is the experience of catharsis, the arousing of pity and fear in the audience. The effect of catharsis on the audience depends on the unity of the plot and the effective presence of a tragic hero. The plot in an Aristotelian tragedy consists of the reversal, the recognition and the final suffering. In the protagonist's following a pattern of decline and alienation, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is similar to the Greek tragedies, in particular Sophocles' Oedipus the King. Both literary works use three elements — catharsis, a complicated plot containing a secret, and the presence of a tragic hero — to create the effect of tragedy. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, however, Hardy uses these three characteristics to create a modern Aristotelian tragedy played out in mid-nineteenth century England. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy use of coincidence implies that he shares Aristotle's belief that the plot is important in the creation of a tragedy. In much the same way as Aristotle, Hardy attaches special importance to the three elements of the plot in a tragedy: the reversal, the recognition, and the final suffering. He unites the events in The Mayor of Casterbridge with these elements to portray the "paradoxical rise and fall" (Seymour-Smith 20) of former hay-trusser and corn-factor/local political leader Michael Henchard. The basic structure of the plot in the novel "with its emphasis upon the single protagonist and upon the course of the hero's downfall, is patently Aristotelian" (Kramer 70). In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy follows the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, a poor itinerant agricultural worker who gains both fortune and respect upon becoming the mayor of Casterbridge. Unfortunately, the consequences of his past transgressions contribute to the tragic decline in Henchard's material, social and familial welfare. In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the arrival of the Messenger from Corinth initiates the tragic reversal of the protagonist. The Messenger, ironically attempting to help Oedipus by telling him that the Corinthian royal couple, Polybus and Merope, were not his real parents, creates the opposite effect; he provides the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi by killing his father and marrying his mother. In Hardy's novel, Mrs Goodenough, the furmity woman from the opening chapter, enacts a function similar to that of the Corinthian Messenger in Oedipus the King. The return of the furmity woman and her dramatic revelation in court plays a vital role in hastening Henchard's decline. Mrs. Goodenough exposes Henchard's shameful secret: the sale of his wife Susan and their child, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor for five guineas two decades earlier. Her declaration results in Henchard's social and financial ruin, as the amends he had made in after life were lost sight of in the dramatic glare of the original act . . . On that day — almost at that minute — he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side. (Hardy 291) Although at the point at which Susan and her grownup daughter enter the town he is the most influential man in Casterbridge, the revelation of the wife-sale destroys his public reputation as his financial difficulties compel Henchard to declare bankruptcy; simultaneously disgraced and ruined, he soon becomes a social outcast. The furmity woman's accusation initiates the tragic reversal in The Mayor of Casterbridge; however, the reversal is complete only when Donald Farfrae becomes the new mayor. At this point in the plot, Henchard has lost his reputation as a worthy and honourable citizen, his political and fiscal capital, and the...
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