The Mayor of Casterbridge is a novel by Thomas Hardy, published in 1886, and set sometime in the middle of the 19th century. It is a work of realism, depicting the life of Michael Henchard, the Mayor of the town of Casterbridge (apparently a fictionalized version of Dorchester). I was surprisingly unfamiliar with both Hardy and this novel, and was happy to find that it was (in comparison to much of classic literature) easy to follow. The book is written in a poetic but not pretentious style that presents just enough complexity in vocabulary and grammar to be interesting, while not being overwhelming.

The first chapter of the book sets up the basic plot: Michael Henchard, a irritable young hay trusser, searching for work, "sells" his wife and child to a stranger. This begins as a joke, but Henchard is unable to back down from the challenge his wife and their daughter depart, and then Henchard faces the magnitude of what he had done.

The plot of the book proper begins some two decades later. Henchard, feeling shame over the incident, and sworn off liquor and through hard work, had ascended to being a wealthy grain merchant and also the mayor of Casterbridge. But right as he has reached his zenith, his wife returns to town, with her daughter, giving Henchard a chance to atone for his mistake, but also threatening his position of respectability. At the same time, a clever and honest young man from Scotland, Donald Farfrae, shows up and begins to work for Henchard. A fifth character, at first only in the background, is Lucetta, a woman from the Channel Islands who Henchard had some sort of compromising relationship with in the past. (But this being a book written in the 19th century, it is hard to tell just what that entails.) The book is told as a story between these five characters, which is a refreshingly light list of characters for a 19th century novel. The only other characters are a few local personalities that function mostly as plot devices and a chorus to comment on what is happening.

My main interest in this book came to be how it straddles the line between realism and romance. The review above concludes with the statement that "this is realistic", and in many ways, I have to agree. Michael Henchard, the focus of the book, is shown as a complex character, generous yet envious, sensitive to the feelings of others but unable to prevent himself from harming them. He makes mistakes, and feels remorse for them, but is unable to face the root cause of his anger and insecurity. That part of the book is described very realistically. What surrounds it, however, seems to be more in line with what could be expected from a soap opera. Without giving away too much of the plot, there are multiple love triangles, cases of mistaken parentage, people seemingly returning from the dead, secrets revealed through eavesdropping, purloined letters, deaths by Victorian Novel Disease...I found much of the plot of the book, as distinct from the psychological core, to be constructed in a rather predictable and unrealistic fashion. Whether that distracts from reading, or is something the reader expects and enjoys, is really a matter of taste.

What is most interesting for me is looking at this book in terms of the development of the modern novel. Some parts of this book read as quite modern, while others show it still dependent on Victorian conventions. While Hardy is considered an important developer of modernism and realism, if you compare this book to a work like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane, published a scant seven years later, in 1893, it reads much more like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens than a 20th century novel. (Although, it is also a much more pleasant and interesting book to read than the dark and unenlightening "Maggie".) This book provides an interesting example of a work between a melodramatic Victorian novel and a psychologically and socially realistic novel.