“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive.”~~Walter Scott, in Marmion, 1808.
Thomas Hardy’s classic begins with a young man and woman, the woman carrying their child, walking on a road toward a village in Upper Wessex. As they approached the village, the see a fair in progress and decide to find something to eat. The man plans to look for work, as well, as he is a hay-trusser, and carries his tools on his back.
They choose a tent which bears a sign, “Good Furmity Sold Hear.” (I did not spell that wrong, it’s a direct quote.) The man would rather go to the tent that says “Good Home-brewed Beer, Ale, and Cyder,” but the woman wants some furmity. (Furmity was a popular dish, sometimes called “Frumenty,” made from boiled, cracked wheat, probably similar to our outmeal.)
As they are all eating their bowls of furmity, the woman selling it gestures to the man, indicating that she might add some rum to his furmity, for a small fee. He winds up having at least four bowls of the laced furmity.
This is when things take an ugly turn, as he then proceeds, in a drunken stupor, to offer up his wife to the highest bidder. After a few moments, finally, a sailor at the door of the tent offers up the price of five guineas for her. By this time we know that the seller’s name is Michael, and his wife’s name is Susan. The sailor’s bid stands, and Susan and the baby leave with him. By this time, she is more than willing to go, as she is furious with her husband.
Of course, when Michael Henchard wakes up the next morning, he is quite upset with himself and vows to find them. When he is unsuccessful, he eventually winds up in the town of Casterbridge. Along the way, he makes a serious vow to not touch fermented beverages for the time of twenty-one years, as that is how old he is at the time.
Michael Henchard is a terrible person, this much is obvious from the beginning pages of the book. At some points it seems he may have learned his lesson and changed, but no sooner do we think that than his inner demons rise up and spoil everything again. Being somewhat charismatic, he winds up (as the title would suggest) becoming Mayor in Casterbridge. As fate would have it, Susan, along with a girl in her late teens, eventually show up looking for him. The sailor, named Newsom, has been reported lost at sea. Susan thinks that Michael, considering that they are, of course, still legally married, might have her back, along with Elizabeth-Jane, the daughter.
I won’t retell the whole story here, but there is deception upon deception throughout this tale, and the lesson is that it never pays off the way we think it will. Every time, the deception is discovered, and it always sours the relationship. Henchard continues to be incredibly self-centered and manages to ruin every relationship that he ever has. I haven’t read any reviews of the book, but in my opinion, the lesson learned speaks of the Walter Scott quote cited at the top of this entry.
The book is quite interesting, and held my attention well. Unlike some writing from the 19th century, it is not so difficult to follow. Hardy’s descriptions conjure visual images that are pleasing, which carry the story well. I would consider it a “tragedy,” although it certainly has comedic, as well as romantic, characteristics. (I would certainly entertain opposing opinions, as I am no certified literary critic!) A wonderful classic, well worth the read.