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This report is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

Michael Henchard's Will Neil Powell
The closing chapters of The Mayor of Casterbridge are among the most subtly modulated moral arguments in English literature. It's very far from being a perfect novel - every re-reading seems to reveal further instances of clumsy writing and careless plotting - but some things I'd once thought weaknesses now look to me much more like creative audacity. For instance, after the death of Susan Henchard in Chapter XVIII, less than halfway through the book, we are left - apart from a wonderful cast of bit-parts including Abel Whittle, Joshua Jopp, the proprietress of the furmity tent at Weydon-Priors and the assorted inhabitants of Mixen Lane - with a quintet of central characters: Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane, Farfrae, Lucetta and Newson, the mostly off-stage but crucially important returning sailor. I used to think it odd that Hardy really couldn't be bothered to do anything convincing with the last two: Lucetta, whom he clothes in shades of red, is a pantomime scarlet woman (when she tries on dresses sent from London she decides to be 'the cherry-coloured person at all hazards' and the effigy in the skimmity-ride which kills her wears puce); while the seafaring Newson has about as much character as Captain Birdseye. But of course this is deliberate: they belong to the plot-mechanism, not to the book's moral core. And to focus on that, Hardy knows that the quintet has to be reduced to a trio.

Elizabeth-Jane has to choose between Henchard and Farfrae, stepfather and future husband. She makes ...

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