'"That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or
made to grieve on account of me.
"& that I be not bury'd in consecrated ground.
"& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell.
"& that nobody is wished to see my dead body.
"& that no murners walk behind me at my funeral.
"& that no flours be planted on my grave,
"& that no man remember me.
"To this I put my name."'
So it was excellent, The Mayor of Casterbridge. I've heard Thomas Hardy was one of those who bucked under the strain of magazine serialization a bit - having to have an 'event' every week, in every short chapter - one of those shocks or coincidences that I quite enjoy but which alienates so many people from Victorian literature, because they seem unrealistic . And to a certain extent that strain tells, as events get left trailing. Why did Susan esteem Donald so much as a match for her daughter? What accounts for the intimacy of Donald and Elizabeth-Jane's father at the end? There's an 'event' or coincidence there evidently that got left out . . .
But it doesn't matter at all in terms of the quality of the book, as far as I'm concerned, because of the psychological perfection of the characters. To me this is what makes great literature. Perfect plots are the aim of superhero comics, primetime television series, and Martin Amis literary turds; great literature should be psychologically true. As a society we're so caught up in the idea of artistic realism, straying no farther from it in our blockbuster modern lit than surrealism or magic realism or neorealism but always realism, realism, realism, and that makes us as audiences and authors fall into the description Charlotte Brontë (I think unfairly) applied to Jane Austen - our literature "is more real than true."
We laugh at Dickens, and we want our literature to turn on one or two ridiculous coincidences at most, forgetting that if we take any given starting point, whether it be in real life or in any narrative, and trace its path to an end we've marked out, every event driving the story to its conclusion is a ridiculous coincidence with an incredibly small chance of having occurred in a random universe. And in consequence our literature tends to the unrealistically bland and uneventful, to the wordy, to the self-referential - firmly stuck up the author's own ass (Ian McEwan, isn't it getting crowded up there?) Bring on the coincidences, say I. In real life they've worked out well for me thus far, and in literature they provide the best showcase yet discovered for showing off characters' psychological truths, the best showcase for preventing an author from inadvertently writing a false memoir instead of a true novel.
So The Mayor of Casterbridge is a psychological masterpiece. Henchard is a horrible cunt who engineers his own utter destruction with what seems like a dogged tenacity, but we're made to know him so well that it's as impossible to wholeheartedly hate him as it would a close family member who'd acted in such a way, and when his will comes (copied above) it's excruciatingly pitiable. Donald and Lucetta are perfectly mapped out in their relative amiability, weakness of character, and attractiveness; Susan is painted perfectly as an ignorant, good woman doing what she could with what she got. And Elizabeth-Jane - Hardy meant us to fall in love with Elizabeth-Jane, I suppose . . . a truly good, unsullied girl who's more interesting than porridge. What a feat.
'But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more.'