Cormac McCarthy, the author of No Country for Old Men, said about the purpose of human existence, “The point is there ain’t no point.” This nihilistic outlook on life became common long before McCarthy’s time. The highly industrial and scientifically groundbreaking 19th Century marked a dramatic authorial shift from the optimistic, spiritually centered ideas of the Romantics one-century prior. In literature, humanistic, flawed protagonists replaced the traditional heroes of yore, as authors were no longer afraid to question the veracity of God and the purpose of life. One of the earliest works to reflect these new, controversial ideas was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Detailing one man’s rise and fall during the late 19th century, the novel became known for Hardy’s accurate portrayal of rural life and his unique perspective on how industrialization affected British society during that time. Significantly, Casterbridge is an early manifestation of the nihilist movement because of its innovative, individualistic, anti-heroic, and cynical themes.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless, and that human beings can never really know or communicate anything. The nihilist belief system is an extreme form of pessimism often associated with radical contrarian movements (e.g. anarchy). It is based on the writings of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that life has no objective order or structure except for what people give it, and once humans realized this, they would discover that the rejection of moral and religious institutions would set human kind on the correct course (IEP.edu). The nihilist movement has gone on to inspire numerous modern novels and films, and philosophers today see it as the most vital of school of thought to arise following the Industrial Revolution.
Aside from understanding the concepts associated with nihilism, it is also critical that the reader be familiar with the major characters of Casterbridge (the town in which the story takes place) in order to fully contextualize Hardy’s novel. The first and most dominant character, Michael Henchard, is a middle-aged, successful corn merchant and town mayor who sold his wife, Susan, and his daughter to a sailor as a result of being in a drunken rage eighteen years before the novel takes place. The character Donald Farfrae is a young Scottish businessman who earns the admiration of the townspeople with his liberal, free market ideas, and ultimately becomes Henchard’s power-obsessed rival throughout the novel. Finally, there is Elizabeth-Jane, Henchard’s supposed long-lost class-obsessed daughter who endures the hardships of being caught in the middle of Henchard and Farfrae’s business competitions. These three characters are the crux of the novel’s nihilist message, as each comes to realize that life is, on the whole, meaningless.
In Casterbridge, the unbalanced struggle between progressive ideas and tradition reflects Hardy’s nihilistic belief that individual conventions are meaningless and only serve to hold society back from reaching its full potential, even though human beings will never stop their efforts to continuously advance themselves. Undoubtedly, the 19th century was an era of immense scientific and technological advancement. Electric light bulbs, dynamite, machine guns, and automobiles represent only a fraction of the multitude of innovations that developed during this time period. However, while these inventions were certainly revolutionary, many of them went against the traditions that people were accustomed to. In fact, it is probable that many individuals feared industrialization, because of the common belief that machines would soon take over jobs that previously only people could do. Regardless, technology eventually superseded these uncertainties, and society has not stopped progressing mechanically or ideologically since the Industrial Revolution. The struggle between innovation and tradition is at the core of Casterbridge, as Hardy clearly represents via the opposing business ideologies of Henchard and Farfrae. Henchard is traditionalistic, impulsive, and closed-minded towards modern ideas. In fact, at one point in the novel he goes as far as to insult Farfrae by calling him a “jackanape” for introducing a horse-drill to the community in the hopes of further advancing the corn business. However, it is Henchard’s ignorance that eventually results in the downfall of his character. The town ultimately denounces him for his unwillingness to change, and as a result, the community goes on to support Farfrae on his endeavors. On the contrary, Hardy presents Farfrae as industrial, economical, and indulgent towards revolution. As the novel progresses, Farfrae’s tolerance prevails over Henchard’s traditionalism, and ultimately Henchard dies without ever being able to fully utilize his abilities. Had Henchard simply accepted Farfrae’s radical business ideas, the duo could have merged to create a highly successful corn commerce, but Henchard would not stray from his strict adherence to custom. Thus, Hardy makes it clear that although humans tend to carry traditions for lifetimes, in reality, these beliefs are insignificant burdens that only serve to limit society from progressing efficiently.
Another conflict that Hardy presents in Casterbridge is between individuality and community. It is probable that he included this paradox for a similar purpose as the anti-traditional elements. The nihilistic belief is that although morality and concern for others are human-defined responsibilities that people attempt to abide by, these practices are futile once life is over. The idea of individualism became popular during the Romantic period, and by the late 19th century it had expanded into a full-fledged philosophy. Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde sums up the ideology tersely and effectively in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “It is not selfish for a man to think for oneself. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all” (107). However, much like industrialization, the public also feared individualism because it went against the established norms of society. Nevertheless, the concepts of individual freedom and liberty outlived these insecurities, and eventually became the basis for popular belief all over the world (e.g. The United States). In the context of Casterbridge, Hardy showcases this dilemma through the competition between Henchard and Farfrae. Although Hardy portrays Henchard as being stern and tough as a boss, he also describes him as being caring and personally involved with his staff. For instance, Hardy mentions that prior to the events of the novel, Henchard took care of Able Whittle’s (one of his employees’) mother financially for an entire winter. However, at the same time it is Henchard’s collective approach to leadership that ultimately results in another one of his weaknesses: he is overbearingly involved in the community that he leads. Although his intentions are rooted in good, his domineering concern for everyone eventually pushes him beyond his limits and ultimately turns the town of Casterbridge against him. This becomes overwhelmingly apparent when Henchard drags Whittle out of bed in his underwear for being late to work. While this action is merely Henchard’s attempt to improve Whittle’s character, it only serves to embarrass Whittle (he considers suicide following the event) and strike fear into the other employees. In contrast, Hardy portrays Farfrae as taking a laissez-faire approach to business, and once he replaces Henchard as mayor, he allows his employees to work without getting too involved in their daily tasks. For the most part, the townspeople praise Farfrae for this practice. In fact, Whittle states that although the workers are paid less and work more under Farfrae’s leadership, they are happier than they were under Henchard, for they no longer fear the wrath of their former boss. Again, Henchard’s good intentions ultimately prevented his business from reaching its full potential, as the fear he struck into his workers turned them against him. This further adds to the idea that Henchard dies without being able to fully utilize his skills as an entrepreneur, and that morals and character are relative, human-defined ideas that mean absolutely nothing once life is over.
Aside from showcasing the insignificance of both tradition and communal morality, Hardy also makes the point that all humans die the same death regardless of their heroism. Literature from the late 19th Century marked a dramatic shift away from the classical and Byronic heroes of the Romantic Period. Authors stopped highlighting their characters’ supernatural abilities in favor of emphasizing human flaws, emotions, and limited power. Additionally, writers dropped the common archetypes of protagonist and antagonist in exchange for characters that showcased traits of both. In Casterbridge, heroism is almost non-existent, for each character has both positive and negative qualities that reflect their truthful human nature. Henchard is caring but bad-tempered, Farfrae is understanding but power-hungry, and the entire town of Casterbridge is both supportive of its own but also obsessed with gossip. If anything, Henchard’s brute strength is the closest Hardy comes to portraying the emblematic Romantic hero. Henchard, whom Hardy describes as incredibly strong and tall, displays amazing physical abilities throughout the novel. His feats include taking down a bull with his bear hands to save Elizabeth-Jane as well as defeating Farfrae in a duel with one hand tied behind his back. However, in an almost mocking fashion, Henchard dies with nothing at the end of the novel. His achievements in protecting Elizabeth-Jane and defeating Farfrae end up being pointless, as the pair end up marrying at the story’s finale and Farfrae goes on to completely take over Henchard’s old business. In essence, regardless of his heroic efforts and supernatural abilities, Henchard experiences the same suffering that non-heroic humans experience and dies a common death.
Thus it is clear that Casterbridge is a cynical novel, and it is this overwhelming pessimism that makes the narrative a distinct reflection of the nihilist movement. Considering the aforementioned transition from heroism to humanism that was typical of the late 19th Century, it would only make sense that authors of this period would also accept the philosophical possibility that life might be completely worthless, and as a result apply it to their characters. Hardy, being no stranger to nihilism, also referenced the idea of hopelessness in his well-known poem “The Darkling Thrush.” The poem reflects upon the glumness Hardy felt towards the new era, stating, “That I could think there trembled through/ His happy good-night air/ Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew/ And I was unaware” (lines 29-32). In essence, Hardy felt that the 20th Century would consume the ideals of the Romantic period, and the conclusion of the piece (the cited set of lines) leaves the reader with absolutely no hope regarding the coming of the new age. In a similar fashion, Casterbridge leaves the reader with no optimism regarding the lives of the living characters at the end of the novel. In the conclusion of the story, Elizabeth-Jane acknowledges that happiness only accounts for a small portion of the overall dramatic mess that is life. Furthermore, it is obvious that Farfrae will become too consumed by his business to truly have any compassion for his newly acquired wife. Thus upon completing the novel the reader is left with nothing, which is the central idea of nihilism.
While Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is assuredly morbid and depressing for most readers, its influence on the nihilistic ideological developments of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is abundantly clear. In addition, the themes and philosophical arguments it sparked continue to inspire and reappear in modern novels and films (the works of the Coen brothers instantly come to mind). Although it is unquestionably saddening and discouraging to ponder whether or not human existence truly has any sort of purpose, it is important to acknowledge Casterbridge and its nihilistic theme for further expanding the realm of human thought and bringing new ideas to the public consciousness. As a result of nihilistic thought, people came to understand the power of individuality.
Hardy, Thomas. “The Darkling Thrush.” Poets.org. The Academy of American Poets, n.d.
Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
This poem by Thomas Hardy describes the transition between the 19th and 20th Centuries. While many people assuredly saw the new era as a time of celebration and praise, Hardy was more pessimistic, fearing that the age would consume the ideals that were developed in the Romantic period. In regards to the criticism, the poem is included in an effort to help the reader better understand Hardy’s nihilistic views on life. To fully support the thesis, it is vital that the reader comprehend that the novel is not the only pessimistic work that Hardy published, and that instead he was deeply rooted in the development of the nihilist belief system.
Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. New York: Norton & Co., 1977. Print.
Pratt, Alan. “Nihilism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The IEP, 23 April 2001. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
This page provides a description and history of the nihilist movement. Originating from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosophy has gone on to inspire countless modern novels and films, and has been the subject of moral debate ever since its inception. Understandably, nihilism is not the most well known ideology to come out of this time period. Thus in order to fully be able to extend the concepts presented in this criticism to the reader, it is crucial to first have them understand what nihilism is and how it came to be during the era in which Casterbridge was written.
Wilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. The Literary Collector Press, 1905. Print.
This essay by Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde explicates his ideas on the topics of individualism, freedom of thought, and human liberties. In what is quite possibly the most well known section of this work, Wilde explains that people who do not think for themselves do not think at all. This mentality reflects the newfound concepts of the late 19thand early 20th centuries regarding humanism and the power of the individual, and also marks a significant expansion of the classically liberal ideas that arose during the Romantic period. In regards to this criticism, Wilde’s essay helps define and support the individualistic ideas that are represented in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In order to truly show just how drastically this philosophy had advanced from previous centuries, it was crucial to include a relevant text that was published during the era in which the novel was in print.