Calvinist Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

From the worldview that contains a culture, whether a village or global in scope, one can predict human behavior and the general outcome of the narrative. The details, of course, cannot be anticipated but the general direction, e.g., sustainable or unsustainable, can be clearly seen. Will the “villagers” be able to survive in the long term or will their life’s experience gradually grow darker and darker. The worldview that Thomas Hardy was contained in was conservative “Calvinist” Christianity. This is all we need to know to fill in the details of the story, the seeds have been planted—the harvest is predictable.

By the end of chapter two in Hardy’s novel, as in the prologue of a Greek tragedy, all but the specific elements of the story have been foreshadowed. “Hardy’s philosophy dramatizes the human condition as a struggle between man and man and between man and his fate. Usually it is fate—or the arbitrary forces of the universe—that wins. Fate is all-powerful and in its blindness human suffering is of no importance. This malevolence of fate certainly seems at times to be demonstrated in The Mayor of Casterbridge.” The term fate in 19th century England is another word for the reward or punishment of a judgmental God. This element in the P-B worldview is itself a fundamental cause of human suffering and does not exist in P-A. In a word it is an illusion.

Hardy’s protagonist, the man Henchard, embodies Hardy’s own worldview or to be more specific his beliefs, attitudes, values and their emotional expression. “Henchard’s strength of will and his determination [is] to undergo suffering and deprivation in order to expiate his sins.” You can see why we chose the label “Calvinist” for our essay title. Believing as they do, both Hardy’s and Henchard’s, fear will be ubiquitous lurking like a dark shadow in the background. Both men feel that they were born into a hostile world where other people, God and even nature itself are a constant threat. Conscious behavior will be a rare occurrence in such an environment.

To the fundamentalist religious precepts and paradigm we add the advent of the industrial revolution and the emerging of modern science to the context of Casterbridge. “Whether or not Hardy’s pessimism seems valid, one should remember that during his lifetime, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species undermined the prevailing concept of the divine descent of man; the “higher criticism” recreated Biblical figures as humans, not divinities; science reversed prevailing opinions and superstitions; and life in general grew faster, harsher, less concerned with beauty and art, and more preoccupied with practical economics.” In this statement our critic falls prey to romanticizing the nature of historic cultures. Every generation harkens back to “the Good Ole’ Days” which in reality never existed. Human beings are and have always been by their nature more concerned more about “practical economics” than beauty and art—they are “hardwired” by their need for survival to meet the needs of the security energy center before “higher” considerations.

This is as true today as it was in Hardy’s time and as it was in the days of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus when the Greeks were in pursuit of the “good, the true and the beautiful.” Beauty is always available to anyone who is present in P-A, and indeed such an experience is one of the ways that we know that we are awake—in the NOW. As long as we allow ourselves to be contained in a story that is characterized by unconsciousness or a religion-based narrative, we will have little time to awaken to the present moment which is the only time where we will experience “beauty and art” which is a “heart-felt” experience.

How does a person behave who is unconscious and under the influence of his security energy center and self-medicating according to the habits of his sensation energy center? “[Henchard] is portrayed as one given over to fits of despondent self-pity, violent outbursts, and irrevocable spur-of-the-moment decisions. [He] has too much of a liking for strong drink which leads him to commit an outrageous act that haunts him for years and finally proves his downfall.” The sensation energy center is sometimes called the affection and esteem center although this is too narrow a label considering that all of the human substance and process addictions flow from this aspect of the human survival strategy. We all expend a lot of energy pursuing illusions in this arena. “Henchard’s dogged attempt to find love and affection is evident in the fact that Henchard too is starved to death for want of Elizabeth-Jane’s [his daughter’s] love.”

The delusion of P-B infuses itself, as it must, throughout the powerful story that is Casterbridge. Hardy reaches for a noble ending which is what made his story so popular but it is little more than sentimentality—one of the characteristics of stories written by authors mesmerized by the illusion of P-B. “And when man can rise to the stature and nobility as Henchard does at the end of Casterbridge, then the dominant chord Hardy has struck swells to a bold theme of hope for mankind.” Since Henchard’s behaviors are all false-self motivated, there is little cause for rejoicing at the end of the story. “Stature and nobility” are themselves characteristics of the ego-driven power energy center and true compassion would have required Henchard to shift to the self-less behavior characteristic of a person living in the NOW.

To end on a positive note we will cite an observation by our critic, C. K. Hillegass, as he intuits what would be a profound realization on the part of Casterbridge readers if only they were contained in P-A. “The theme of Casterbridge appears to be the arbitrary and almost always malign workings of the universe and blind chance upon the destinies of men. Such evil, unrelenting machinations bring pain and suffering upon the characters in the novel, and there is no escape except in a day-to-day acceptance of life.” Exactly true! In the words of the awakened mystic, J. Krishnamurti—“I don’t mind what’s happening.” In P-A one lives aware of the causes of human suffering and therefore attains an identity that no longer is attached to wanting anything to be different than it is. This detachment is the essence of freedom from suffering and the end to reactive behavior which is the energy that drives the old story of P-B.


References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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