[The following essay topics were created for Professor Allingham's English 1112 course, which requires a term paper of 1500 to 3,000 words. These essays have to conform in every respect to MLA Style, as given, for example, by Kelley Griffith in Writing Essays about Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet, 7th edn. (2006), pp. 266-345.]

1. Look up the term "foil," then explain at least THREE points of contrast between the characters of Donald Farfrae and Michael Henchard, OR between Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta Templeman in an attempt to explain how Farfrae and Henchard or Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta are foils.

2. Show how Hardy employs moral, mental, and emotional conflict in the novel to create suspense. Discuss in depth at least ONE specific example of each type of conflict. Does the novel�s reliance on external conflict and suspense to generate reader interest from installment to installment make it a "potboiler"? Explain.

3. Discuss Michael Henchard as either an Aristotelian or modern tragic hero by comparing him to such figures as Sophocles' Oedipus, Shakespeare's King Lear or Hamlet, or Arthur Miller's Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman or John Proctor in The Crucible. Discuss THREE points of comparison or contrast in terms of tragic theory. Consider utilizing such concepts as hamartia, peripeteia, hubris, nemesis, anagnorisis, catharsis, and social status.

4. References to literature, art, the Bible, and the Classics abound in this novel. Demonstrate by specific reference to THREE such allusions how Thomas Hardy employed his wide reading to add depth and universal significance to his story of the rise and fall of a semi-literate hay-trusser.

5. Throughout the novel, but especially in Lucetta's dilemma as to which of her suitors to marry, the character who stands for Victorian moral proprieties is Elizabeth-Jane Newson. What is ironic about Hardy's making her judgments socially and morally representative of Victorian society? Why does the reader trust her judgment? How is she, rather than Henchard, the moral centre of the novel?

6. In a sense, each of Hardy's major novels is an anthropological document about a rapidly disappearing culture, that of rural, pre-industrial "Wessex." From characters, events, and settings in the novel, describe what made this society great and why it is failing in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

7. To what extent are the novel's incidents determined by coincidence and to what extent by character? Determine which is the more powerful force in the plot.

8. Compare the customers, atmospheres, and narrative functions of the novel's three inns. Focus on why important events occur in these inns.

9. How does each of the following elements determine the structure of the novel?

A. overheard conversations;
B. letters that go astray;
C. the past coming back to affect the present;
D. misunderstandings and breakdowns in communication.

10. Elizabeth-Jane has been termed "prudish," "inhibited," and "morally rigid." She is, in fact, the model of female decorum as theorized by the Victorians. Discuss the effectiveness and functions of her characterization in the novel.

11. "In rash impulsiveness, tragic blunders, suffering, and self-redemption . . . [Henchard] recalls King Lear at frequent points" (F. B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: 41). Discuss the character of King Lear in Shakespeare's tragedy as a possible model for Henchard.

12. "The greatest influence [on Hardy's characterization of Henchard] was that of Saul and his jealous clash with the young rival David whom he loved" (F. B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: 41). Discuss the influence of the characters and situations in the biblical story on Hardy's characterization of the Henchard-Farfrae relationship.

13. To what extent do the town of Casterbridge and its citizenry serve as more than mere "local colour" for the novel? Consider the various uses makes of such settings as The Ring and such minor characters as Mrs. Stannidge.

14. "Farfrae's character was the reverse of Henchard's." Discuss this extreme contrast with specific reference to the text, explaining how this contrast helps advance the plot as well as our understanding of these characters.

15. Determine, perhaps with reference to several plays, whether this novel is a tragedy or a melodrama. Be sure to delineate the conventions associated with each dramatic form and define the terms "tragedy" and "melodrama."

16. Hardy felt that in terms of construction "The whole secret of fiction . . . lies in the adjustment of things unusual to things external and universal. The writer who knows exactly how exceptional, and how non-exceptional, his events should be made, possesses the key to the art." Apply Hardy's theory of fiction to this novel.

17. Bruce McCullough in Representative English Novelists: Defoe to Conrad (1946) observes that "The world, as pictured by Hardy, is a place of disaster where sinister powers are at work to thwart man. The evil outside man, in Hardy's view, is greater than the evil in man" (234). Test the truth of McCullough's thesis about Hardy's universe with reference to The Mayor of Casterbridge.

18. Determine whether the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge may be regarded as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, possibly by comparing it to such "established" or "traditional" tragedies as Oedipus the King, Antigone, Hamlet, and Macbeth. [response]

19. Deconstruct the text of the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge in terms of plausibility. In other words, how realistic are the settings and characters, and how realistic is the plot? How dependent is it upon coincidence?

20. How does the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge cut across the boundaries of historical novel, romance, and tragedy?

21. Compare the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge to Hardy's "ballad tragedy" of "The Trampwoman's Tragedy" in terms of the effects of causality of character (hamartia). In other words, are the downfalls of Henchard and the Trampwoman attributable largely to coincidence, or do factors other than circumstance — especially the protagonists themselves — play a significant part in the sequence of events that lead to the protagonists' destructions? Explain.

22. Although Hardy uses the omniscient narrative point-of-view, for which characters does he lapse into the limited omniscient, and why? How does he employ point of view to generate sympathy, irony, and suspense in The Mayor of Casterbridge?

23. Your topic, should you choose to sign up for it, is to critique ONE of the following synopses, pointing out its strengths and deficiencies, particularly with respect to plot and character.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is, from beginning to end, the story of Michael Henchard, a skilled farm laborer who, in a drunken rage, sells his young wife, along with their infant child, to a passing sailor. Most of the novel takes place eighteen to twenty years after this event. When the sailor is reported lost at sea, the cast-off wife and now-grown daughter set out to find Michael, who has become an affluent businessman and the mayor of Casterbridge. Michael's success is temporary, though, as circumstances and his own weaknesses of character combine to bring about his downfall in spite of his attempts to right the wrong he committed years before. [E-Notes]


Michael Henchard hides a shameful secret where two decades ago, in a drunken state, he sells his wife (Susan) and daughter (Elizabeth-Jane) to a passing sailor. To repent for his sin, he swears off drinking for 21 years. In that time, he arrives in Casterbridge and succeeds grandly in the corn and hay business. At the height of his esteem, he is Mayor and well-liked in town for his example of personal success through hard work. Soon thereafter, his estranged wife returns and he honors her by remarrying her, though under a guise so as not to reveal his past mistakes and embarrass himself. However, he had been involved with another woman (Lucetta) in a neighboring town to whom he must break his promise in order to be faithful to Susan. Henchard also meets up with Donald Farfrae, a young businessman, to whom he takes an immediate liking. Henchard hires Farfrae, unknowing that this young man will soon usurp all his possessions and titles with a quick twist of Fate. All is well for Henchard until the death of Susan, when a series of coincidences leads to Henchard's ultimate demise. First he learns that Elizabeth-Jane is not really his daughter, causing him to treat her with disdain. Then he learns that Lucetta, who has come to Casterbridge to seek him in marriage, no longer wants to do so, her interests being swept up by Farfrae. Farfrae's growing respect in town leads to his falling out with Henchard, so that Farfrae starts his own business in town, rivaling and eventually driving into bankruptcy Henchard's operations. Henchard continues to spiral downwards when Lucetta and Farfrae marry, Elizabeth-Jane leaves him because of his cold heart, and he falls to drinking after his oath is complete. At the end of his life, Henchard dies alone, having alienated all those with whom he had affections for earlier in life. [Freeboooknotes]


Thomas Hardy's almost supernatural insight into the course of wayward lives, his instinctive feeling for the beauty of the rural landscape, and his power to invest that landscape with moral significance all came together in an utterly fluent way in The Mayor of Casterbridge. A classically shaped story about the rise and fall of the brooding and sometimes brutal Michael Henchard in the harsh world of nineteenth-century rural England, The Mayor of Casterbridge is an emblematic product of Hardy's maturity-vigorous, forceful, and unclouded by illusions. [www.powells.com]


Thomas Hardy's powerful and searching tale of fate, power and the great Victorian myth of "getting on" tells the gripping story of the dynamic and forceful Michael Henchard, a journeyman hay-trusser who through sheer force of will, works his way up, breaking free of a bad marriage and alcoholic despondency to become a prosperous businessman and the Mayor of Casterbridge. Ultimately though, Henchard finds he is unable to escape his past, and driven by his nature, he commits a number of impulsive deeds that will surely bring disastrous results. Michael Henchard's tragedy has been compared to that of Shakespeare's King Lear, and his story stirs us as [Bronte's] Heathcliff, [Melville's] Ahab and [Sophocles'] Oedipus stir us. Henchard has been compared to a proud pinnacle of rock that has within it a fatal geological fault that guarantees its inevitable final collapse. The story illustrates that the pattern which is innate in character must become that character's history: that character is, indeed, fate, but that fate can be lived through and endured.[www.crownedanarchist.com]


Michael Henchard is an out-of-work hay-trusser who gets drunk at a local fair and impulsively sells his wife Susan and baby daughter. Eighteen years later Susan and her daughter seek him out, only to discover that he has become the most prominent man in Casterbridge. Henchard attempts to make amends for his youthful misdeeds, but his unchanged impulsiveness clouds his relationships in love as well as his fortunes in business. Although Henchard is fated to be a modern-day tragic hero, unable to survive in the new commercial world, his story is also a journey towards love. [Oxford University Press]

24. The Mayor of Casterbridge has variously been described as a "Novel of the Soil," a prose fiction tragedy, a romance, a pastoral novel, and even (in its earliest iteration as a serial in The Graphic) a "Sensation Novel." Explore these classifications, determining which one is most appropriate for Hardy's 1886 text.

25. Select one chapter of the novel other than those in the opening "flashback" and the final chapter, and explain its importance in terms of the development of plot and character.

26. Assess the accuracy and effects of the adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge by Frank Cottrell Boyce, The Claim (2000). In order to avoid relying too heavily on the essay on this novel's various incarnations in cinema and on television in Thomas Hardy on Screen (Cambridge U. P., 2005), avoid focusing on the opening of Hardy's novel and Boyce's film adaptation.

27. The following topic refers to Lois Bethe Schoenfeld's Dysfunctional Families in the Wessex Novels of Thomas Hardy (Lantham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, and Oxford: University Press of America, 2005): Although the coming of the railway to Dorset in the late 1840s, with its positive economic and negative social repercussions, has little to do with The Mayor of Casterbridge, which takes place between 1830 and 1845 (in other words, which concludes immediately prior to the arrival of the Railway Age), Schoenfeld's idea that marriage undermines the rural artisan's "financial stability" (133) has immediate relevance to the "stale" (or, as we would say, "dysfunctional") marriage of young adults Michael and Susan Henchard in the opening chapters. Her notion about the antithetical relationship between business and marriage is not so easily applied to the personal and business life of Donald Farfrae, the "other" Mayor of Casterbridge.

To what extent are marriage/family life and business in conflict in Hardy's novel? Why is Farfrae apparently successful in both spheres while Henchard fails in both?

Last modified 7 February 2006