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ELT: Volume 33:4 1990 on the sports pages of U. S. A. Today but cannot read another page in it anywhere. Richard Hauer Costa Texas A & M University Mayor of Casterbridge Harold Bloom, ed. Thomas Hardy's 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. vii + 140 pp. $19.95 AS READERS of ELT know, Chelsea House's Modern Critical Interpretations series—151 volumes to date, all edited by Harold Bloom—ambitiously attempts to gather "a comprehensive collection of the best current criticism of the most widely read poems, novels, stories, and dramas of the Western World" (flyleaf). In the case of the volume on Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, this daunting aim is indeed partially fulfilled: some of its essays do indeed represent some of the best criticism written on the novel since 1971. However, important essays are excluded from the volume, and Bloom's own polemical introduction expresses a somewhat romantic and one-sided interpretation of both Mayor and its author. Bloom interprets Hardy in Oedipal terms familiar to any reader of The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom's well-known study of relationships among male writers. Typically, this attempt to construct an author's "true" literary genealogy involves foregrounding some influences while minimizing or excluding others. Thus, although Hardy is recognized by Bloom as one of Schopenhauer's nineteenth-century heirs, he finds Shelley to be Hardy's "true precursor," just as D. H. Lawrence is then posited to be his "heir." It is "Shelley's tragic sense of eros," Bloom confidently asserts, that "ultimately determines Hardy's understanding of his strongest heroines." Intriguingly, it is in the context of these observations about Hardy's heroines that Bloom arrives at his conception of Michael Henchard as a tragic hero who, "more even than most men and like all women in Hardy, is hungry for love." Having implicitly raised the issue of gender, however, Bloom then drops it altogether in order to celebrate Mayor as "a more persuasive and universal vision than Hardy achieved elsewhere" because, he suggests, Henchard typifies Freud's description of moral masochism. Rejecting J. Hillis Miller's reading of Henchard as a character "governed erotically by mediated desire" because such an interpretation "loses any particular force" by expressing a more general "iron law" governing Hardy's entire "erotic universe," Bloom goes on to establish his own 522 Book Reviews "iron law" about Henchard as a "universal"—that is to say, typically Freudian and male—human figure. This is not to suggest that all of the essays in the collection duplicate Bloom's interpretation (though those by Bert G. Hornback, Ian Gregor, George Levine, and Bruce Johnson certainly support it). The different reading that each essay gives to the notorious wife sale serves, indeed, as evidence of the volume's range and as a kind of Rorschach test for determining each critic's approach. For Hornback, who tritely equates Henchard's experience with "the unchanging and timeless fate of man," the scene is "the emblem of the fatal transcendence of time" in the novel. For Gregor, who sees the "major preoccupation " of Mayor as "the centrality of work in finding fulfilment," the sale reveals Henchard's "sense that life has possibilities which have been denied him"; in order to privilege this reading over others, Gregor insists that the scene should not invite too much emphasis on "the act of selling itself, the reduction of a person to a commodity." For Elaine Showalter, however, whose feminist interpretation reads Henchard as a man whose tragedy is grounded in the suppression of his "feminine self," the wife sale is precisely the "analysis of female subjugation as a function of capitalism" that Gregor rejects. Showalter, who presents the most interesting and astute reading of the scene, concentrates on the sale not only of Henchard's wife but also of his daughter—an act, she suggests, that "effectively sever[s] all his bonds with the community of women." Levine, like Gregor, links the auction scene chiefly with Henchard's personal sense of frustration and suggests that the "whole sequence confronts directly the problem of inventing satisfying ways to cope with the limiting pressures of the realist's contingent world...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 522-524
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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