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Writing and Memory in The Mayor of Casterbridge EARL INGERSOLL SUNY College at Brockport WHEN IT APPEARED IN 1886, The Mayor of Casterbridge was Hardy's tenth novel. Albert J. Guerard has called it "the first one of undeniable greatness."1 In writing the preface to a later edition of the novel, Hardy himself indicated his awareness that he had focused more intently upon the tragic fortunes of a single character than elsewhere in his fiction, when he remarked: "The story is more particularly a study of one man's deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my Exhibition of Wessex life."2 Central to Hardy's "study" is the strangely ambivalent relationship between Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae. Traditionally that relationship has been seen as Hardy's reading of the Biblical story of Saul and David in which the younger man charms the older out of his dark mood and into a paternal love which is replaced by resentment and hatred.3 Certainly there is much to support the intertextuality: the swarthy Henchard attracted to the younger, "ruddy" (a modifier also used to describe the Biblical David) Farfrae whom he at first looks upon as a son and later turns against with murderous passion. The Biblical pre-text is even made explicit at one point when Henchard is compared to Saul.4 However, it is in another sense of that father-son relationship that the conflict between the two men may be more clearly viewed. Henchard and Farfrae's conflict reveals two diametrically opposed structures of experience, involving issues of knowing and memory as they relate to the difference between speaking and writing outlined by Jacques Derrida in Dissemination.5 Since Derrida's name is one of those runes with which so many have conjured in our time, let me hasten to add that Hardy's text, not Derrida's, will be the focus here. Interesting though theorizing about the implications of deconstruction may be, this discussion restricts itself to applying Derrida's remarks in Dissemination to Hardy's novel, especially as those remarks allow us to explore 299 ELT: Volume 33:3, 1990 the threat to "memory" resulting from the introduction of "writing" as a "supplement" to/replacement for "speaking." The early chapters of the novel function as a "prologue" to the tragic narrative which follows. In the "prologue" Henchard establishes his own mode of operating. He is a "speaker." The joke of "selling" his wife and daughter becomes his oral "contract" with Newson, when Susan misreads the two men's words as "erasing" Henchard's and her marriage vows. The spoken bargain with Newson produces another—Henchard's oath to foreswear the use of alcohol, not forever but for twenty-one years, another lifetime. In the scene which sets this tragic narrative in motion eighteen years later, Henchard is once again a speaker, but now as a leader of the community. If the setting were ancient Greece, Casterbridge might be a city-state like Thebes. The parallel is not far-fetched, since Henchard's responsibility for their well-being has been put to the test by members of the community who have asked him to remedy an "ailment" in the community: the "grown" or partially sprouted wheat Henchard sold to the community cannot be ground into wholesome flour for the "staff of life." Admittedly the problem Henchard faces is nothing like the plague which brought suppliants to the door of Oedipus's palace, but public confidence in Henchard's authority is in jeopardy. And, we suspect, that problem of eroding confidence has called into question the transformation which empowered Henchard's rise, in much the same way the plague caused Oedipus to doubt his success. Finding a remedy for grown wheat would require a magician, Henchard implies, because the remedy would have to violate nature's processes. He responds to his detractors, characteristically, with an oath, which is also part riddle: "If anybody will tell me how to turn grown wheat into wholesome wheat I'll take it back with pleasure."6 Farfrae's chance appearance at the very moment Henchard poses this riddle is as "fortuitous" as the arrival of Oedipus at...


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pp. 299-309
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Will Be Archived 2021
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