An Essay on Modernism vs. Traditionalism in The Mayor of Casterbridge
During the first half of the 19th century English society was making the difficult transition from a pre-industrial Britain to ‘modern' Victorian times. In agriculture, most of the transition took place around 1846 with the repeal of the corn laws. This allowed foreign grain to be imported into England for the first time. Consequently, the entire structure and methods of agriculture in Britain were greatly altered. Much of the action in Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge takes place during the years surrounding 1846. These were the years in which traditionalists took their last stand before being defeated in the name of progress. The contrasts between Henchard, a man relying on the traditional way of life and Farfrae, a man intrigued by modern ideas, illustrate the inevitability that progress and modernization will overcome tradition.
The conflict of tradition versus modernization is shown through Henchard and Farfrae's contrasting approaches to business, their contrasting attitudes toward modernization and their changing roles in Casterbridge society. The contrast between Henchard and Farfrae's business attitudes demonstrates the conflict between the traditional and modern approaches to business.
Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae take very different approaches to bookkeeping and managing the employees of Henchard's Business. Henchard is a man who has an old-fashioned attitude toward business; he is unable to write properly and as a result his financial records are poorly kept and unorganized. The majority of his business records are kept in his head. Farfrae, however, is a young man who approaches business with a modern attitude. Farfrae keeps the business account books in perfect order: not hesitating to work late doing it. A light shone from the office window, and there being no blind to screen the interior Henchard could see Donald Farfrae still seated where he had left him, initiating himself into the managerial work of the house by overhauling the books. Henchard entered, merely observing, ‘Don't let me interrupt you, if ye will stay so late.' He stood behind Farfrae's chair, watching his dexterity in clearing up the numerical fogs which had been allowed to grow so thick in Henchard's books as almost to baffle even the Scotchman's perspicacity. The corn-factor's mien was half admiring, and yet it was not without a dash of pity for the taste of anyone who could care to give his mind to such finicky details. Henchard himself was mentally and physically unfit for grabbing subtleties from solid paper; he had in a modern sense received the education of Achilles, and found penmanship a tantalizing art. (p.72, The Mayor of Casterbridge)
The conflicts between modern and traditional approaches to business are demonstrated through the contrasting business ethics of Henchard and Farfrae. Henchard, being an older man, is not as skilled at penmanship or mathematics...