The Role of Festival in The Mayor of Casterbridge
One of the most striking aspects of The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example,
is the role of festival and the characters’ perceptions of, and reactions
to, the festive. The novel opens with Henchard, his wife and baby daughter
arriving at Weydon-Priors fair. It is a scene of festive holiday in which
‘the frivolous contingent of visitors’ snatch a respite from labour after the
business of the fair has been concluded. Here Henchard gets drunk and vents
his bitterness and frustration at being unemployed on his marriage.
Henchard negates the festive and celebratory nature of the fair by his egotism.
What the people perceive as a joke permissable under the rules of topsy-turvy,
the licence of the temporary release from the world of work, Henchard means seriously
and in that act which refuses the spirit of festival he places himself in a
position of antagonism to the workfolk, an antagonism which grows with time.
From this opening the motif of festival shadows the story and mimes the ‘tragic’
history of this solitary individual culminating in the ancient custom of the
skimmington ride. This motif forms a counterpoint to the dominant theme of work
and the novel develops on the basis of a conflict between various images of the
isolated, individualistic, egotistical and private forms of ‘economic man’
(Bakhtin’s term) and the collectivity of the workfolk. The many images of
festivity - the washout of Henchards’ official celebration of a national event,
Farfrae’s ‘opposition randy’, the fete carillonnee which Casterbridge mounts to
receive the Royal Personage, the public dinner presided over by Henchard where
the town worthies drank and ate ‘searching for titbits, and sniffing and grunting
over their plates like sows nuzzling for acorns’, the scenes of revelry in the
Three Mariners and Peter’s Finger - culminate in ‘ the great jocular plot’ of the
skimmington. This ‘uncanny revel’, which like a ‘Daemonic Sabbath’ was accompanied
by ‘the din of cleavers, tongs, tambourines, kits, crouds, humstrums, serpents,
rams’-horns, and other historical kinds of music’ is completely hidden from ‘official’
Casterbridge for when the magistrates roust out the trembling constables, nothing is found:
‘Effigies, donkey, lanterns, band, all had disappeared like the crew of Comus’.
It is the last we hear of the workfolk’s mocking laughter for ironically the very
success of this resurgence of carnival prepares the way for its suppression.
Elizabeth-Jane’s marriage to Farfrae signifies the truimph of the serious,
the organized, the moral, the rational, the final triumph of spirit over
the disorganized, the passionate, the festive, the flesh.
The essence of Elizabeth-Jane’s character is restraint and,
like Farfrae’s, her actions are characterized by their’reasonableness’
and her perception of the world is consistently ‘tragical’. ...