(Critical Analysis: Character and Function)

Elizabeth-Jane is often given a role of second privileged narrative consciousness in The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Through her passive role as onlooker, she is soon trusted by the reader.  She represents the reader in scenes where her presence is otherwise not required and may sit ‘invisible in the room’ (175/200).  She comments judiciously in her various roles: Henchard’s step-daughter, Lucetta’s friend, object of Farfrae’s attentions.  She is described as ‘the reflective Elizabeth’ (196) and she is taken possession by a ‘seer’s spirit’ (196). As observer, she looks through the windows of the Kings Arms, notices the grotesque back-entrance, and even notes how the lovers probably part ‘with frigidity in their general contour and movements, only in the smaller features showing the spark of passion, thus invisible to all but themselves.’ (172/196).

The Lady of Shallot Syndrome:

Elizabeth-Jane commands a view in both Henchard’s house (90/103) and High-Place Hall. She sees ‘Henchard lay his hand familiarly on his manager’s shoulder’ (90/103) and ‘her quiet eye discerns…’ (90/104).  She and Lucetta see the collision of wagons, the hiring fair and the skimmity ride – all of which forward the plot and also reveal the nature of this society.  Readers might link the tableau vivant with the Henchard’s ‘painted picture’.  Note the exterior world of male energy and the withdrawn, female, inner space – the two women so enjoy the ‘spectacular dramas’ that ‘in an emotional sense they did not live at all during the intervals’ (166/190).  When looking in the mirror, she is aware of the difference between the inner self and the public image . (Note the recurring theme of women looking into mirrors in Victorian art).

She has an ‘inner chamber of ideas’ (96/109), which leads to ‘slight need for visible objects’.  After Susan’s death, her inner life is sensitively described when she asks herself ‘why things around her had taken the shape they wore in preference to every other possible shape’ (119/135) against the backdrop and symbolism of the competing clocks (own inner life versus repressive regime – her heart beats ‘frantically against the clock on the stairs’ 135) which depict an existential crisis.  ‘She had learnt the lesson of renunciation’ and is ‘thus familiar with the wreck of each day’s wishes’ (179/205).  She adjusts with maturity and stoicism.  Readerly sympathy for Henchard, in the closing stages of the novel, rests on his new-found love for Elizabeth-Jane and her reciprocation.  She, herself represents a nostalgic desire to return to the secure, domestic frame.

Elizabeth-Jane has a mind ‘struggling for enlargement’ (28/28) and becomes literate through her own efforts.  She begins to blossom in the Mayor’s house – ‘with peace of mind came development, and with development beauty’ (87/99).  Later, she accepts books from Farfrae (352).

Elizabeth-Jane’s ‘the persistence of the unforeseen’ (386) links with ‘Till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent’ (13) after the sale.  Her comment echoes Hardy’s view of life as perpetual change and places the final weight of the novel upon the contrariness of existence rather than the experience of death.  The wheel ventilator and wheel of fate both operate intermittently (51/58).

Marjorie Garson writes: ‘Elizabeth-Jane’s sense of propriety kills Henchard, but she is ‘rehabilitated in the last pages to generate its philosophical ending’.  Her prim sense of moderation appears to be condoned by the narrator and Hardy’s tragic design requires her to deny the father as tragic hero in favour of the father as progenitor.


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