(Critical Analysis: Narrative Function, Character)

Function of the rustics 1:  Presentation of an alternative Victorian Moral Code

The rustics are part of a corrupt society which has inverted values to the norm – Buzzford is used to present the historic aspect of Casterbridge as ‘a hoary place o’ wickedness’, when he links it with Monmouth’s rebellion and  hangings (59).  In fact, as many as 282 people were hanged in 1682 by Judge Jefferies’ Bloody Assize.  Hardy also provides a further brutal backdrop to the town in his mention of bull-baiting, to make the meat tender, and reference to the stocks (220).   Onlookers are derogatively referred to simply as idlers:  the omniscient third person narrator shows them outside The King’s Arms; Lucetta wonders why idles are congregating round the Town Hall; two rustics, Mother Cuxsom and Nance Mockridge, idly ‘lounge at the foot of the town’(293) before they make their way to Mixen Lane.  However, they also function as a chorus (see sections 3 & 4 below), commenting on the the events.   In Mixen Lane, itself, ‘vice ran freely (293-301) and whores are ironically described as having ‘honest’ eyes (295).  The ironic humour continues when Nance Mockridge, is morally outraged by the letters, which Jopp has the pleasure of reading out aloud in St Peter’s Finger (chapter XXXVI).   She is scandalised, saying: ‘Tis a humbling thing for us, as respectable women’ (298).  The furmity -woman, none-too-generously presented as a ‘hag’ (24) by the third person narrator, in no less of a humorous a moment, phlegmatically comments on Lucetta’s social faux pas for not thanking her for having been saved from ‘a real bad marriage’ (298).

Lucetta had metaphorically ‘hoped to keep [the letters] buried’ (298); the pennies that had been placed on Susan’s eyes were, by contrast, literally dug up by Coney; he is unfazed by the impropriety of doing so, saying, ‘Why should death rob life o’ fourpence?’; he acknowledges that ‘the best o’ us hardly honest sometimes’ (60) but justifies this by referring to the poverty and fragility (‘bruckle’) of the underclass ‘with so many mouths to feed and…little taties so terrible small’ (60).  Ironically, he does not spend the money on food but at The Three Mariners (137) and Solomon Longways supports him by pragmatically commenting that ‘throats get dry’!  Coney shows disrespect not only for Susan’s wishes but also, humorously, for Death personified: ‘”Why should death rob life o’ fourpence?  Death’s not of such good report that we should respect ‘en to that extent.”‘ (137).  Not all rustics are of one voice: Mother Cuxsom disapproves of Coney digging up the pennies, which Martha had buried, as do all her listeners, regarding it as a primitive ‘cannibal deed’ and she delivers the eulogy of Susan (137) as being a ‘thoughtful woman’ in contrast to Coney’s view of her (see Section 3 below). 

Jopp is a more sinister figure among the ‘denizens’ of Mixen Lane.  He attempts to blackmail Lucetta about her morally dubious life in Jersey (291).    

Function of the rustics 2:  Instruments of Revenge 

After being dismissed, Jopp vows ominously, ‘You’ll be sorry for this sir; sorry as a man can be.’; he is later able to tell Henchard that not only are Farfrae and Lucetta in his house (259) but also that they have secretly bought his furniture.   The furmity-woman’s revenge, for being in court yet again, takes place when she is in the dock before Henchard.  Having informed his fellow magistrate about the wife sale at Weydon Priors, she declares that Henchard cannot sit in judgement upon her because he is ‘no better than I.’ (232)  Her logic may not be sound (because one should, after all, be judged by one’s peers!) but she certainly has the moral imperative and her victory is complete.

Nance Mockridge suggests the the Skimmity-ride (298), which, as well as being a vehicle for moral retribution, shows the degree of revenge exacted on the more elevated members of society.  Mother Cuxsom is intrigued by the love letters and genuinely wants to ‘hear ‘em’ (298), whilst the landlady of St Peter’s Finger ironically ‘don’t encourage it’ because she is ‘a respectable householder’ (300).  This is despite the fact that public house is the meeting place for poachers, ‘persecuted without cause’ (298), who even have ‘the bridge’ lowered for them to cross the stream at the end of the garden.  She finally accedes to ‘naturalness’ with the declarations that ‘the skimmington … is the funniest thing under the sun.’ (300) and ‘a good laugh warms my heart more than a cordial’ (301).  The ruthlessness of the skimmity-ride is, however, displayed in Nance Mockridge’s vengeful metaphor: ‘I do like to see the trimming pulled off such Christmas candles’ (308) and its effect on Lucetta.

Also, look at the attitudes of Coney, Buzzford and Longways in chapter XXXVII when they are discussing it.  Hardy softens this vindictiveness (or exaction of moral justice, depending on your view) by later humorously describing how all the skimmity’s paraphernalia suddenly disappears like ‘crew of the Comus’, who abandoned their sinking ship (324)

Functions of the Rustics 3: a commentary on the activities of ‘their betters’

Coney’s ‘daze me if I ever see a man wait so long before to take so little’ is a severe and humorous comment on Henchard’s remarriage to Susan (96).  Indeed, in addition to this criticism of Henchard’s lack of judgement, Hardy also uses Coney to satirise over-precious sensibilities when he digs up the four pennies placed on the eyes of Susan’s corpse.  As for the Henchard’s right to be in an elevated position, Mrs Cuxsom declares emphatically: ‘ I’ll lay my life I’m as respectable born as she.’ (96) and Nance Mockridge is given prophetic words on Michael Henchard’s sinister ‘bluebeardy look about ‘en’ which ‘twill out in time’. (97)

Functions of the Rustics 4: The Chorus

The rustics fulfil the role of the chorus: they are the common people, who speak dialect and use colloquial expressions; they criticise and have a sense of humour, irony and cynicism; they are a comic ironic counter to the main events upon which they give information and commentaries.  They are described with sentimental affection e.g. as ‘idlers’ and are a colourful social comedy, although there are occasional glimpses of harsh reality.

Further reading:

See my page on rural life


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