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 and as a result his bookkeeping skills represent an older and more traditional method of maintaining business accounts. Farfrae, being from a younger generation approaches business in a more modern way. He keeps the financial records as accurate and as up to date as possible, making sure to go through old records and correct any mistakes that Henchard had made previously. Henchard’s methods of business represent skills that are no longer in continual use.

Farfrae is an example of how the advance of technology causes the loss of traditional, and valuable skills. In the same way, the conflict between traditional and modern approaches to business is demonstrated through Henchard and Farfrae’s contrasting perspectives on how to manage employees. Henchard, the traditionalist, takes a stern approach when reprimanding employees, instilling respect into his employees through fear. Henchard punishes an employee for his tardiness. I don’t want to hear it! ‘ roared Henchard. Tomorrow the wagons must start at four, and if you are not there, stand clear.

I will mortify thy flesh for thee! ‘ But let me clear up my points, your worshipful-‘ Henchard turned away. He asked me, and he questioned me, and then ‘a wouldn’t hear my points! ‘ said Abel, to the yard in general. Now, I shall twitch like a moment-hand all night long to-night for fear o’ him! ‘ (p. 94-95). A traditional form of respect for their employers found Henchard’s employees fearing him as illustrated though Abel Whittle’s reaction to Henchard’s reprimand. Farfrae however, took a more modern approach by instilling respect in Whittle out of justice.

Abel was in the wrong to sleep in. However, Henchard was in the wrong to force the man to go to work without his breeches. I don’t care what Mr. Henchard said, nor anybody else! Tis simple foolishness to do this. Go and dress yourself instantly, Whittle [said Farfrae] Farfrae resolved the issue efficiently and with justice which is illustrative of his modern attitude toward an employee reprimand. The contrasting views on business ethics held by Henchard and Farfrae are illustrative of the contrasts between tradition and modernization.

Similarly, the contrasting attitudes that Henchard and Farfrae take toward modernization and new developments help to illustrate the conflict of tradition versus modernism in Casterbridge society. As a result of technological progress, a new machine had been developed and introduced to the town of Casterbridge. It was the new-fashioned agricultural implement called a horse drill, till then unknown in its modern shape in this part of the country, where the venerable seed-lip was still used for sowing as in the days of the Heptarchy.

Its arrival created about as much sensation in the corn market as a flying machine would create at Charing Cross (p. 163). Henchard as the old-fashioned traditionalist ridicules the new machine, claiming that … ’tis impossible to act! (P. 164) while attempting to explain the contraption, … and still more forcibly to ridicule it (p. 164) Henchard’s views are distinctly different from those expressed by Farfrae who accurately predicted that the machine would greatly change agriculture during the Victorian era. Stupid? O no! said Farfrae gravely. It will revolutionize sowing hereabout!

No more sowers flinging their seed without broadcasting, so that some falls by the wayside and some among thorns, and all that. Each grain will go straight to its intended place and nowhere else whatever! (P. 165) This conflict of opinion toward the advance of technology is representative of the conflict between tradition and the progression on modernism. The horse drill is a more scientific method of sowing seed; there is less waste and less manual labor involved. Modernism and the advance of technology, like the horse drill, will replace the traditional use of manual labor for all agricultural activities.

Inevitably, a modern and progressing Britain, allowing for greater advancements in the future will overcome the traditional Britain. Representative of the progression of modernization over tradition is the role change in which the character’s Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae undergo. Just as modernization overcomes tradition, Farfrae overcomes Henchard. This is illustrated through the role changes observed between Farfrae and Henchard regarding their stature in Casterbridge society. Farfrae, representing modernism, takes over the corn business of Henchard, the traditionalist.

Under Henchard’s guidance, the corn business ran with difficulty. The flour was bad, and as a result the town ate bad bread. And how does it happen there is no good bread? ‘ asked Mrs. Henchard. Oh, tis the cornfactor-he’s the man that our millers and bakers all deal wi’, and he has sold em growed wheat, which they didn’t know was growed, so they say, till the dough ran all over the ovens like quicksilver, so that the loaves be as flat as toads, and like suet pudden inside. I’ve been a wife, and I’ve been a mother, and I never see much unprincipled bread in Casterbridge like this before. (p. 28) Thus, under traditional and old-fashioned management, the corn business did not do very well. Customers were unsatisfied, and the town suffered nutritionally. Under modern management however, the corn business prospered. Meanwhile, the great corn and hay traffic conducted by Henchard throve under the management of Donald Farfrae as it had never thriven before. It had formerly moved in jolts; now it went on oiled castors. The old crude viva voce system of Henchard, in which everything depended upon his memory, and bargains were made by tongue alone, were swept away.

Letters and legers took the place of I’ll do’t, and you shall hae’t; and, as in all such cases of advance, the rugged picturesqueness of the old method disappeared with its inconveniences. (p. 86) Farfrae demonstrates that modern ways are more effective than the traditional ways that Henchard uses and as a result, Farfrae is the person to take over Henchard’s corn business. Under Farfrae’s guidance the corn business thrives and all that are involved, from the management to the villagers, benefit from the success of modernism.

Likewise, the status of Henchard and Farfrae are illustrative of how modernism progresses over tradition. At one time tradition was very popular; similarly, Michael Henchard was also once very popular. Henchard was the Mayor of Casterbridge and the owner of an important business in the chair of dignity, sat a man about forty years of age; of heavy frame, large features and commanding voice’ He was dressed in an old-fashioned evening suit, an expanse of frilled shirt showing on his broad chest; jeweled studs, and a heavy gold chain (p. 0). Henchard’s dress represents traditionalism. However, it is inevitable that modernism will overcome tradition and so Farfrae changes roles with Henchard. Henchard is no longer the popular man in town and is seen as outdated. Henchard, who had hitherto been the most admired man in his circle, was the most admired no longer (p. 97) Farfrae’s role change with Henchard finds him with the new status of Mayor of Casterbridge.

On the very evening which followed there was a great ringing of bells in Casterbridge, and the combined brass, wood, catgut and leather bands played around the town with more prodigality of percussion notes than ever before. Farfrae was Mayor-the two-hundredth of a series forming an elective dynasty dating back to the days of Charles I… (P. 237/238) Farfrae’s position as Mayor is representative of modernization being welcomed into Casterbridge. Tradition has been replaced by the progression of modernism and those that try to hold on and maintain the traditional ways, like Henchard, can only fall behind and be forgotten.

Both Henchard and Farfrae are representational of how modernization progresses over tradition and how the advance of technology makes us lose the traditional skills we once treasured. Henchard builds his whole life on such values and methods only to be left behind when Farfrae and his modern methods are accepted in Casterbridge. Just as England went through the change in agriculture due to industrialization, Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge society saw modernism progress over tradition; an inevitable change that will continue to happen until we run out of things to learn.


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