The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife-Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge
Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel, Alison LaCroix, Martha Nussbaum, eds., Oxford University Press, 2013
22 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2011 Last revised: 1 May 2013
Date Written: March 4, 2011
What kind of man sells his wife? Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge opens with a famous episode in which a poor hay trusser, Michael Henchard, sells his wife, Susan, by impulsively putting her up for auction in a public market. Susan is purchased by a sailor, with whom she departs and subsequently lives as husband and wife. Subtitled “The Life and Death of a Man of Character,” the novel presents itself as a study of the flawed, complex, and ultimately tragic moral character of the man who sold his wife. This essay interprets the novel’s account of the moral consequences of the wife-sale in The Mayor of Casterbridge, by examining the shifting legal and social meanings of the practice in nineteenth century Britain. The novel exploits uncertainty about the legal consequences of wife-selling to generate its moral tragedy.
Keywords: law & literature, gender, moral luck, divorce
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation