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Subversion and SympathyGender, Law, and the British Novel$
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Martha C. Nussbaum and Alison L. LaCroix

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199812042

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199812042.001.0001

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The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge

(p.26) (p.27) 1 The Moral and Legal Consequences of Wife Selling in The Mayor of Casterbridge
Subversion and Sympathy

Julie C. Suk

Oxford University Press

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 they subsequently live as husband and wife. Subtitled “The Life and Death of a Man of Character,” the novel explores the flawed moral character of the man who sold his wife. This chapter 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. Wife selling was a rare but recognized practice by which poor rural people got divorced by mutual consent, particularly before the marriage laws were reformed to make divorce more accessible in 1857. As a mode of popular divorce, it was regarded by the lower-class people who practiced it as a ritual of legitimating the end of a marriage in the eyes of the public, whereas the middle and upper classes viewed it as morally offensive and criminally punishable. The chapter shows how the novel, read against the background of this socio-legal landscape, exploits the uncertainties about the legal consequences of wife sale, as well as disagreements about its morality, to dramatize the tragic nature of the protagonist's character. In this way the legal context illuminates Henchard's tragedy, while the tragedy at the same time gives insight into the nature of legal arrangements for people who live outside the world of privilege that is the focus of many legal histories.

Keywords:   Thomas Hardy, British novel, moral character, wife sale, poor rural people, divorce, morality, legal history

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