Once science seemed to have erased God -- or at least pushed Him way to the background so that He could no longer be claimed to causing things -- the people of the 19th century (those who weren’t preoccupied by the tasks of raw survival) must have wondered what really explained the success of some and the downfall of others. Seen through the lens of the secular BBC, two works of imagination offer different ideas.
“He Knew He Was Right” is Trollope and appears to almost inscrutably doom a family of prosperous and agreeable people to suffer the rigid stubbornness of what had previously seemed to be a sunny young man of great promise. His obsession with his wife’s godfather, who indeed doesn’t mind making a bit of mischief, and his insistence on his wife’s buckling to his demand that she foreswear the man, never seeing him again, meets her opposite stubbornness, which might have been the quality that they shared and that drew them together in the first place. The victim, of course, is the child, who in this incarnation of the story stoically bears the hauling back and forth between them, a puppet.
The story is almost senseless in its arbitrariness and orneriness until one knows Trollope’s life story. His father, who was no patient angel in the first place, had terrible migraines which he treated with calomel, a form of mercury which gradually poisoned him, dragging him into insanity. As he got sicker, he took more, until he died. Something similar happened to Louisa May Alcott and to Isak Dinesen. What we have here is a case of iatrogenic medicine, in which illness is caused by the supposed cure, but presumably Trollope didn’t know that. Both Trollope’s father and his fictional hero seem to have intractable willpower, which the family and friends try in vain to counter by reasoning. When the afflicted person dies, it is a great relief. The film makes a point of the faithfulness of the wife, right down to the moment of death when she finally buckles to his will, though he can no longer speak so must acknowledge her sacrifice with a kiss to her fingertips resting on his mouth. Better science might have saved this man, though Trollope wouldn't have thought that way.
The other film, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy, is quite different in that the difficult person is not at all ill, but vigorous and resourceful. He is a victim of his temperament -- of his genes, we might say, having read the most recent research. Though Ciaran Hinds, one of my favorite actors, shows convincingly how hard this man struggles against his inner demons -- his need to be “on top,” dominant, in ownership -- he always goes a step too far, triggering disaster. Again the only constant ones are a young woman and a simple oversleeping laborer. (The “least of these,” the simple servants so much admired in Christian homilies.) The young woman’s devoted disposition is explained in part by the appearance of her real father late in the story: he is a constant man but even he let her think he was dead. Otherwise, promises and secrets get thrown out on all sides. Fortunes are made, risked, lost and remade. The plot is a proper labyrinth in which the Mayor snatches defeat from the jaws of success over and over. Demon rum has a part to play.
So here are two major explanations of why some people rise in the world and others sink. Misunderstood illness and genetic in-born temperament afflict and destroy these two heroes, before the theories about such things were even proposed. Rather hidden is the question of Free Will, which is one of the more famous solutions to theodicy, the problem of why bad things happen to good people. (If God kept making everything good and right, we’d just be puppets.) These men seem to be willful, to have traits that they ought to reject because they hurt those around them and ultimately destroy their selves. They have addictions, you might say, but is an addiction the fault of the addict or something that is beyond control, maybe the fault of the situation and maybe not? These are questions that can produce absorbing stories.
The stories here provide contrast, people who rise easily or who rise in the end after enduring many trials. In “He Knew He was Right” there is a little farce about two goofy girls who hope to marry the shallow parson for the sake of the status and presumably a decent living. Then there is the “true love” story which hinges on the vagaries of a unloved and rather unlovable old woman -- finally converted by her niece who genuinely does love her (though no one can think why). Can’t beat that for heartwarming!
Casterbridge is rather different because the town itself begins to participate as though it were a character, in the same way that small Montana towns -- structured by years of families contending against each other or maybe colluding for common goals -- develop a kind of consensus opinion and style. Once people are down, they feel justified in attacking them. (What a joy to see Jean Marsh -- “our Rose” from Upstairs, Downstairs! -- hoking it up as the key to the Mayor’s fate!) Casterbridge is a town where class lines evidently may be crossed -- the hero goes up across all the lines, then falls back to where he was before. Money is the operative force, so that the beautiful woman from elsewhere is nothing when she is poor, but suddenly respectable when she is rich. Yet Elizabeth Jane is quite preoccupied with airs and graces and this is lucky, since much of our affection for her comes from watching her efforts to paint or to write beautifully, working in the pouring light at her corner table. This particular actress, Jodhi May, brims over with tears so easily that one begins to want to give her a good shaking. One feels that her handsome Scot suitor is only considerate of her when it’s to his advantage, and yet she accepts his loss and then his reacquisition -- at least in this movie version -- without complaint or punishment.
What makes the Mayor of Casterbridge so absorbing, so worthy of the talents of Ciaran Hinds, is his struggle against what surely must be a kind of inborn choleric nature that seizes him against his will and better judgment. His love for his genetic daughter is almost pride, then turns to rejection and coldness when he finds the true facts, then responds again to her actual nature, then is repelled from her by his awareness of his sins against her. The bird in the cage is quite truly an indication of his situation. The bird finally dies of starvation -- he does as well.