In this essay I shall be comparing the characters of Michael Henchard, from the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy, and Okonkwo, from ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. I will compare and contrast the similarities and differences in each man’s character, position in their community and the major challenges they both face as their stories advance. I will also give an account of their weakness and strengths and their response to the changes in their environment.
At the beginning of Chapter 3 in the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’, we discover that Henchard has the leading office of Mayor. Christopher Coney describes Henchard’s position by saying, “He’s the powerfulest member of the town council and quite a principal man in the country round besides… He worked his way up from nothing and now he’s a pillar of the town.”
This very fact tells us a lot about Henchard’s character, that he came to Casterbridge as a simple hay-trusser and managed to build up and maintain a successful business, gain a well-known and trusted reputation and rise to such a powerful position, despite his disreputable past. To do this Henchard would have had to have been determined, extremely hardworking and ambitious to make a better life for himself.
Most of Henchard’s achievement was due to the oath he swore straight after selling his wife while under the influence of alcohol, that he would not drink any more for another 26 years. The fact that he was able to recognise his weakness and take steps to prevent its reoccurrence shows Henchard to have inner strength and an ambition to better himself. However, this also shows that Henchard has a self-accusing soul as he sees it fit to punish himself for the events of the past by swearing the oath in a Church and totally refusing to break it. This reveals Henchard’s unwavering determination that can enable him to do such drastic things.
A sign of how drastically Henchard has reformed is when Susan warned her daughter, “He (Henchard) may be in the workhouse or in the stocks for all we know.” Susan’s presumption of Henchard’s lowly status tells us that even his wife did not think him capable of rising to a dignified position. This shows that Henchard’s reform was quite remarkable for him to have become Mayor.
Although he is not a widely liked character, Henchard is a respected man and is seen as quite fair. Christopher Coney says to Elizabeth-Jane when she enquired about Henchard, “Mr Henchard has never cussed me unfairly ever since I’ve worked for’n.”
However, there are numerous weaknesses to Henchard’s Character. Chapter 3 begins at a stage a time after the peak in Henchard’s career, when the people of Casterbridge are no longer completely satisfied with the way in which Henchard runs things and are beginning to question his judgement and ability to keep things running smoothly.
An example of this is that Henchard had bought grown wheat, resulting in bread that was tough and did not rise. Henchard has come under much criticism for this mistake from both ends of society; Christopher Coney (a peasant) and some of the wealthy men at his dinner party.
Like Okonkwo, Henchard is also prone to impulsive actions especially when under the influence of alcohol during which he sold his wife and child. This is an incident, which he deeply regrets and feels guilty for. Even 20 or so years on, he will not let himself forget this act- his oath is a constant reminder.
Henchard’s impulsive actions, like Okonkwo’s are often violent. However, Henchard’s violence is often verbal, loosing his temper and getting into uncontrollable rages but never resorting to physical violence which is a trait of Okonkwo’s character demonstrated in the beating of his wife and the killing of Ikemefuna.
Although Henchard was once poor himself, he had always been a strong and capable worker and therefore he has a low opinion on people that are less able than him. This is shown when Henchard is preparing to fight with Farfrae and ties one hand behind his back to make the contest fair. His opinion of strength is that it lies in physique and not intelligence, because of this he does not consider Farfrae a worthy advisory. Like Okonkwo, Henchard deals with weak people heavily and without sympathy. This side of Henchard is revealed in the episode where Abel Whittle, who works for him, is trying to explain to an angry Henchard that he has difficulty waking up in the morning, resulting in him being late for work. Henchard ignores his pleas and threatens that if he arrives late again “I’ll mortify thy flesh for thee!”
When Abel still fails to arrive at work on time, Henchard stays true to his word and marches down to Abel’s house, drags him out of bed and sends him to work without allowing him to put on his breeches (trousers). This is a terrible embarrassment for Abel who threatens to kill himself but Henchard’s Character is of that that he cant be seen to loose face in front of his other workers. If he does not take steps to punish Abel publicly then he will loose his authority among them. In this sense too, Henchard is very much like Okonkwo in that he refuses to show weakness or mercy in fear of damaging his reputation. Dominance and assertion are part of Michael Henchard’s style of management.
In the first paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’, we learn a lot about Okonkwo’s status and position in the tribe. ‘Okonkwo was well known throughout the 9 villages and even beyond’ This first sentence tells us that Okonkwo has a reputation.
We then discover that his ‘fame’ was due to his skills as a wrestler in his youth, that he managed to ‘throw Amalinze the Cat’ who had previously been unbeaten for seven years. This tells us that Okonkwo was strong and that he had become famous of his own doing and was a well-respected figure, bringing honour to his tribe for beating such a renowned champion.
Okonkwo’s background is very similar to Henchards in that he has built wealth and a reputation for himself from nothing. This is because Okonkwo’s father, Unoka was lazy and idle and when he died ‘he had taken no title at all and he was heavily in debt’ Therefore, Okonkwo had to work hard, inheriting no financial assistance from his father, to become a success. This he achieved through his wrestling abilities dedicated and determined work and the earning of two titles.
This trait of determination to better his status is seen also in the character of Henchard, although Okonkwo realised from an earlier age that he must work hard in order to achieve success. Even before his father’s death, Okonkwo had started to ‘lay down foundations for a prosperous future’; he carried this out ‘like one possessed’. Unlike Okonkwo, Henchard only started on the path of self-redemption after he had hit rock bottom and sold his wife and child. This terrible acted shocked him enough to realise that he needed to do something drastic to turn his life around. Okonkwo did not need such a shock because he witnessed, through his father, the effects of laziness and was able to plan his future from a young age.
In the book, it describes how people in general saw Okonkwo: ‘although Okonkwo was still young, he was already one of the greatest men of his time. Age was respected among his people bet achievement was revered.’ This shows that Okonkwo is viewed very highly. He was not only respected but also idolised and looked up to despite his lack of years. He was associated with the elders and kings of the clan who must have also respected him because they permitted him to eat with them.
Okonkwo was also renowned for his qualities as a fighter. ‘In Umuofia’s last war he was the first to bring home a human head. This was his fifth head; and he was not yet an old man.’ The Clan respect this side of Okonkwo’s character as he is revealed when he is chosen as a representative of Umuofia to go to Mbaino to prevent the two clans from going to war. The people of Mbaino also respect Okonkwo’s authority and treat him with ‘great honour and respect.’ Thus a war was spared.
However, like Henchard, Okonkwo is not a completely likeable character as he has major weaknesses in his character with are apparent from the very beginning of the book. One of these is that because his father was such a failure, Okonkwo does not want to be seen as possessing any of Unoka’s traits. This includes gentleness and the showing of emotions. Okonkwo will express nether of these things.
An example of this is the way in which Okonkwo treats the boy, Ikemefuna, who is put under the care of Okonkwo on behalf of the clan. Although he has warmed to the boy, Okonkwo never shows that he possesses any particular likeness for him. The book describes Okonkwo’s fondness for Ikemefuna as ‘inward’. It also explains Okonkwo’s reasoning for these actions, ‘To show affection was a sign of weakness. The only thing worth demonstrating is strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everybody else- with a heavy hand’
Also, when told that Ikemefuna must be sacrificed, Okonkwo refuses to reveal his affection towards the boy and even goes as far as to play an active role in the boy’s killing in an effort to demonstrate his strength. His friend, Obierika, strongly protests to Okonkwo’s handling of the situation and says to him: ‘If the Oracle said my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it.’
Another failing Okonkwo has is the way in which he treats other men who are not as successful as him. An instance in which he demonstrates this is at a meeting where Okonkwo was opposed by a man. Okonkwo replied by saying, “This meeting is for men”. The fact that the man had no titles was the reason he had been called a woman. “Okonkwo knew how to kill a mans spirit.” I think the reason for this behaviour is due to Okonkwo’s deep resent and contempt for his father, who’s weakness left him with nothing.
Okonkwo also has, like Henchard, an uncontrollable temper, which leads him to act impulsively and regret his actions later. An example of this is when Okonkwo discovers that his wife has gone to plat her hair, neglecting to make his dinner. Upon her return he thoroughly beats her despite the fact that it is the sacred week of peace. When his other wives remind him of this he does not stop; ‘Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating someone halfway through, not even for fear of a goddess’.
This act also reveals a proud side to Okonkwo, that he was not willing to loose face in front of his other wives by admitting to his mistake, even at the heavy cost of displeasing the goddess, who is very important in Ibo society. This too is a trait seen in Henchard’s personality when he constantly refuses help from Donald Farfrae, even when he has lost everything.
As the story unfolds, Henchard is faced with various challenges that test his strength of character and judgement. His responses to these events reveal additional elements to his character and also explain why his descent from such a high position is so great.
One of these things is the constant rivalry between Henchard and Donald Farfrae, his manager. Because Farfrae is young, he believes in the modernisation of business; Henchard, however, is keen for things to remain as they are and feels threatened by Farfrae’s new ideas and charisma which have attracted the attention of people in Casterbridge. When there is a day of celebration in the town, both men organise their own entertainment. Because of the bad weather, no one turns up to Henchard’s for which he chose an exposed venue and instead most people attend the dance Farfrae has organised. This angers Henchard to such an extent that in a fit of rage and jealousy he discharges Farfrae publicly from his services.
This leads to Farfrae setting up his own independent business, causing Henchard’s anger to greatly increase. When he is informed of Farfrae’s actions ‘his voice might have been heard as far as the town pump expressing his feelings to his fellow councilmen’. Henchard feels deeply betrayed, even though it was his jealous rage that gave Farfrae little option but to set up on his own. From this moment in the book, Henchard despises Farfrae and declares to Elizabeth-Jane ‘he’s an enemy to our house’
However, Farfrae’s rivalry begins to extend further than business when Lucetta, a young woman from Henchard’s past, falls in love with him. Lucetta had moved to Casterbridge after hearing of the death of Henchard’s late wife, in the hope of being reunited with him. Henchard returns these wishes but does not hasten to see Lucetta and when he finally expresses his desires, she turns down his proposal.
Henchard is shocked by her refusal and is convinced that there was a reason for it. ‘there was rivalry by someone he was firmly persuaded’. On discovering that the culprit was Farfrae, Henchard predictably looses his temper and acts impulsively by visiting Lucetta late at night and forcing her to promise herself to him. He does this by saying to her, ‘Unless you give me your promise this very night to be my wife…I’ll reveal our intimacy-in common fairness to other men’. Faced with being exposed Lucetta has no choice and Henchard is temporally triumphant.
However, Lucetta is determined to marry for love and weds to Farfrae in secret. When she later disclosed this to Henchard he vows he will carry out what he had promised and reveal their love affair.
He begins to carry out his threat by arriving at Farfrae’s house and reading him the love letters sent to him by Lucetta. His intention was that he read her name out at the end of the letter and deliver the vital blow, but he could not bring himself to do it. This is because Henchard is a fair man at heart and didn’t believe in attacking in ‘cold blood’. ‘Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him…he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action, but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.’ This shows Henchard has some compassion and mercy for even the people he hates, he will not let himself ruin them in this way because he sees it as too unfair and cruel.
Another reason for his actions is because of his underlying contempt for women, first seen in the way he treats his wife Susan. Henchard believes that woman are weaker and less intelligent than men and therefore considers some of their action fickle and unimportant. An example of this is when Henchard decides to open a letter addressed to him from Susan who specifically requested that it wasn’t to be read until the day of Elizabeth-Jane’s wedding. He does not value her opinion or respect her wishes because he opens it, saying ‘Some trifling fancy or other of poor Susan’s.’ This frame of mind Henchard has towards Susan could extend to other women like Lucetta and could be the reason he decided he could not spoil her happiness- because she was weak, feeble and not worth ruining.
Henchard does, however, try to ruin Farfrae by other means, which he considers fair. His deep hatred of Farfrae and determination to bring him down can be explained in the following paragraph, ‘the sense of occult rivalry in suitorship was so much superadded to the palpable rivalry of their business lives. To the course materiality of that rivalry it added and inflaming soul’. Henchard hated Farfrae as a business rival, but when he became a rival to Henchard in love as well it became a personal hatred and Henchard felt he had a vendetta to fulfil against Farfrae.
Henchard feels the only way in which he can take Farfrae down is in business. He explains his plan to his new manager, Jopp: ‘The Scotchman who is taking the town trade so bold into his hands must be cut out… By fair competition…but as hard keen and unflinching as fair- even more so.’
Henchard planned to force Farfrae out of business by buying large amounts of cheap corn and selling it off at high prices. The success of his plan depended solely on the weather- Henchard believed there would be a bad Harvest while Farfrae believed it would be good and therefor was not buying stores of corn, unlike Henchard.
However the harvest started off with 3 days of excellent weather resulting in the prices of corn dropping drastically. Henchard panicked and sold off his corn with terrible losses, Farfrae still held on. Then the weather broke and the harvest failed, leaving Henchard heavily in debt with no corn to sell. Henchards plan had backfired. If he had held onto the corn his losses would have been minimal, ‘but the momentum of his character knew know patience’.
With so many incidents of bad luck, Henchard has moments when he is convinced that forces are at work against him to punish him. Two occasions when this happens is after discovering Elizabeth-Jane is in fact not his daughter, ‘he could not help thinking that the concatenation of events this evening had produced was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him.’ He also feels this way after the harvest from which he sustained heavy financial losses, and says to himself ‘I wonder if it can be that somebody has been roasting a waxen image of me, or stirring an unholy brew to confound me.’ Yet these incidences have occurred because of Henchard’s impatient and impulsive character, not of supernatural influence. Henchard uses fate as a scapegoat for his misfortunes because it is the only reason he can find for his decent.
Okonkwo too is faced with various challenges in the story, which test his character. One of these incidents that I have already briefly mentioned is the part that Okonkwo played in the killing of Ikemefuna. Okonkwo first learns of the boy’s fate from a very old and well-respected member of the clan who warns him: ‘that boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death.’ By this the man meant that Ikemefuna regarded himself as being Okonkwo’s son. In Ibo society it was considered a great wrong to kill a family member and therefore it would be unwise of Okonkwo to have any part in the sacrifice.
However, Okonkwo takes no notice of this advice, as he does not want to demonstrate affection- a trait he considers weak and womanly and associates with his father. Therefore, when the elders of the clan set off with Ikemefuna, Okonkwo is one of the party. The matchet that was intended to deliver the final blow does not kill Ikemefuna instantly and he runs towards Okonkwo screaming ‘My father, they have killed me.’ Okonkwo barely has time to think and so acts on his instincts and cuts the boy down. His reasoning for this is that ‘He was afraid of being thought weak’.
Okonkwo can also be very thoughtless and demonstrates this when he fails to keep his gun in good condition. The result of this is at the funeral of an important clansman, his 16-year-old son is killed, ‘Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and pierced the boy’s heart.’ The killing of a clan member is regarded as such a terrible sin that Okonkwo has no choice but to leave the clan. It is only in seven years that he will be permitted to return. Okonkwo leaves for his motherland, Mbanta. He does not like the way things are done here because the men are not as willing to show aggression and Okonkwo interprets this as a sign of cowardice.
Okonkwo too, blames outside forces for his bad luck. ‘he saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune in exile and now his despicable son’s behaviour?’ Okonkwo is not willing to admit to himself that it is most likely the faults in his character that have caused the misfortunes. His arrogance and carelessness lead to banishment and his refusal to show any affection or support to his son would explain why Nwoye joined the Christian movement.
Okonkwo knows that the Christians have settled among the clan, causing unrest before he returns because of his friend, Obeirika. However, this knowledge still does not prepare him for the great changes that have taken place. Even though Okonkwo knows that he will have been replaced (‘The clan was like a lizard; if it lost it’s tail it soon grew another.’), he was still ambitious of making up for lost time and re-establishing himself firmly in the community. ‘Okonkwo saw clearly the high esteem in which he would be held, and saw himself taking the highest title in the land.’
The reality was somewhat different. The clan had undergone immense change during Okonkwo’s seven years of exile and when he realises this, ‘Okonkwo was deeply grieved. And it was not just a personal grief. He mourned for the clan which was breaking up and falling apart, and he mourned for the war-like men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women.’ Okonkwo cares deeply about the clan and for-sees it destruction with the arrival of the white missionaries. This shows a new side to Okonkwo, that although he is selfish, he is also concerned about his community as a whole.
Okonkwo therefore sets out to put things right, encouraging his clansmen to resist and retaliate against the Christians. When Enoch- a converted Christian, removes, the mask of an egwugwu, the elders agree that this is unacceptable and burn down the church in protest. The District Commissioner responds by tricking the elders into imprisonment until a fine is paid on their behalf. This is considered in Ibo society to be a savage and inhumane punishment, putting the elders to shame.
Okonkwo refuses to let such treachery go without action being taken and appeals to the clan to fight back. When the messengers of the District Commissioner come to call an end to the meeting, Okonkwo draws his matchet and kills one of them while the other members of the tribe do nothing to help him. ‘He knew Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they had let the other messengers escape… He wiped his matchet on the sand and went away.’
This is the final blow for Okonkwo because everything he believed in and was willing to fight for has gone and this incident had proved to him that he could never make things right and go back to the way they were. Okonkwo, in desperation, kills himself. The circumstances around both Okonkwo’s and Michael Henchard’s deaths tell us what kind of people they were.
Okonkwo hangs himself from a tree in his compound. The act of suicide is considered an abomination in Ibo tradition and by doing this, Okonkwo has committed an offence against the Earth. Okonkwo killed himself partly because of his anger at the tribe, who let him down when he needed them most. This demonstrates his aggression and passion for his beliefs and desperation because he had to resort to death. It is also quite triumphant because by doing this, Okonkwo has escaped being executed by the District Commissioner, who now cannot punish him. In this sense, Okonkwo is goading him.
The death of Henchard is also because of desperation in that he saw death as the only option left to him. However, Henchard’s death is much more selfish as he does it because of self-pity. He dies because he loses the will to live and so slowly deteriorates. This is because he has lost everything of value to him- his wealth, status, daughter, reputation as well as his daughter and Lucetta. Henchard’s will reflects the sorrowful state he was in at the time of his death: ‘& that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.’
However, it is hard not to feel sorry for Henchard and Okonkwo because they both try to do what they consider is right but things never go as they expect. This has a lot to do with their impulsive and aggressive characters but also because of the forces of change in Umuofia and Casterbridge and their failure to adapt with the times. In the end their ruin is due to their strong belief in the superiority of the old ways and how it used to be. Even if they are right, there is little they can do to stop the change that they oppose so strongly.
However, the key difference between the two men is their reaction to this change. Okonkwo keeps fighting it and kills himself in angry defiance of the new ways whereas Henchard gives up all hope and lets himself slowly slip away. Okonkwo’s death will be remembered, Henchard’s will not.