In the novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy, the main character Michael Henchard earns the contempt of many readers due to his strict, arrogant and sometimes cruel and callous nature. But is it right to hold this against him? Does he really deserve all he got? Or should we perhaps feel some sympathy towards him? After all, the disastrous incidents he endures in this book are surely not worthy of anyone, simply due to the fact they may have a negative attitude at times?
In some ways, Henchard could be thought of as a ‘well-meaning villain,’ one who has no principal morals but no particular desire to be heartless or hurtful either. There are some incidents in the story that would suggest a villainous side to Henchard, especially at the beginning and in the closing stages of the book, where his alcoholism gets the better of him and he becomes hotheaded and violent. Instances such as the sale of his wife Susan and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane to Richard Newson, a complete stranger, at Weydon-Priors Fair, and his drink-inspired fight with Donald Farfrae – who was once his friend – in the granary convey this idea.
However, Henchard also has many negative features that are simply part of his personality, which he finds difficult to curb even when he is sober. He is naturally quick to form opinions and agree or object to things, leading to some rash decisions such as the hiring then firing of Farfrae, and the prevention of his courtship with Elizabeth-Jane. A little more thought, consideration and tolerance on Henchard’s part could have led to a flourishing relationship with the Scotsman, as both a co-worker and a friend.
Other faults in Henchard’s temperament include his egotism, a touch of vindictiveness, jealousy, and low self-esteem at times. His arrogance, along with his bad temper, is displayed at times; Abel Whittle, for example, who is consistently late for work is made to go to work wearing nothing but his underwear. Force is used against Lucetta Templeman, Henchard’s former fiancï¿½e to try to make her marry him, and Elizabeth-Jane is scolded for using what he deems to be ‘inappropriate’ language: “I won’t have you talk like that! One would think you worked upon a farm! I’m burned, if it goes on, this house can’t hold us two.”
Henchard can be spiteful – his vindictiveness is shown after Farfrae’s marriage to Lucetta, when he reads the former letters the latter wrote him while he was courting her. He displays jealousy towards Farfrae at times when he seems to be overruling him; taking away his daughter and his girlfriend and attempting to make decisions against his own, like the afore mentioned time when Whittle is late one time too many:
(Henchard) “Hullo, hullo! Who’s sending him (Whittle) back?
(Farfrae) “I am. I say this joke has been carried far enough.
“And I say it hasn’t! Get up in the wagon, Whittle.
“Not if I am manager. He either goes home, or I march out of this yard for good.”
Having suffering other similar instances also, Henchard consequently dismisses Farfrae, leading to the set-up of Farfrae’s own business.
Henchard’s low self-esteem is displayed from time to time; when he feels particularly miserable, everyone from Elizabeth-Jane to Abel Whittle is told how worthless he is: “What, Whittle, and can ye really be such a poor fond fool as to care for such a wretch as I!” His will, too, clearly shows his negative state of mind, requesting in it only to be remembered by nobody.
There are a small number of instances in which Henchard is dishonest, the most significant of these being his inconsiderate blatant lie to Richard Newson when, against all odds, he returns to claim his daughter:
“My Elizabeth-Jane. Where is she?”
“Dead likewise. Surely you heard that as well?”
I find this unpardonably selfish and harsh on Newson and is, in my opinion, one of Henchard’s greatest sins.
Many readers would argue that the above points prove any ill-fated occurrences happening to Henchard are self-inflicted, and he subsequently deserves all he receives.
However, others might feel sympathetic enough towards Henchard to look past these unfortunate traits and try to understand what has provoked him to act in such ways. He has many good characteristics also, and a status of ‘Tragic Hero’ could perhaps be appointed to him – a man with high principles who tries his hardest but has an unfortunate flaw which may undo all his hard work.
Henchard is predominantly an honest man, who usually tells the truth and is brave enough to be able to admit his mistakes. When sitting in court, for example, during the trial of the furmity woman who was present at his sale of Susan, he could easily have heard her accusations about his past and denied them all- after all, no one else in Casterbridge could have known anything about his youth. But he told the witnesses: “‘Tis true. ‘Tis as true as the light,” showing his courage and dignity. Towards the end of the book, when Elizabeth-Jane’s real father has returned once and for all, Henchard promises her that she will never be bothered by him again: “I’ll never trouble ‘ee again, Elizabeth-Jane – no, not to my dying day!” He sticks to this promise – it is proven in his will, in which the first line states: “That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, and be made to grieve on account of me.”
More often than not, Henchard will regret his actions, and will be determined enough to go to great lengths to repair damage done. Even at the start of the book, where he is in no great position of honour, the morning after the sale of his wife he realises what he has done and goes straight about trying to find her – and swearing an oath, by the Bible, to stop drinking in the immediate future: ” I, Michael Henchard…. do take an oath before God…that I will avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty-one years to come…”
We are not told what exactly Henchard goes through in the 19-year gap in the story – the time between his selling of his family and their return after Newson’s supposed death – but it would seem that although he has been unsuccessful in his quest to find his wife he has managed to keep to his vow: “They don’t fill Mr Henchard’s wine glasses…. he sware a gospel oath in bygone times and has bode by it ever since.” Of course, it is not possible for Susan to have heard about this in her absence, but on her return when she sees what he has become she is obviously more than impressed, even in awe of Henchard: “I don’t think I can meet Mr Henchard. He is not what I thought he would be – he overpowers me!”
Presumably, Henchard will have worked extremely hard to have turned his life around from about the lowest possible position he could be in to the highest likewise. Even when Farfrae takes over his status of Mayor, Henchard takes on the position offered to him of hay-trusser: “Having nothing to do made him (Henchard) more dreary than any other circumstance; and one day, with better views of Farfrae than he had held for some time, and a sense that honest work was nothing to be ashamed of, he stoically went down to Farfrae’s yard and asked to be taken on as a journeyman hay-trusser.” This proves that he is a hard-worker, and can swallow his pride.
And even though he fails in his quest to find Susan and Elizabeth-Jane, he still takes them in 19 years later, providing them with a cottage before re-marrying Susan, (giving up his fiancï¿½e to do so) an act of a noble man of generosity and honour. Another example of his generosity is during the winter, when he provides poor Abel Whittle’s mother with food and a warm place to stay.
These good points might cancel out the bad ones, but in order to install the ‘Tragic Hero’ status Henchard’s negative aspects must be looked at and accounted for. Of course the sale of members of your own family is an unforgivable sin – but the circumstances must be taken into consideration. Henchard was drunk, extremely drunk, so arguably it was the alcohol talking and not he. Possibly, the incident was even beneficial to everyone concerned – Susan and Elizabeth-Jane were able to start new, perhaps improved lives with Newson; Henchard was left to start afresh also. If this tragic event had not occurred, Henchard may never have seen the error of his ways and would never have given up drinking, therefore never prospering and by no means becoming Mayor.
The same applies at the end of the book, when his 21-year-long oath is finally up and he engages in what is obviously a drink-fuelled fight in the granary with Farfrae. Much as Henchard had appeared to loathe Farfrae, he had always had enough respect for him never to consider doing such a thing whilst sober. Although again I am by no means implying it was right for him to attempt to murder Farfrae, he was noble enough to recognise that his strength was far superior to Farfrae’s and handicapped himself so as to give Farfrae a fair chance of winning. Anyhow, at the end of the fight when he realised what he was doing, he regretted it yet again and could not finish him off:
“Your life is in my hands.”
“Then take it, take it! Ye’ve wished to long enough!”
“O Farfrae – that’s not true! God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time… And now – though I came here to kill ‘ee, I cannot hurt thee!”
Even when drunk and in a position like that illustrated above, Henchard’s tender side shines through. Later that same evening, when Lucetta falls gravely ill, he chases after Farfrae to tell him of his wife’s peril, though inevitably Farfrae does not believe him. Henchard follows him still, and here I sympathise with Henchard despite what he has just attempted to do.
Henchard’s arrogance, self-pity, jealousy and vindictiveness are displayed at times when these feelings are natural human emotions – of course he is going to feel jealousy towards a man who has taken everything from his girlfriend to his position in the town! He will naturally want to hurt the feelings of someone like that, but yet as Henchard patronisingly reads Farfrae his love letters from Lucetta, he cannot manage to read the signature out loud. He is just not able to torment Farfrae, however much he wants to – his dignity prevents him from doing this.
His haughtiness towards Lucetta is natural also – he is only attempting to carry out a promise he made to marry her, so obviously he will be frustrated at her sudden and unexplained change of heart. After all, she had moved to Casterbridge with the intention of doing exactly as Henchard had proposed. As for his arrogance towards Abel Whittle, I would be inclined to describe this as discipline, rather; the boy is, after all, late for work every single day.
And, of course, anyone would suffer low self-esteem had they been demoted from the high position or Mayor to a simple hay-trusser, especially when everyone but their stepdaughter has deserted them. Henchard’s devotion to Elizabeth-Jane is, incidentally, the only reason for his admittedly heartless lie to Newson about her being dead – he just cannot bear to lose the only person still caring for him. However, again he feels bad about it and on Newson’s return lets them alone, resolving to leave Casterbridge.
As to Henchard’s rash, spur-of-the-moment decisions, I consider this his flaw – every ‘Tragic Hero’ has a defect and I fear that this is his. He does not think much about his decisions at all, and this he why he has so many regrets. For example – if he had thought of the long-term effects of dismissing Farfrae, they may have continued to work together still and Farfrae would never have taken over. If he had not stopped the courtship of Farfrae and Elizabeth-Jane, Farfrae would never have considered marrying Henchard’s fiancï¿½e. If Henchard had not lied to Newson about Elizabeth-Jane’s death, the latter would not have turned against him in the end.
In conclusion, I find that, despite all the things Henchard has done wrongly, I feel a great deal of compassion and sympathy towards him. He is a good and honourable man who has lost everything, due to his impetuousness; which I feel is not directly a fault of his own. It is, however, this defect that leads to his downfall, and, in my opinion, earns him the title ‘Tragic Hero.’