Comparison between Michael Henchard and Okonkwo

This will be a direct comparison between the two leading characters in the books ‘Things Fall Apart’, written by Chinua Achebe and ‘The Major of Casterbridge’, written by Thomas Hardy. I will compare and contrast both the differences and similarities in the personalities of the Nineteenth Century major and the more contemporary trial leader. Okonkwo is more contemporary because the book is set in a very traditional African village, and has basic, moral issues associated with it.

At the beginning of Chapter Five in ‘The Major of Casterbridge’ we meet a man of distinct wealth and power, shown through the highly prestigious title that he has earned.

It is of course Michael Henchard, newly elected Major of the corn-merchant town, Casterbridge. He is at the height of his success through his profiting business, and has earned the respect of fellow colleges through his perseverance of power.

Okonkwo, a tribal elder, also earned his respect through his own successes. From the very first page we hear about his youthful triumph in the wrestling ring by, ‘throwing Amalinze the Cat.

’ ‘His fame rested on solid personal achievements,’ and from that moment on he built up his possessions and power through the Obi that he owned. The Obi, in war and in farming was among the trappings of success.

In both books we also learn about the men’s shaded history, especially the events of Michael Henchard. From one profound mistake would base the beginning of his oath, an oath that would drive him to success.

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After more than just one dose of rum in his fermity, Henchard stood up before a crowded tent and proceeded to sell his wife. Only on the final bid of five Guineas, did the transaction conclude and his wife and newly born child disappear to a new life.

His oath was made in some hope of repenting his terrible actions, and so before the altar, in God’s ver home, did Henchard swear never to touch another drop of alcohol for as many years as he had been alive. His idle and improvident father, Unoka, heavily influences Okonkwo’s history. ‘Unoka was, of course, a debtor,’ and throughout his manhood had made no attempt to make a name foe himself or even provide the basic food and money (cowries) that his family needed to survive. He owed many men money, promising it was only a temporary solution and that he would soon pay them back. Unoka knew this was not true, he had no intention of paying off his debts and so just lived off other men’s money.

In turn it was left to Okonkwo, who became the leading man in the family, to graft hard and scrape together enough cowries to feed both himself and his mother. He started this process by collective farming yams, where by borrowing yam seeds from another farmer and planting them. In return a fixed amount of his crop would be theirs as a repayment. Slow and laborious it may have been, Okonkwo even failing to produce a crop in his very first year, yet Nwakibie, the farmer, could see the strengths in Okonkwo that the young man would go far, ‘I can trust you. I know it as I look at you.’ So with great perseverance Okonkwo provided for his family.

At this moment in the book, the present, Henchard seems to be in a stable situation in both his business matters and position in the town. There is, however, the lurking problem of his past, with history looking set to repeat itself. It is the return of his sold wife, Susan Henchard, who could bring unhappy reminders back with her and in turn cause the unmasking of Henchards shady past. This unveiling of younger days would be sure to jeopardise his position in the town. Another problem that looms ahead may be the problem of growing wheat and managing a business that seems to be out growing the control on Henchard. He is already the biggest and most successful wheat dealer in Casterbridge, but his business may grow so big that he is unable to run it economically and this could potentially ruin him.

Okonkwo, on the other hand, has only his emotions to contend with to stay a respected elder in the tribe. He fears that one false move could leave him worse for wear and result in him turning out like his father. If there is one thing, more than anything Okonkwo is afraid of, it is his past. He does not want his father’s traits to surface in him or be attributed to him. He has always tried to be the opposite of his father, ‘he had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had no patience with his father,’ and so went about being of high status in the clan.

There is a similarity between these two men in the complexity and impulsiveness of their characters. The selling of Henchard’s wife shows a weakness in his character, in the way that he gave in to the pressure of those around him, who planted the idea in his head. It was also an act of impulse, the same impulse that grips Okonkwo when he beats his second wife during the week of peace, ‘But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through.’ They are also both controlled by pride. It was due to pride that Okonkwo would not stop his beating because he did not want to look weak among men, and he wanted his pride to be maintained. Henchard could not prevent the sale of his wife because he too did not want to back down in front of a crowd.

I think that although both men have these weaknesses of character, it is only really Henchard who feels any kind of guilt towards his actions. You can tell this from the oath he makes in front of God and the way he adapts his lifestyle in the hope of making him a better person. Okonkwo, however, does nothing to repent his actions. When told by the priest he must, ‘bring to the shrine…one hen…and a hundred cowries,’ for beating his second wife during the week of peace, Okonkwo feels hard done by. He feels that the priest doesn’t understand the reasoning behind it and that if he did, he would surely have not punished Okonkwo. Okonkwo, ‘was not the man to go about telling his neighbours he was in error.’

Henchard’s first major battle to contend with is the competition and threat posed by the young, keen and intelligent Scots man, Farfrae. Farfrae decides to set up business to directly rival that of Henchard’s. This threat intimidates the insecure Henchard because he sees Farfrae to be undermining him and undoubtedly wants all the glory for himself. I think that this threat is all in the mind of Henchard and that it is really a case of Henchard’s pride, always wanting to be the best at everything. He may feel intimidated by Farfrae’s intelligence, something that Henchard lacks and is naturally jealous of. This jealously makes Henchard feel insecure about his own successes, and forces him to lash out at his workers and villagers.

Impulsive reactions to his workers often end in sharp, rude remarks that offend and frighten his workers. When Abel Whittle was late for work one too many times, Henchard decided to make an example of him and humiliate him in front of everyone to teach him a lesson. Farfrae has a much gentler approach and demands that Whittle, ‘get back home, and slip on…breeches,’ so that he may have a little dignity. When Henchard hears he has been questioned the result is a moment of tension between the two men as a battle for power emerges.

It is these occasions that favour the kindness of Farfrae.Henchard’s response is to defend himself and he acts of course on impulse. He doesn’t want to risk his livelihood being taken over by a younger, more intelligent and efficient Scots man. ‘I have been hearing things that vexed me,’ says Henchard as the pressure is piled on him and the reality of Farfrae’s popularity among the villagers is revealed. It is a young boy who unleashes the true feelings and thoughts of those who know Henchard, all of which a good word among it cannot be found. ‘Henchard’s a fool…he’s a diment.’

I don’t think that Henchard’s livelihood is at steak, I feel it is only his pride and perhaps the amount of power he has over his own business. He is beginning to become less prominent in the running of the business and doesn’t want to loose his power among the villagers. The people of Casterbridge used to hold him in awe because he has accomplished so much, yet now he feels that the only way to regain that is to regain complete control of business and his life. These actions would though have the reverse effect as the villagers carry Farfrae too close to their hearts to wish to see him suffer.

Okonkwo’s reaction to pressure is evident from his reaction to mere criticism. His second wife, who had accidentally killed a banana tree, received a, ‘good beating,’ for her actions and Okonkwo in turn took his gun in the intention of going hunting. ‘He was not a hunter,’ and his beaten wife even dared to mutter so. In his impulsive rage he turns around and fires the gun in her direction, luckily for her missing.

This is a man who values the traditions of his tribe and runs his life by the way things have been for centuries. ‘But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.’ Okonkwo did not want to appear weak to fellow tribal members, as his dad had appeared to his elders when he was a young man. You can feel the tension and hatred felt towards Unoka, who had caused such anger in Okonkwo because of his laziness and the shame he brought on the family.

Okonkwo remembers the first time realising that his father was not all he had hoped, when a young boy had told him his father was, ‘agbala…another name for a woman…a man who had taken no title.’ From that day on, Okonkwo promised himself one thing, ‘to hate everything his father, Unoka had loved.’ Unoka resembles gentleness in his approach to life, not caring or worrying too much about his debts or working hard to grow enough crops to support his family. So as a consequence, Okonkwo rules his household with a firm fist and doe not stand for idle people.

With his passion for hard work and leadership, mixed with his impulsive character, you see moments in the book where he cannot control his own emotions and so lashes out at people. Two examples, both of which I have already mentions are the beating of his wife during the week of peace and the attempted shooting of another wife. Both these acts are classic examples of instant reactions, without thinking things through or considering the consequences it may have. In death, you see a difference in the characters. Although the decline of both men is slow and laborious, going from a respected position in their community to loosing all they own, their reasoning behind death are both contrary.

Henchard pities his own existence and without a familiar figure to latch on to for support, like Farfrae or Elizabeth Jane, he finds himself sinking very low. He takes refuge in an old cottage, not wanting to show himself to anyone and wallow in his own pity until he no longer has the strength to survive. You can tell this by the note he leaves for whoever may find him as a form of will, ‘no flours be planted on my grave and that no man remember me.’ He doesn’t want anyone to think of him because in his own mind he is not worthy of being grieved over and he fears that people will only remember the bad things about him, like the impulsive nature and short fused temper when he did not get his own way.

Okonkwo’s death, however, does seem to have an underlying motive. His thinking seems to be governed, at least in part, by the survival of the clan and restoration of traditions. He takes his own life to show the clan that they must keep the traditions alive if they want to survive in this world. ‘It is an offence against the Earth…for a man to take his own life,’ and so, ‘his body is evil…only strangers may touch it.’ Although such a loss to the clan tortures the men, it also shows them that they must follow the traditions of their elders, being that they cannot bury him for he has committed a deadly sin. A sin the other tribe men will have to cleanse. To shed blood on the clan is considered the ultimate crime as it is contradictory to everything else you are ever taught.

His death is also pay back on the white people to show them the horrific atrocities they have enforced on the land and how they have destroyed the lives of many black Nigerians. He also wants to frustrate the white man by not telling then the message, found in the book. Throughout the two books you find many instances where both men are forced to express their emotions violently in many occasions and most definitely domineering. Each challenge that the pair faces seems to unleash even more of this inner demon, as if a chord inside them is slowly snapping under the constant demands.

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Comparison between Michael Henchard and Okonkwo. (2018, Dec 18). Retrieved from

Comparison between Michael Henchard and Okonkwo
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