Analyse the change in character of Michael Henchard throughout the novel, the Mayor of Casterbridge
Through the entire novel Michael Henchard, his municipal office providing the book’s eponymous title, portrays a persistent fluctuation of character. At a glance, we see that he is driven by rage and impetuosity yet; his harsh exploitations uncover a fountain of love deep within his body. This does not only resemble his ambivalence, but also reinforces the fact that the Mayor of Casterbridge’s actions have either been fuelled by ambition or just led by fate. Right from the beginning, Thomas Hardy suggests that his tale will revolve around one central character, as he subtitles his book: “The Life and Death of a Man of Character.” Yet, in this vast world, Henchard, a mere drop in the ocean, has been singled out and conspired against by providence.
In what some say as the prologue of the novel, chapters one and two feature the first twist in Henchard’s life. The Furmity Scene sees the selling of Susan Henchard to a “sailor, who was unobserved by the rest.” This is therefore, the first sign of impulsiveness, which overcomes Henchard. It can also be concluded that his fate had turned sour because the auction was about to end fruitlessly until, at the very last moment, Mr. Newson, by chance had entered the tent “within the last two or three minutes” and agreed to purchase Mrs. Susan Henchard for five guineas. However, I think that this is not a fair judgement of Henchard’s character, as he was under the influence of alcohol and his taciturnity had turned into drunken fury. Yet, I turn to the initial reason for Henchard’s attraction to the rum in the furmity. It is blatantly obvious that Henchard is unhappy. From the audience’s eyes, Thomas Hardy depicts the lack of communication between husband and wife, and the “silence they preserved.” From this and Henchard’s primary reactions, it appears that Henchard’s melancholy attitude is due to the fact that he has married young and already fathers a child by the name of Elizabeth Jane. In his resent and attempt to seek revenge at anything he can think of, Henchard salvages himself by drinking to ease his emotions, but this altogether ends up making him more aggressive than before.
Once again, Henchard’s rash and indecisive manner leads him to “take an oath in this solemn place” (the church) and he will “avoid all strong liquors for the space of twenty years to come.” Yet this shows that on one side of Henchard’s coin, there is this bitter vehemence, however it can be instantly flipped over to reveal a sense of regret and remorse. It also implies that Henchard has a strong belief in God and that fact that he swears on the bible suggests that he is moral and religious. Moreover, the point that he kept his oath for exactly twenty years displays a determined and resolute character.
Apart from his reflecting sense of temperament, two other forces also pull Henchard. Like a puppet on strings, Henchard either acts to the strong haul of fate or of ambition. The first glimpse of ambition is seen when Henchard receives Farfrae’s letter after selling his wife eighteen years before that. During that period, Michael had earned a reputable position in the community: “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” Being able to reach such a status proves that Henchard is not only competent, but also capable of meeting his goals in life. Just before accepting Farfrae’s letter, Michael Henchard was amidst a meeting with fellow council members. His direct, no-nonsense approach meant that he willingly admitted, “the wheat had turned out badly.” Also, his instant reaction to the note clarifies that Henchard is still as rash as he used to be nearly twenty years ago. The actual encounter with Farfrae discloses a commendable effort from Henchard. He immediately judges him positively. He believes that if this man (Farfrae) can help him, he must be amiable. However, Henchard’s sudden liking could be due to the immense similarity between Farfrae and Henchard’s “poor brother – who’s now dead and gone.”
So believing is Henchard’s character, that when Farfrae had refused his offer to return to his house for better food than “cold ham and ale”, Henchard returned the next morning to persuade Donald to come under his belt as manager of the corn and hay business. However, when Farfrae was at Henchard’s store, he lightly mentioned what has and will trouble Henchard for much longer: “Should a man turrun against fate?” As Henchard’s dealings with Farfrae grew stronger and more frequent, Henchard began to unmask his true feelings and unlock stories of the past. His liking and trust in Farfrae led him to speak of the memories that clouded his shameful past. Henchard also admits that he is “a lonely man” and has “nobody else to speak to”. His lack of drinking means that he has no chance to socialise and therefore make friends. So at the first chance of a real friend, Henchard trusts Farfrae immediately and tells him everything. His constant persistence led Farfrae to be hired and only because Henchard “liked Farfrae well” did he feed and shelter him; the one who was to cause Henchard pain and grief.
Henchard is capable of showing extremes of emotion in both directions. Nevertheless, his ruthless and insensitive connections with Jopp, only increases the hate I feel against Henchard. I personally believe that Henchard finds people to use, and when he no longer needs them, he discards them like rubbish. A prime example of this is when Henchard rejects Jopp’s management offer with the loose excuse that: Jopp was too late and as he “did not keep his appointment, Henchard engaged another manager.” This theory is also linked to the importance of letters in this novel. Letters and his preliminary responses towards them, govern every key incident in Henchard’s life. In his letter to Jopp, Henchard stated “Thursday or Saturday” for the appointment. Still, with the prospect of a better manager who may help him in his time of need, Henchard dismissed the man who he had “as good as engaged” and chose Farfrae instead.
With yet another letter, Henchard comes face-to-face with the wife he disowned approximately twenty years ago. Slowly, “Susan Newson” re-enters his life by one of his cunning plans, which basically meant that through time, Henchard accommodated the “widow Mrs. Newson and her daughter”. Then he would “meet her, court her, and marry her.” This therefore would lead to Susan entering Henchard’s house, without arousing any suspicion or doubt. On one hand, Henchard is trying very hard to make amends for his slip-ups, by ensuring that they rent a cottage. His penitence is genuinely accepted when he pleads for Susan’s forgiveness and says: “judge me on my future works.” Nonetheless, on the other hand, it appears that Henchard only acts nicely to ease his guilty conscience. Concerning this matter, Henchard’s innocence is established when he immediately tells Farfrae the new turns in his life. His situation is now laid in front of Farfrae, who Henchard believes cannot only help him in his economic, but social crisis as well.
After rudely accusing someone, Henchard is always disappointed about what he has done. Without thinking, he recklessly says what first comes onto his head and when he later has time to review his behaviour, with “dim dread”, he “often regrets” many of his previous mistakes. This execution of grief features too well in the preparations and outcomes of the tenth anniversary celebrations. To compete with Farfrae’s “quick movements”, Henchard was not to be classed as a contender out of the running. In his haste to come top, and reclaim the position that he felt was slowly slipping away to Farfrae, Henchard in spite of this, threw money into a festivity, which was destined to fail. So it was to be, Henchard’s ill-fated link to fate, led him to yet another disastrous blunder. It was in joining the tail ends of Farfrae’s spectacle, did Henchard say those fatal words: “Mr Farfrae’s time as my manager is drawing to a close.” Instantly, Hardy makes it obvious that, Henchard’s vacillating sense of character made his “heart sink within him” because his now passed jealous temper unveiled a sharp feeling of repentance. Henchard was also able to make the deadly misconception of being “able” to judge the weather.
Michael Henchard is often linked to Shakespeare’s Lear, due to the fact that they both are inevitably deprived of the one’s they loved in their later life and dying days. His respectability and importance are slashed by his horrific past and present actions. Also compared to Farmer Boldwood, from Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’, Henchard hardly differs. A reputable figure in society exposed to the public as a completely different man. With these links to the community, I feel Hardy is trying to show that nothing is ever hidden and it will come out, maybe not now, but in the future. Not to completely judge Henchard on a couple of his words, I thought that his impartial manner towards Farfrae, after the rude dismissal, portrayed his true emotions. When hearing about “Farfrae’s coup for establishing himself independently”, Henchard agreed it was only right to allow Farfrae to have a go at the corn-selling business. This decision shows that Henchard is still moral.
We are made to feel sympathetic towards Henchard when he realises that he is alone at home again. His appointment of Farfrae as his manager was disrupted by his jealousy. His resentment of a family made him give up love for ambition. He thought he could be happy when Susan returned, yet she died not long after their reunion. Elizabeth Jane, whom he had willingly loved, was turned against him after his envious rage belittled her. However, the moment he audience grasp the fact that Henchard has lost his daughter, among many other things that could go wrong with his life, Hardy’s emotional detail gives us a real insight into Michael Henchard’s true character, his fight to make amends and to repair a guilty conscience. Nevertheless, his status in the community overcame the love he felt for his daughter. Henchard suffered embarrassment at the poor quality of Elizabeth Jane’s broken English and instead of trying to comfort her and help her improve, he mocked her. The constant jeering and taunting showed a cruel side of Henchard. He not only lowers Elizabeth Jane’s confidence and self esteem, but he does this as a way to retaliate against the lying, which has held him back from the truth.
The resurfacing of Lucetta was one of the main reasons for Henchard’s demise. He had all hope of regaining control of his life. He had compensated everything and started to rebuild his relationship with Susan. His business was thriving with the help of his most trusted friend: Donald Farfrae. He had also found another type of love: the love for his daughter, Elizabeth Jane. However, due to the tight control fate had on his life, the importance of letters struck once again. In her dying days, Susan Henchard had written Michael a letter to tell him of her betrayal. This led to unforeseen hate and anger. Among these letters, Henchard received notes from Lucetta, informing him of his promise of marriage to her. With the entrance of Lucetta in his life, his last love of Elizabeth Jane began to fade away. Where he felt lost and unloved, he hoped to gain back, by marrying Lucetta. It also then due to Henchard’s imprudent manner that Farfrae meets Lucetta. If Henchard had not let Elizabeth Jane go, Farfrae wouldn’t have gone to find her at Lucetta’s abode. How unfortunate a man Henchard was, to have fate plot against him in such a way.
It is not as if Henchard is a simple man conspired against by fate, but he is also capable of being insensitive and rude. The first time he appointed Jopp – he dismissed him, just because Farfrae was able to solve Henchard’s problems. Nonetheless, after discharging Farfrae, Henchard once again enlisted Joshua Jopp as his manager. Yet, as things go from bad to worse, Henchard fires Jopp believing that it was through no fault of his own, but an error on Jopp’s part that he became bankrupt. Nevertheless, it was entirely through his own fault that he was made bankrupt. He even thought he could prejudge the weather, but from his previous mistake, he thought he should be on the safe side and ask someone to confirm his “forecast of the weather.” Like many other farmers who came to see this lonely man, Henchard got the same cock-and-bull story: “August will be – rain and tempest!” So Henchard did try to use his initiative before attacking the problem headlong, however it wasn’t only him who got trapped by the weather.
He once again was thwarted and fell into a more dangerous situation. By overbuying and underselling, he loses everything. He put everything he had into buying corn in fear of the rain, but the rain didn’t fall and Henchard sold his entire crop at a lower price. After he traded his whole stock, the rain fell in bucket fulls. We are made to feel sorry and sympathize with Henchard, because his ambition wouldn’t comprise for his love and fate shattered that ambition. In the end, he is left with neither hope nor love. The Casterbridge folk understand that mistakes can happen and are ready to forgive Henchard, however, his status and reputation sinks in lower. All the respect he had accumulated when he first came to Casterbridge was washed away by two primary mistakes. Firstly, the resurfacing of the Furmity Woman, who tried to take the attention off herself and dumped it on Henchard. It is also very unlucky that Henchard was to judge the trial because the Furmity Woman was able to reveal Henchard’s most dearest secret: the selling of his wife. It was unlikely that a woman of her age would remember such a trifle incident, but with constant reminders from Henchard and finally Susan, it came to her memory that Michael Henchard was the one who performed such a terrible act, (“and the man who sold his wife in that fashion is the man sitting there in the great big chair.”)
Henchard, however, is not completely ‘rotten to the core”, because he always has a sense of morality and fairness. When he met the debt collector, he “took his gold watch from his pocket and laid it on the table.” To accompany that, he also said that he “didn’t wish to keep it from them.” Conversely, we still pity Henchard because there was “quite a sympathetic reaction in town” as they “admirably” saw a man who once lead their town, leave in the same poor manner. Not only was he lingering dangerously low, he had lost all the love that had ever entered his life. To top it off, Farfrae had also taken Lucetta, Henchard’s last chance at true love.
My title: “Two sides of the same coin” can be used in many circumstances in Henchard’s life. One of them is the fact that on one side sits Henchard, rich and respected, and on the other side sits Farfrae, who is poor and penniless. However, through the course of novel, these positions and interpretations change. Gradually, Farfrae has taken everything Henchard once had; leaving Michael in the same state, as he himself was when Henchard had helped him. Farfrae though, is willingly to return furniture of “sentimental value” back to Henchard, after purchasing it at the auction, but Henchard is set on the fact that Donald is out to get him. This hot and big-headedness, made him start a fight with Farfrae. It wasn’t any old fight, but a fight until death. Henchard tied back his hand as he felt that he had an advantage over Farfrae. Some think that Henchard was very rational in doing this, but I believe it shows Henchard’s character a little clearly. He thinks that he is obviously better than Farfrae, and he could win hands down with two hands and possibly even one. This led Farfrae to loathe him even more.
After determining one aspect of Henchard’s temperament, I feel that Hardy portrays Henchard as a nicer person, to balance the hate and understanding. Subsequently, Henchard still puts enough trust in Jopp, the one he has treated so badly, to deliver letters to Farfrae’s new home. Assessing all that had happened so far in the novel, I could predict that Jopp was going to take revenge on Henchard, and Thomas Hardy depicts that in a malignant way. As if Henchard’s life couldn’t get any worse, Jopp takes his chance and shows everyone Lucetta’s “love letters” written to Henchard while she was in Jersey. This has two main outcomes; the death of Lucetta due to the obscene truth in the “skimmity ride.”
However, did this happen because of fate? Or Henchard’s weakness of not being able to face the truth? That Donald Farfrae and Lucetta Templeman were living together in his old home. I think that this is due to both because; it was Henchard’s lack of courage that let fate take charge of an action – that made Henchard’s life a misery. Though, one good outcome of the skimmity ride was that Farfrae was shown the truth, which had been hidden from him for so long. Henchard is also a man who likes to be the centre of attention. This is represented when he tries to spoil Farfrae’s reputation by ‘gate-crashing’ the royal celebrations. He wanted to try and get back his position and wreck Farfrae’s in the process, however this in fact made it a lot worse.
“Dead likewise,” is how Henchard explained Elizabeth Jane when Newson returned to find out what had happened to his “family.” Yet he did not say this in pure spite, but for the love of his daughter and wanting to protect her from the truth. Though, like always, Newson returns with the truth to disrupt Henchard’s life. It is not his fault that Henchard had lied to him, but to escape from all his troubles, Henchard had to pretend that both Elizabeth and Susan had died. To further escape from his doom, Henchard decided that he was “going to leave Casterbridge.” He would rather “be out of sight” and able to “follow his own ways.” It therefore suggests that Henchard had opted for the cowardly option, and that he was running away, but leaving his reunited love for Elizabeth Jane, shows a very determined character.
Being an itinerant hay-trusser, Henchard was still curious but looking out for his stepdaughter. To make amends and renew Elizabeth Jane and Farfrae’s trust, Henchard returns for their wedding with a sign of peace: “a caged gold-finch.” Yet, instead of this being a final good-willed act, Henchard ran away from his encounter with Elizabeth Jane, to live a solitary life until his death. With a final verdict on Henchard, I believe that his benevolence was enough to have Abel Whittle still looking after him, even though he had mistreated him. Henchard’s pride also fell with him when he wished in his will that no one should “be told of his death” and “no man remember him or mourn for him.”
Overall, I feel that Hardy has presented him as a tragic hero. His quarrelsome and angry nature is attacked with kind acts. Through the entire novel, it is either the good or bad in Michael Henchard that takes over. Sometimes the rash impetuosity will triumph, but his regret and desire to make amends will equal that out. His isolation and substitution for love (ambition) makes his social life an unimportant part of his actual life. His alienation is the beginning of his downfall, “the world seems to have the blackness of hell.” Henchard’s success is shadowed by his repeated absence in the face of misfortune.
He plans his own destruction by persuading Farfrae to stay in Casterbridge, and when all other contact fails, hopelessly clings onto Lucetta, Elizabeth-Jane and Jopp. Adversity doesn’t let Henchard keep his emotions under control, because his feelings are intensified in hundreds. His hate turns into pure loathing, but his affection turns into infatuation. Thomas Hardy does intend us to sympathise with Henchard, despite his flaws. His catastrophic end, heart-breaking love, the flair for ambition and the leash-like hold of fate. Henchard’s life’s choices have the fifty-fifty percent probability of a coin. Good or bad, fate or ambition; the coin decides.