Character Sketch of Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge
Table of Contents
Thomas Hardy calls Michael Henchard a man of character. He means that Henchard was a man of strong character. As we read the story of Henchard, we form the impression that Henchard was energetic, strong, vigorous and unyielding. In fact, strength is the most striking quality of his character. He was not only physically strong but strong in will, determination, likes and dislikes, revenge, etc.
Strength of character
Henchard had a well-built body and powerful physique. He looked harsh and stern, and there was a certain doggedness or determination in his very manner of walking. He had a heavy frame, large features, and a commanding voice. He had no pity for weakness but admired strength. It was with his strength that he built up his business. He was elected mayor because of the tremendous energy that he had displayed. His workers were afraid of him. Even his colleagues of the town council stood rather in awe of him. His strength of character is particularly seen in having kept his vow not to drink liquor for twenty one years. He also possessed the strength to bear his misfortunes. As the author says, “Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it.” In other words, he never grumbled, and never surrendered to fate. Adversity was a sort of challenge to his spirit which was unconquerable. Even when he had lost everything in life, he said, “My punishment is not greater than I can bear.” His very will reveals to us the stuff of which he was made.
Henchard: A man of strong likes and dislikes
Henchard was a man of strong likes and dislikes. If he liked somebody, his liking immediately grew into a strong attachment. If he hated anybody, his hatred was fierce. He developed such a strong affection for Farfrae at their very first meeting that he was ready to offer the Scotchman a third share in the business for accepting the job of his corn-manager. He rapidly became intimate with Farfrae and confided his life’s secrets to him. Henchard’s strong attachment for Elizabeth-Jane also shows his intensity of feeling. Elizabeth-Jane, indeed, became indispensable to him. The fact was that this man had a strongly emotional nature and that he could not live without somebody as the centre of his affections. He could not live with an emotional void in himself. But, if Henchard’s attachments were strong, his animosity was strong too. When he turned hostile to Farfrae, he hated the Scotchman fiercely. He then wanted to crush Farfrae, to “snuff him Out”. as he himself put it. “We two can’t live side by side that’s clear and certain”, he said about Farfrae. He wanted to grind Farfrae to the ground, to starve him out by under-selling and over-buying him.
In this connection, Henchard’s own remark to Farfrae when the latter was engaged as corn-manager may be quoted.
“I am the most distant fellow in the world when I don’t care for a man”, he said, “But when a man takes my fancy, he takes it strong”.
Henchard’s rashness, recklessness, impulsiveness, changing moods, and uncertain temper
Henchard was by nature a rash and impulsive person. There were “volcanic fires” in his nature. He quickly lost his temper. His moods changed suddenly. His temper was always unpredictable. The sale of his wife was simply a consequence of his impulsiveness and thoughtlessness. On the very day that Farfrae was engaged as Henchard’s corn-manager, he discovered that his employer was a man of changing moods. Farfrae also found that Henchand was a man who knew no moderation in his requests and impulses. As he told Farfrae, he often suffered from its of depression. “I sank into one of those gloomy fits I sometimes suffer from on account of the loneliness of my domestic life, when the world seems to have the blackness of hell, and, like Job, I could curse the day that gave me birth”. Even when Henchard had become the mayor and was supposed to have matured and sobered, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff in his nature as at the time when he had sold his wife.
Elizabeth’s experience of Henchard also confirms us in our opinion of Henchard as a moody man. After having lavished love and affection upon Elizabeth, he suddenly became indifferent to her on finding that she was not his daughter. This is what Elizabeth said to Lucetta about Henchard. “He is so uncertain in his temper.” When Elizabeth was about to leave Henchard in order to live with Lucetta, Henchard’s attitude to her again changed suddenly and he said, “Look here, don’t you go away from me. It may be I’ve spoke roughly to you: I’ve been grieved beyond everything by you there’s something that caused it“. His impulsiveness is also seen in his not waiting long enough to see the turns of weather when, acting upon the weather prophet’s advice, he had bought huge quantities of corn against bad weather.
“If Henchard had only waited long enough he might at least have avoided loss, though he had not made a profit But the momentum of his character knew no patience.”
Henchard’s sense of justice and fair play
Henchard possessed a very strong sense of justice and fair play. He never employed dishonesty or under-hand methods in his business dealings. Even when he had resolved to crush Farfrae, he said to his new manager, Jopp, that he wanted to ruin Farfare by fair competition. When Susan suddenly turned up, he at once decided to take her back as his wife and give up the thought of marrying Lucetta to whom he was pledged. When afterwards Susan died, he was perfectly willing to fulfill his commitment to Lucetta to marry her. Again, when the furmety woman exposed the secret of his early life in the open court and said that he was not fit to sit in judgment upon her, he left the magisterial chair, saying to his fellow magistrate, “And to keep out of any temptation to treat her hard for her revenge, I will leave her to you.” Later, when he forced Farfrae to fight a duel with him, he fought with one arm bound in order not to have an undue advantage over Farfrae by virtue of his stronger physique. His love of justice and fairness is seen in several minor incidents also. For instance, when he declared himself a bankrupt he gave a perfectly honest statement of his assets and surrendered such trifling articles as his watch. In fact, he had an ingrained sense of justice. There was nothing crooked about him. He had no cunning. He was always above board. He did not even have any diplomacy or finesse in his character. For instance, when he had dispensed with the services of Farfrae, he forbade the latter to court Elizabeth-Jane. A diplomatic person would have seen in the marriage of his daughter with his opponent an opportunity for reconciliation and mutual benefit. But Henchard was devoid of diplomacy of this type.
Henchard’s sincere repentance of his folly
We cannot deny that Henchard’s sale of his wife was a serious offence against social decency and a great injury to the woman. But we must remember that Henchard repented of his folly the very next morning. He wondered how Susan could have taken him seriously when she knew that he was intoxicated. He made a thorough search to recover her but failed. He took a vow never to touch strong liquor for twenty one years and kept the vow. Referring to his sale of Susan, he said to Farfrae. “I did a deed on account of which I shall be ashamed to my dying day.” When Susan came back, he said to her, “Do you forgive me, Susan?” After re-marrying Susan, he was as kind to her as a man, mayor, and churchwarden could possibly be. In short, he did everything he could to atone for his guilt.
Henchard was essentially a kindhearted man. He might be haughty, proud, and arrogant but beneath his haughtiness was a deep kindness. Lucetta summed up his character rightly when she said to Elizabeth-Jane, “He is a hot-tempered man, a little proud, perhaps ambitious, but not a bad man !” Henchard’s essential kindness is seen in several episodes. For instance, he showed such practical sympathy to Abel Whittle’s mother, though he never talked about it to anybody. Again, even though he was annoyed with Lucetta and had determined to destroy her domestic happiness with Farfrae by revealing his own past intimacy with her to her husband, yet he could not actually commit this cruel deed. Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. He had a fierce hatred for Farfrae but, when he fought a duel with the Scotchman and had the latter’s life in his hands, he could not bring himself to kill the man, even though he could not have been held guilty of murder by law. Later, when Lucetta’s life was in danger as a result of the skimmity-ride in the town, he went running for miles in order to bring her husband to her bed-side.
Henchard’s superstitious nature
Henchard was a superstitious man. For instance, his misfortunes made him think that some supernatural force in the universe was working against him, “The sense of the supernatural was strong in this unhappy man,” Hardy tells us. It was his superstitious nature that made him seek the advice of a weather prophet for making his purchases of corn. When he lost heavily in his transactions, he thought superstitiously that somebody had perhaps been roasting a waxen image of him in order to ruin him. Later, when he saw an effigy of himself floating in the water, he had a vague foreboding of his own death. (The effigy had been thrown into the water by the skimmity-riders.) In short he was a “man of moods, glooms, and superstitions”.
His love for music
Music had a great power over him. It was partly by singing that Farfrae had captured the heart of Henchard. When Henchard was awaiting Farfrae up in the loft for a life-and-death struggle with him, Farfrae came up humming & tune. Henchard was at once touched by the melody and felt that he could not fight, Indeed, nothing moved Henchard as much as an old melody, “With Henchard, music was of regal power”, says Hardy. Even the sound of a trumpet or drum moved him.
Henchard: A woman-hater
Henchard’s general attitude towards women was one of indifference, even scorn. He himself said to Farfrae,
“And, being by nature something of a woman hater. I have found it no hardship to keep mostly at a distance from the sex”
Nor did he ever flirt or philander with women:
“Though. Farfrae between you and me, as man and man, I solemnly declare that philandering with womankind has neither been my vice nor my virtue. His indifference to the society of women and his silent avoidance of contact with the female sex, were well-known in Casterbridge. This is what he once said about women. These cursed women-there’s not an inch of straight grain in then”.
Henchard: A true tragic hero
In conclusion, we might say that Henchard rises to the height of a true tragic hero. His sufferings and misfortunes excite our sympathy and the manner in which he bore them excites our admiration for him. No doubt, he had his weaknesses and frailties. He was rash; he was reckless; his temper was uncertain, he was jealous and intolerant. But his merits outweigh his shortcomings. He was strong: he was honest: he was neither cunning nor diplomatic : he had a passionate sense of justice and fair play; he was essentially sympathetic and kind-hearted. It is by virtue of these qualities that he is the hero of the novel. He suffers partly because of the weaknesses of his character and partly because of the cruelty of chance and fate. But his capacity to endure his misfortunes and his defiance of the forces that worked against him win him our highest regard. He is the most outstanding male figure in the entire fiction.
Henchard’s final error and its consequences
Henchard’s final error is much more excusable and understandable than his previous ones. We can sympathize with the lie he tells to Newson more readily then we can with his earlier and more revengeful actions. But his deceit of Newson is grave enough, even if his statement that Elizabeth-Jane died “a year ago and more” has a metaphorical truth (died to him when she turned out not be his “own”): by this he deprives her of money and a reunion with her real father (of whom she has kind memories), and Newson of his own rights. The new Henchard is, however, immediately amazed at what he has done. He is cheated of the attempt to tell Newson the truth-and, unfortunately acts on his “luck”, which is really bad luck. Nonetheless, all that day he lives through what will be his ultimate fate : the loss of one who is not “his”. Music might have sustained him, but “hard fate” had made him incapable of performing it in contrast to Farfrae who can perform it but to whom it means nothing substantial. He makes his way towards Ten Hatches, hearing the Sinister hissing music of the waters as from a “lampless orchestra”, he is about to drown himself but then encounters the effigy of himself discarded from the skimmity-ride. Had he killed himself then and there he would have been spared the worst of his suffering.se this grotesque meeting of himself with himself in degraded form “in all respects his counter-part”– which deters him from self-destruction- must paradoxically represent a grim means of salvation. Henchard, to realize himself-even though this means dissolution of his personal identity- must suffer all the consequences of his bad actions until the bitter end. He is in “somebody’s hands”, as he divines, but he does not understand that this somebody is himself, a superstitious character determined to prove that at least in his case “character is destiny”.