Michael Henchard: Fictional Character Analysis

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      Michael Henchard is the main character or he may even be called the hero of the novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Though many other major characters are of interest to the reader the character of Michael Henchard is the one which captivates and impresses the reader, the most. In fact the novel and the character of Henchard pan be identified with each other. The story of the novel is actually the story of Michael Henchard right from the beginning till the end. Others can be called great supporting characters or the various expressions of the hero's gigantic personality. Critics have rightly called this novel an epic as it is one man's tale and the history of his rise and fall. Hardy - himself in the preface to The Mayor of Casterbridge describes the novel as: "The story is more particularly a study of one man's deeds and character than, perhaps, any other of those included in my exhibition of Wessex life."
Michael Henchard gives the appearance of a strong man with a well-built body and powerfull physique. He walks with a certain doggedness and determination and looks harsh and stern.
Michael Henchard

Henchard's Appearance:

      Michael Henchard gives the appearance of a strong man with a well-built body and powerfull physique. He walks with a certain doggedness and determination and looks harsh and stern. His frame is heavy and his features large. He is able to carry his business to such heights because of his strength. He has a commanding voice, thus, his workers are all afraid of him. It is because of his tremendous energy that he displays, that he is elected the mayor. He exhibits a strong character especially when he shows us that he is capable of keeping his vow of not drinking liquor for twenty-one years. He never grumbles or surrenders to fate. In fact adversity is a sort of challenge to his spirit which is unconquerable. Commenting on this quality of Henchard, the author says, "Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it. " He does not lose courage and spirit and even after losing everything is able to say, "My punishment is not greater than I can bear."

Henchard's Strong Likes and Dislikes:

      Henchard's nature is turbulent. One of the most important qualities to be noticed in his character is that of impulsiveness and emotional vehemence. A fierce blaze of satisfaction beams from his face when Farfrae agrees to stay with him. There is no restraint on his emotions and impulses. On coming to know about the establishment of the young stripling in the same town, his anger flares up and "his voice might have been heard as tar as the town-pump expressing his feelings to his councilmen." He appears to have been made of some volcanic stuff. His strong likes and dislikes are exhibited in the way he behaves towards, Farfrae initially and then again when Farfrae begins to become more prosperous. In fact he himself declares to Farfrae, "When a man takes my fancy, he takes it strong." His strong preference for the young man is described thus; while walking with him he would lay his arm familiarly on the manager's shoulder, as if Farfrae was a younger brother, bearing so heavily that his slight figure is bent under his weight." Henchard's long, loud and boisterous laughter has been described as "a perfect cannonade of laughter." But it is not long before Henchard develops a severe dislike for Farfrae and their friendship turns into enmity, dark and poisonous. It has been rightly said about him that "he is a man to whom some human object for pouring out his heat upon, whether emotive or choleric is almost a necessity." Henchard is able to rise to the level of mayor only because of his stupendous energy and it is again this very characteristic of his which keeps him from beggary in times of privation and great mental afflictions.

His Impulsiveness:

      Another very important feature of Henchard's character is his impulsiveness which has a great impact on the course of events of his life. In fact his vehemence is generally the outcome of his impulsiveness. This is generous but his generosity is occasional, almost an oppressive generosity rather than a mild and constant kindness. We see him committing foolish actions which are hastily performed and long regretted. Everything he does is on the impulse of the moment regardless of its consequences. Reviewing the history of his life right from the beginning: the selling of his wife is an impulsive and thoughtless action; the appointment of Farfrae is impulsive to the extent that he does not lay down any terms and conditions. Then again, Henchard impulsively dismisses him only because of his blind jealousy of the man. He lies to Newson about the death of Elizabeth Jane like a child in pure mockery of consequences. His action of reading out the letters of Lucetta to Farfrae is not only impulsive but momentary. However the one redeeming feature about his character is that for good or evil, he does nothing stealthily.

An Egoist:

      Henchard is really an egoist who is more engrossed with his own sentimental satisfaction than with the interests of the objects of his affection. It is his wounded self-esteem that makes him throw Farfrae overboard. He finds that Farfrae is more popular, that people have transferred to his manager the admiration which they had formerly felt for himself, that, in general, men have come to lose their awe of his abilities and that they now consider that Henchard cannot hold a candle to the young Scotsman. This is beyond endurance to him. He is afraid that if he keeps Farfrae longer, his whole position will be undermined. Moreover, he owes it to his own self-esteem to prove to people that he can carry on very well without his prodigy of a manager.

His Egoism with Regard to Elizabeth:

      The element of egoism in Henchard's character is again revealed in relations with Elizabeth-Jane. He loves her as long as he believes her to be his, own daughter, but as soon as the truth is revealed, he almost persecutes the girl with his dislike. In other words, his love is not for what she is. Later, it is true, he makes amends by loving her for her own true sake. But even then, he wants to keep her all to himself. He does not like her to marry Farfrae because by that means she would be lost to him. And it is this mortal fear of losing her that makes him utter a brazen lie to Newson that Elizabeth-Jane is dead.

Henchard's Gloominess:

      There is a gloominess which pervades the whole character of Henchard so much so that even his features exhibit a kind of gloominess which is described as 'swarthy and stern in aspect.' The beard which he keeps is handled by him in his moments of worry. His grimness is intensified all the more by his 'dark bushy brows and flashing eyes. His rare laughter is not very encouraging and his gaze is ambiguous and hard to understand. When he is introduced to us at the beginning of the book, he is merely twenty but even at that age he is gloomy, taciturn and reserved. He is convinced that his early marriage is the cause of his ruin. So, he does not speak to his wife while walking along the road. In order fo get over his gloominess he turns to drinking, Even prosperity cannot dispel the shades of gloom in his life and thus almost towards the end, it is said of him. The leaden gloom of one who has lost all that can make life interesting or even tolerable;


      No hero or heroine, in the entire range of Hardy's tragic art haunts us and then inspires us so terribly yet so profoundly as Henchard does. There is no hero in Hardy's world of imagination, nor is there any heroine, who at the one and same time produces two different impressions on the reader's mind - of terror and thrill. How awfully terrifying does he appear, when having lost his temper, he is about to kill Farfrae, and how pathetically thrilling and tragically serene he looks, when frustrated and dejected beyond any repair, he speaks his last words to Elizabeth-Jane, "I have done wrong in coming to ye - I see my error, But it is only for once, so forgive me. I'll never trouble thee again, Elizabeth-Jane-no, not to my dying day.

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