Alcohol’s Impact on Michael Henchard
Early in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy provides a lucid examination of some of the personal weaknesses of his protagonist, and of the sad ironies that these failings yield. Michael Henchard’s use of alcohol to escape the reality of his unhappy marriage resulted in the sale of his wife because Henchard’s emotions were heightened by his drunkenness. As Mr. Henchard entered the furmity tent at the fair during the opening pages of chapter 1, he was calm and level headed, although silent. As the night wore on, and he drank increasing amounts of laced furmity, he became progressively more agitated, loud, and argumentative towards his wife, Susan. As Henchard looked towards alcohol as a release from his restricting marriage, his emotions were elevated, which against his better judgement led him to sell his wife to the sailor, much as horses are sold at auction.
Henchard felt as though his family was restricting him and preventing him from being a successful man, which led to his excessive alcohol use. Michael Henchard is introduced to the reader as a man of few words, silently glum due to the disappointment of his life and the relative poverty he is forced to live in in order to support his wife and daughter. As a release from his suppressed emotions Henchard turns towards alcohol, as demonstrated when he is discussing the mistake of his marriage with the inhabitants of the furmity tent: “‘I married at eighteen, like a fool that I was; and this is the consequence of o’t’ He pointed at himself and his family with a wave of the hand intended to bring out the penuriousness of the exhibition.” (9) This quote exhibits how as Michael Henchard falls further and further under the influence of alcohol he also becomes more outspoken, and able to share his emotions, even with complete strangers. Alcohol seems to be the only release from Henchard’s dark and depressed existence, and without it he would be trapped in his self-inflicted silence.
After excessive alcohol use, Michael Henchard’s anger, so intense and extreme that it overcame him, caused him to lose control of his actions. In the furmity tent at the fair the reader watches as a transformation occurs in Henchard: “At the end of his first basin the man had risen to serenity. At the second he was jovial; at the third argumentative”. (8) Although the rum causes Henchard to at first to become humorous, as he continues to drink he becomes irate with his wife, and the situation he believes she and his daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, have put him in. As he hears the auctioneer selling horses, Henchard’s drunken rage allows him to do the same with his wife. Although, the sale was taken by the majority of the tent to be a joke, when Henchard finally receives an offer on his wife from the sailor, he is too inebriated and overtaken by the alcohol’s effects of rage to turn the offer down, as he believed he could be free from her restrictions forever without remorse.
Despite being dissatisfied with his marriage, Henchard would not have sold Susan without being heavily under the influence of alcohol. The effects of the alcohol upon Michael Henchard, mixed with his emotions caused a reaction so extreme that he was able to sell his wife to a stranger. However, if Michael and Susan Henchard had not entered the furmity tent that night it is safe to assume that Henchard would have never sold her. Without alcohol as a third party in their relationship the Henchards’ and their daughter lived an unhappy life in silence demonstrated by the opening of the novel: “What was really peculiar, however, was the couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved”. (3) This passage shows that although the Henchards’ did not particularly enjoy one another’s company, they were able to tolerate each other, which is completely contrasted by Michael’s drunken rage. As the rum-laced furmity made its entrance into the story, their relationship became much more complicated, and it was clear that neither was satisfied with the relationship they were being subjected to. Not only was Michael Henchard content to sell his wife, but Susan also had almost no objection. It is clear that without the complication in their relationship that the excessive rum provided, Henchard would not have sold his wife and daughter.
Although Michael Henchard turned to alcohol to escape his discontent, he actually ended up confronting the problem which was laying dormant underneath the awkward silence of his relationship. The laced furmity caused Henchard to become outspoken with his emotions, angry with his situation, and finally enabled him to sell his wife. If there was no alcohol present in the furmity tent that night, Michael and Susan Henchard probably would have left the fair that night equally as silent and discontent as they had arrived. Instead, Michael’s use of alcohol, and Susan’s contempt for him, caused her sale and their ultimate separation for the following 18 years to come.
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