Henchard’s Tragedy in Novel The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Thomas Hardy character Michael Henchard in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge is a tragic character who has engaged critics since its first publication. One can find Michael Henchard to be very near to Aristotle‘s definition of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle tragic hero suffers and meets his tragic end because of some human weakness. If we look at Henchard, he is not an eminently virtuous man. He is not a bad person by his intentions. But there are certain weaknesses in him and he suffers and meets his tragic end on account of these weaknesses. Aristotle says that a tragic hero must belong to a state of flourishing prosperity and downfall, from that prosperity brings terror and pity. One cannot feel pity for the downfall of evil and unjust person. The downfall of Henchard creates pity in the readers‘ hearts. Hardy‘s Henchard is according to the definition of Aristotle, suffers more than what he deserves for his weaknesses. He has a good number of points in his character. Some critics find Henchard as a truly Aristotelian hero.

One of the critics of the novel Simon Gatrell says about Henchard’s tragic flaws. He identifies Henchard as “proud, fiery, driven by imperious desires, uncaring of consequences, ruthlessly honest but destructive of himself and others around him” (55). He adds that attributes such as his ‘pride, his impulsive nature, and his ambition are exactly the conditions [that cause] his downfall and his destruction’ (84). These traits make Henchard lead to destruction. He has lost all the relationships he had in past. His excessive pride nourishes in him and he lost all his wealth and power in no time. He was no longer a mayor now when he starts jealousy with Farfrea which was closer enough to him. In his article entitled, “The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Fate of Michael Henchard’s Character”, Gatrell mentions talks about Henchard’s status and his fortune which makes him down in the context of tragedy:

…one aspect of the novel’s supporting structure of reference and allusion- classical and medieval theories of the tragedy which demand that the tragic hero shall be a man of high status, for whom the wheel of fortune will turn downwards…to have been mayor provides sufficient social status for the operation of the rules of tragedy in Henchard’s rapid and inexorable decline from that status and what it implies (49).

John Stuart Mill says about his free will that how Henchard’s nature is and how he has all the energies which are needed for a tragic hero. In his work named On Liberty, Mill explains what he means by the word “character” as follows:

A person whose desires and impulses are his own – are the expressions of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture – is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own has no character, no more than a steam engine has a character. If, in addition to being his own, his impulses are strong, and are under the government of a strong will, he has an energetic character (56).

Depending on the definition of Mill, we may say that Henchard has an energetic character, but it is hard to say that the strong impulses of Henchard are in conformity with his conscience/ moral compass. This character structure will prepare for the tragic end and the fall of Henchard.

According to Mill, the human who has strong passions and impulses is a good person as long as the balance has been established between the emotions/passions and conscious/moral compass of a person. This balance is not available for Henchard, the main character of The Mayor Casterbridge. As his quick-tempered nature, pride, and his impulsive acting without thinking through the consequence of anything have not been balanced by his conscience at the critical moments of his life; the consequence has always been destructive for himself and the people around him. To illustrate; when he auctions off his wife and daughter, attempts to behave against the rules when the royal family comes to the town and when he tries to kill Farfrae in the hayloft, he has done all these under the influence of alcohol. But desiring to drink alcohol is his preference and his irresponsibility shows how selfish and ignoble he can act. Moreover, by drinking alcohol, he enters under the command of his impulses.

Another critic Chapman says that Michael Henchard of Casterbridge satisfy many Aristotelian requirements of the tragic hero. Thomas Hardy’s novel records Henchard’s rise and fall, revealing him at the outset as an ambitious, proud, and impulsive hay-trusser who (between chapters, and outside the narrative, as it were) ‘rises from shameful obscurity to the mayoralty’ (148). Early in the novel, Henchard is enjoying the height of his prosperity and resides at the top of fortune’s wheel. He is well-liked and highly esteemed by the townspeople of Casterbridge. Consequently, Henchard’s position in society is high enough for his fall to be considered tragic.

Brooks discusses Hardy’s views on the tragedy that the main character of the story has similarities with old and new, both tragic characters. Henchard shares certain qualities with all those old tragic characters. According to Brooks, the novel’s plot is archetypal:

The novel’s main character, Michael Henchard, is compared with classical heroes such as Achilles and Oedipus, biblical heroes such as Cain and Job, and Renaissance heroes such as King Lear, and Faust (199), while “his self-alienation and impulse to self-destruction recall more modern heroes [such as] Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff [and] Melville’s Captain Ahab” ( 200).

Brooks claims that novel is archetypal because it acquires the essential traits of all classical tragic heroes and Hardy perfectly made Henchard a copy of King Lear etc in the context of a tragic character. Henchard’s tragedy is that he is a basically virtuous character, but that the external circumstances hit him where it hurts, so to speak, and bring out his flaws. He has all the qualities which are in Achilles and Oedipus etc.

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