Michael Henchard’s Rise and Fall in Novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’
One of the most renowned English novelists and poets in literary history, Thomas Hardy, was born in 1840. Over the course of his life, the author produced many insightful literary works, including one of his most well-known novels, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Michael Henchard must make life-altering decisions that ultimately damage Henchard himself and lead to his loss of family, career, riches, and happiness. A critic Ian Gregor once stated, “The last two chapters stand in the same dramatic relationship to the full novel as the first two.” In the first two and last two chapters of the story, Thomas Hardy utilizes characterization to stress the decisions that ultimately lead to Henchard’s self-destruction.
In the first two chapters of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy immediately characterizes the protagonist, Michael, as a passionate and determined man. However, he also obtains the character traits bitter, heartless, prideful, and impulsive. Michael constantly shows his negative traits as a sharp contrast to his positive traits. For example, more than a few times Henchard proves his generosity such as when he takes his young Scotchman, Donald Farfrae, under his wing and becomes his mentor and friend. In addition, Michael offers his house to Farfrae while they barely know each other. However, the main character’s jealousy and overall hatred of his business partner contradict his generosity. While walking along the road, Michael declares in frustration, ‘If I were a free man again, I would be worth a thousand pound.’ (9) Henchard believes his family burdens him, and without them, he could achieve greater accomplishments. The protagonist, Michael, in drunken anger, commits his first impulsive act of selling his wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane to a stranger for the price of only five guineas. This impetuous decision based on emotion causes the separation between Michael and his family for the next eighteen years. To emphasize the importance of this act Hardy applies the classic “slow down technique” to generate suspense. Up until the moment that Henchard exchanges physical money for his family members, the spectators inside of the tent think that the impulsive protagonist is merely trying to carry out a joke.
All of a sudden, Henchard “clink[s] down the shillings severally- one, two, three, four, five” (6) and hands them to the sailor. Hardy describes this irreversible and shocking moment in extreme detail so that the audience wants to learn the outcome and understand the significance of the auction. The next morning, the ashamed main character realizes the extent of his actions as he wakes up to find out about the loss of his wife and daughter. As a result of his immature decisions, the protagonist takes an oath vowing to abstain from drinking alcohol for the next twenty-one years. Following on his mistake, the young man sets out on a month-long journey to locate his family. Although he fails on his journey, Henchard’s subsequent success in Casterbridge, the town in which he settles, originates from his sobriety. The determined young hay-trusser eventually becomes an affluent corn merchant, and later becomes the mayor of Casterbridge. After the rueful mistake at the furmity tent, Michael then regrets his actions and tries to make amends. This process occurs time and time again over the course of the novel. For instance, at the starting point of the novel, the protagonist agrees to sell his wife and child, while at the end of the novel his plan to kill Donald Farfrae causes him to lose his partnership and, in the end, to lose his whole business.
In the last two chapters of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy immediately characterizes the protagonist, Michael, once again as an unsuccessful hay-trusser down on his luck, in the same situation from twenty-one years before. Following his settlement in Casterbridge, the young persistent man over the next eighteen years becomes a successful corn merchant, gains wealth, and gains the honorable title of town mayor. At this point in the novel, Michael reaches the peak of his success. Once he reaches his highest success point, fate inevitably intervenes to completely ruin him and lead to his downfall. As the novel progresses, the declining main character’s self-destructing traits consequently guide him to his isolation and poverty. Upon his secret past, hidden from the people of Casterbridge, when the furmity-woman reveals the story of Henchard selling his wife and daughter, Henchard’s popularity starts to decline rapidly from that day onward. Although he obtains the sacred position of mayor for most of the novel, the townsmen begin to deem him unworthy and gravitate toward Farfrae. Henchard’s pride essentially produces his jealousy. The envy Henchard portrays is evident when Farfrae’s holiday celebrations remain unharmed by the weather. Henchard looks towards Donald and rashly says, “Mr. Farfrae’s time as my manager is drawing to a close- isn’t it, Farfrae?” (84) The prideful Henchard with the influence of his enviousness foolishly separates from his business manager.
Continuously throughout the course of the novel, Michael makes his decisions influenced by his emotions, while angry, prideful, jealous, or drunk. As the novel progresses, while Farfrae starts his own separate business and excels within Casterbridge society, Henchard loses family and fortune as his jealousy damages himself and his reputation. Moreover, Henchard’s attempt to ruin Farfrae’s business fails and causes his own business to go into debt, as Farfrae gains profit. Besides Farfrae’s constant kindness, as Michael hears the news of the rumor that “Mr. Farfrae was to be proposed for Mayor in a year or two.” (174),
Henchard establishes himself as Farfrae’s rival in business and in life. In addition, although the young Scottish man is unaware of his boss’s past relationship with the women he presents interest in, Henchard’s attraction for Lucetta increases due to her strong fondness of Farfrae. Henchard jealously tries to force Lucetta to marry him. When Lucetta marries Farfrae secretly, Henchard is angry and obsessed with her betrayal. As Henchard drives himself crazy over the idea of Farfrae possibly taking a position as the new mayor, the roles of the two men in a society completely reverse by the end of the novel. Farfrae becomes the most successful and distinguished man in Casterbridge, living in the house that was once belonged to Henchard. Meanwhile, the declining main character dies a poor hay-trusser, insignificant, and alone just as at the start of the novel. Evidently, Hardy portrays Micael Henchard’s life in a continuous cycle of his rises and falls to power. Henchard frequently begins in misery, although slowly climbs his way to the highest rank, reaching success, and then falls, causing the main character to come full circle in an unfortunate repetition of events.
Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, one of his most powerful novels, tells the tale of Michael Henchard’s rise and fall. Throughout the unfortunate story, the novel contains critical and purposeful writing. However, the most critical, significant, and purposeful writing is present in the first two and last two chapters of the book. Hardy has definitely fulfilled exactly what critic Ian Gregor has stated, he has specifically made the first two chapters and the last two chapters parts of the story that holds an identical dramatic relationship. Overall, through his usage of characterization, writing techniques, and self-destruction, Thomas Hardy conveys the circumstances and decisions that ultimately lead to the gradual downfall of Michael Henchard.
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