The Irony of Elizabeth-Jane and Henchard

May 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Susan Henchard’s innate dependence on men displays itself in multiple ways and instances. However, the most notable is when Susan reunites with Michael Henchard in Casterbridge after 18 years of separation. Instead of telling him the truth about the untimely death of their infant child, Elizabeth-Jane Henchard, who is introduced in the opening scenes of the novel, allows him to assume that his daughter and Elizabeth-Jane Newson, the daughter of Susan and the sailor, are the same person. Susan allows this assumption to carry on until her death, effectively deceiving Henchard in exchange for protection and funds for her daughter. Although Susan puts the needs of herself and her daughter before the truth, Elizabeth-Jane’s presence benefits Henchard as she is a strong support towards the end of his life. Susan’s deception, fueled by the need for a male figure for herself and her daughter, is ironic because even though Susan tricks Henchard in order to gain a support system, Henchard ends up being dependent on the strong-willed Elizabeth-Jane.

Susan’s need for male support is displayed by her desire to stay faithful to the men in her life despite the misery associated with her situation. In the opening scenes of the novel, as Susan and Michael Henchard are journeying down the road to Weydon Fair, Thomas Hardy describes the pair as solemn and silent, never touching. As the events of the night play out, the discontent of the couple becomes more clear as Susan sits by her drunken husband’s side in the furmity tent and whispers: “‘Michael, you have talked this nonsense in public places before. A joke is a joke, but you might make it once too often mind!’” (10). From Susan’s statements, it can be inferred that this is not the first occurrence of Michael Henchard’s offensive comments, and that she has stayed faithful for the duration of their marriage in spite of his frequently demeaning, drunken remarks. Even in her final moments as wife to Henchard, she obeys his wishes to sell her, and then transfers all loyalty to Newson.

However, Susan’s ideas of dependency again display themselves in her marriage to Newson, as she disregards her own emotional suffering and remains loyal to their “marriage.” Although, Susan becomes unhappy with her relationship, it is not until Newson essentially releases her, by “dying” at sea, that she leaves. However, not coincidentally, Susan immediately goes in search of Henchard, hoping that he has improved his life enough to be able to provide for her and Elizabeth-Jane. Susan is so desperate for the male support she might gain by rekindling her relationship with Henchard that she is willing to deceive him, and allow him to believe that Elizabeth-Jane Newson is his daughter. Despite Susan’s disregard for Henchard, and her sole focus on finding male support for her daughter, the results of Susan’s decision end up positively impacting Henchard.

Susan’s motive for reuniting with Henchard was pursuit of a better life for her daughter, which she believed must be achieved by a male presence; she would do anything to obtain a male influence of this sort. In the beginning stages of the novel, the reader is completely unaware that Susan has any reason for fooling Henchard, as Hardy leads the reader to believe that she is a genuine and straightforward character, having to reason or need to deceive her husband. Recalling the moments in the amphitheater when Susan and Henchard first reunite after 18 years of separation, Susan says: “‘I came here for the sake of Elizabeth; for myself if you tell me to leave again to-morrow morning, and never come near you more, I am content to go’” (73). Although this statement still remains true in light of the end of the novel, in hindsight it is easy to see how Susan is duping Henchard. Susan allows Henchard to believe that his own daughter is in need of stability of protection, when in reality the young girl is not his. In Susan’s eyes, she and her surviving daughter, Elizabeth-Jane Newson, are in desperate need of male support, especially with the knowledge of her impending death due to her sickness. However, Elizabeth-Jane is a much more independent character than her mother, and is not in need of the same assistance. Elizabeth-Jane is not only capable of caring for herself, but also, ironically, of caring for the “father” who was expected by her late mother to provide for her.

Elizabeth-Jane’s function at the end of the novel is rather ironic because she plays a large role in sustaining the man who was originally expected to nurture her. Susan originally planned to fool Henchard into taking care of Elizabeth-Jane until her wedding day, when he would find out through her letter that she was not truly his daughter. Susan had expected that Henchard would remain a prominent member of society, able to care and look after Elizabeth-Jane until she was passed on to her husband. Unfortunately, after Susan’s death many unpredictable twists take place in the storyline, leaving Henchard bankrupt and depressed. Although Henchard was unable to care for Elizabeth-Jane as Susan had so carefully planned before her death, Elizabeth-Jane was much more independent and willing to care for herself, and the man she believed to be her father, despite his earlier mistreatment of her. When Elizabeth-Jane realizes the extent of Henchard’s depression as they look into the stream where he almost kills himself, she reaches out to him, “‘Father! – I will not leave you alone like this!’ she cried. ‘May I live with you, and tend upon you as I used to? I do not mind your being poor. I would have agreed this morning, but you did not ask me.’” Elizabeth-Jane’s attitude toward Henchard displays the independence that her mother had not expected of her. Elizabeth-Jane is not only willing to aid Henchard, but also insists upon it, regardless of the fact that the expectation of their relationship was originally much different.

Elizabeth-Jane’s character is intriguing because, unlike her mother, she is self-reliant and not in need of the male support that her mother attempts to secure. Although Susan seems willing to go to any measure to protect her daughter, even by lying and deceiving her husband, Elizabeth-Jane is still able to prosper when her mother’s plan backfires. After Henchard’s bankruptcy, among his other troubles, Elizabeth-Jane ironically becomes a pillar of support for Henchard, keeping him alive. Despite the early circumstances of her life, Elizabeth-Jane is able to thrive without a male to rely on. Elizabeth-Jane broke her mother’s notion that she would need a male figure in her life to support her. In reality, Susan’s efforts to rekindle her marriage with Henchard were more beneficial for Henchard than for Elizabeth-Jane.

The irony of Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane’s relationship is an important but easily overlooked element of Hardy’s story. As Susan seeks out male support for Elizabeth-Jane, she disregards Henchard; however, the results of her efforts have a positive impact of his life, and even save him from the grips of death for a moment. Susan’s extreme concern for her daughter’s well being turns out to be unwarranted, as Elizabeth-Jane is an independent young woman, who is not only capable of caring for herself but is also willing to take on the responsibility of her struggling “father.” Although Susan is convinced that Elizabeth-Jane will need the support of Henchard’s money, and is willing to go to endless measures to attain it, it is really the complicated and broken Henchard who needs caring for. In contrast to her mother, Elizabeth-Jane is strong-willed and capable of happiness without monetary and societal support from a male figure. Even as Henchard is thrown into the depths of his depression, she is willing to be the support system he so desperately needs.

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