The Mayor of Casterbridge
by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy had a tough job in The Mayor of Casterbridge. The main character, Michael Henchard, has more personality flaws than your average novel's hero, and yet the author wants us to feel sorry for him when things go sour. The author has to find a balance between making it clear that a lot of the bad stuff that happens to Henchard results from his own poor decisions, and showing the reader that Henchard's bad decisions are a result of his natural personality, which he really can't change.
Wow, that's some complicated storytelling. Why not just create a traditional villain? Why should so much potential good and so much potential evil be wrapped up in one character? Well, because that's how people are in real life! Hardy wanted to write a novel that reflected the psychological realities he saw in everyday people. Let's take a closer look at Henchard to see how Hardy developed the complexities of his main character to make him both sympathetic and deeply flawed.
A Universal Every-Man?
The novel opens with a detailed description of Michael Henchard and his wife, Susan, as they walk along the road looking for work:
The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. [. . .] His measured springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference, personal to himself, showing itself even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along. (1.2)
Henchard isn't named yet at this point: the narrator just calls him "the man" and, later, "the hay-trusser." In fact, we don't learn his name until later in the chapter, when Susan calls him "Mike." We don't hear his last name until the second chapter, when Henchard swears his oath to give up alcohol.
That's a pretty strange way to introduce the main character, isn't it? But it goes along with the title: the novel isn't called "Michael Henchard," it's called The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character. Even in the title of the novel, he's just "a Man" and "the Mayor."
Why should Hardy wait so long to name his main character? Take another look at that opening description for some possible answers. Hardy seems like he wants "the man" to appear universal – he could be anyone. He isn't named, and Hardy compares him to some general "types." He has "the walk of a skilled countryman" as opposed to the shuffling, "desultory shamble of the general labourer." We're also not given any back story about him at all. All we find out is that Henchard got married to Susan before the start of the novel, when he was about 18 years old. We don't know where he came from or what his parents were like or anything. He really could be anyone.
But even as Hardy emphasizes how anonymous, and therefore how universal, "the man" is in this opening description, he points out characteristics that are unique about him. His "dogged and cynical indifference" is "personal to himself." So right from the start, Hardy characterizes "the man" as both universal and unique. Seems like a contradiction, right? Well, it isn't the only one in Henchard's character.
Superstitions and Spirituality
One of the characteristics that make Henchard unique is his reliance on superstition. This is one of the major differences between Henchard and Farfrae, who is the most practical, literal-minded person in the book. Henchard is very in tune with nature and the natural world, and also to events that seem somehow symbolic to him. His sensitivity to these things is both a strength and a flaw. His appreciation for music can sometimes be a comfort to him, but his over-sensitivity can sometimes lead him to see insults where none were intended. Henchard's superstition first comes up when he swears his oath never to drink again:
But first he resolved to register an oath, a greater oath than he had ever sworn before: and to do it properly he required a fit place and imagery; for there was something fetichistic in this man's beliefs. (2.7)
To say that Henchard's spirituality is "fetishistic" isn't necessarily a bad thing; it just means that he tends to place a lot of symbolic weight on objects. He's in tune with nature and the earth and physical things in general. He sees patterns and guesses at divine meaning in everyday coincidences. For example, when Lucetta asks to see him to get her letters back, she proposes meeting him at the Casterbridge Ring, the old Roman amphitheater at the edge of town. This is the same place where he'd been reunited with Susan. It's just a coincidence – Lucetta didn't know he'd met Susan there – but Henchard sees a pattern and assumes it has some kind of deeper importance:
Lucetta had unwittingly backed up her entreaty by the strongest argument she could have used outside words, with this man of moods, glooms, and superstitions. Her figure in the midst of the huge enclosure, the unusual plainness of her dress, her attitude of hope and appeal [. . .] strongly revived in his soul the memory of another ill-used woman who had stood there in bygone days. (35.20)
Henchard's Red and Black Passions
Henchard is a passionate guy, and the smallest thing can cause those passions to bubble to the surface. Music, for example, can easily call up his emotions:
With Henchard music was of regal power. The merest trumpet or organ tone was enough to move him, and high harmonies transubstantiated him. But fate had ordained that he should be unable to call up this Divine spirit in his need. (41.52)
His sensitivity to music has a tragic element to it: music moves him deeply, but he's not musical himself. He doesn't sing and never learned a musical instrument. And since he lived in the days before the iPod or even the radio, the only time he hears music is in church or at public concerts. Music would have been a good, healthy outlet for Henchard's pent-up emotions, but he's not like Farfrae, who is able to express every passing mood by singing, whistling, humming, or dancing. Because Henchard is not musical and can't express his emotions by singing, he ends up keeping them all pent up.
But that doesn't mean that his passions hidden to other characters and to the reader. Everything he feels is visible in his face, which is often described with the colors red and black. He has a dark complexion, with dark hair and eyes, and he flushes easily when he's angry or upset. (Check out the "Symbols" section for more on the novel's use of red and black.) His face is described as a "thin" mask that covers his personality. It's so thin that it's easy to see what is happening underneath the surface:
There was a temper under the thin bland surface . . . (5.38)
On the one hand, Henchard's quick temper is obviously a major flaw. It's the reason he sold his wife, lost his friendship with Farfrae, and sent Elizabeth-Jane away. On the other hand, at least his temper is easy to see. He's not like Lucetta, who hides what she's feeling and disguises her true self with fancy clothes and makeup. Henchard might have a terrible temper and too little self-control, but at least he's honest about it.
He realizes, for example, that all of his personal losses are at least partly his own fault:
Susan, Farfrae, Lucetta, Elizabeth – all had gone from him, one after one, either by his fault or by his misfortune. (41.51)
And that might be one answer to how Hardy manages to make the reader care about a guy as deeply flawed as Henchard: for all his faults, he's at least honest with himself and others. His defects seem to be so deeply ingrained in his personality that he couldn't change them even if he wanted to. When he screws up and things go badly for him, he eventually recognizes that it's his own fault, even if he blames everyone around him at first.
And to counterbalance that terrible temper of his, Henchard is also very fair-minded. Think about the scene in which he challenges Farfrae to a fight to the death. Henchard is a lot taller and stronger than Farfrae, so he fights him with one hand tied behind his back to even things out. When he has to declare bankruptcy, he is completely honest and open with the bankers and doesn't hold back a single dime. When he swears the oath to avoid alcohol for twenty years, he keeps it to the very day, in spite of all the temptations to break it.
The narrator wants readers to pity Henchard even as they recognize his flaws. Is he successful? How sorry do you feel for Henchard by the end? Are you able to get past his lengthy list of personality flaws to appreciate the good things about him?