Comparison of Michael Henchard and Okonkwo.

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Freya Ollerearnshaw

Comparison of Michael Henchard and Okonkwo

        In this essay I shall be comparing the characters of Michael Henchard, from the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy, and Okonkwo, from ‘Things Fall Apart’ by Chinua Achebe. I will compare and contrast the similarities and differences in each man’s character, position in their community and the major challenges they both face as their stories advance. I will also give an account of their weakness and strengths and their response to the changes in their environment.

        At the beginning of Chapter 3 in the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’, we discover that Henchard has the leading office of Mayor. Christopher Coney describes Henchard’s position by saying, “He’s the powerfulest member of the town council and quite a principal man in the country round besides… He worked his way up from nothing and now he’s a pillar of the town.”

This very fact tells us a lot about Henchard’s character, that he came to Casterbridge as a simple hay-trusser and managed to build up and maintain a successful business, gain a well-known and trusted reputation and rise to such a powerful position, despite his disreputable past. To do this Henchard would have had to have been determined, extremely hardworking and ambitious to make a better life for himself.

        Most of Henchard’s achievement was due to the oath he swore straight after selling his wife while under the influence of alcohol, that he would not drink any more for another 26 years. The fact that he was able to recognise his weakness and take steps to prevent its reoccurrence shows Henchard to have inner strength and an ambition to better himself. However, this also shows that Henchard has a self-accusing soul as he sees it fit to punish himself for the events of the past by swearing the oath in a Church and totally refusing to break it. This reveals Henchard’s unwavering determination that can enable him to do such drastic things.    

        A sign of how drastically Henchard has reformed is when Susan warned her daughter, “He (Henchard) may be in the workhouse or in the stocks for all we know.” Susan’s presumption of Henchard’s lowly status tells us that even his wife did not think him capable of rising to a dignified position. This shows that Henchard’s reform was quite remarkable for him to have become Mayor.

        Although he is not a widely liked character, Henchard is a respected man and is seen as quite fair. Christopher Coney says to Elizabeth-Jane when she enquired about Henchard, “Mr Henchard has never cussed me unfairly ever since I’ve worked for’n.”

        However, there are numerous weaknesses to Henchard’s Character. Chapter 3 begins at a stage a time after the peak in Henchard’s career, when the people of Casterbridge are no longer completely satisfied with the way in which Henchard runs things and are beginning to question his judgement and ability to keep things running smoothly.

        An example of this is that Henchard had bought grown wheat, resulting in bread that was tough and did not rise. Henchard has come under much criticism for this mistake from both ends of society; Christopher Coney (a peasant) and some of the wealthy men at his dinner party.

        Like Okonkwo, Henchard is also prone to impulsive actions especially when under the influence of alcohol during which he sold his wife and child. This is an incident, which he deeply regrets and feels guilty for. Even 20 or so years on, he will not let himself forget this act- his oath is a constant reminder.

        Henchard’s impulsive actions, like Okonkwo’s are often violent. However, Henchard’s violence is often verbal, loosing his temper and getting into uncontrollable rages but never resorting to physical violence which is a trait of Okonkwo’s character demonstrated in the beating of his wife and the killing of Ikemefuna.

        Although Henchard was once poor himself, he had always been a strong and capable worker and therefore he has a low opinion on people that are less able than him. This is shown when Henchard is preparing to fight with Farfrae and ties one hand behind his back to make the contest fair. His opinion of strength is that it lies in physique and not intelligence, because of this he does not consider Farfrae a worthy advisory. Like Okonkwo, Henchard deals with weak people heavily and without sympathy. This side of Henchard is revealed in the episode where Abel Whittle, who works for him, is trying to explain to an angry Henchard that he has difficulty waking up in the morning, resulting in him being late for work. Henchard ignores his pleas and threatens that if he arrives late again “I’ll mortify thy flesh for thee!”

        When Abel still fails to arrive at work on time, Henchard stays true to his word and marches down to Abel’s house, drags him out of bed and sends him to work without allowing him to put on his breeches (trousers). This is a terrible embarrassment for Abel who threatens to kill himself but Henchard’s Character is of that that he cant be seen to loose face in front of his other workers. If he does not take steps to punish Abel publicly then he will loose his authority among them. In this sense too, Henchard is very much like Okonkwo in that he refuses to show weakness or mercy in fear of damaging his reputation. Dominance and assertion are part of Michael Henchard’s style of management.

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        In the first paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’, we learn a lot about Okonkwo’s status and position in the tribe. ‘Okonkwo was well known throughout the 9 villages and even beyond’ This first sentence tells us that Okonkwo has a reputation.

We then discover that his ‘fame’ was due to his skills as a wrestler in his youth, that he managed to ‘throw Amalinze the Cat’ who had previously been unbeaten for seven years. This tells us that Okonkwo was strong and that he had become famous of his own doing and was a well-respected figure, bringing honour to ...

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