The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Henchard - Well -Meaning Villain or Tragic Hero?

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Henchard – Well -Meaning Villain or Tragic Hero?

In the novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy, the main character Michael Henchard earns the contempt of many readers due to his strict, arrogant and sometimes cruel and callous nature. But is it right to hold this against him? Does he really deserve all he got? Or should we perhaps feel some sympathy towards him? After all, the disastrous incidents he endures in this book are surely not worthy of anyone, simply due to the fact they may have a negative attitude at times?

In some ways, Henchard could be thought of as a ‘well-meaning villain,’ one who has no principal morals but no particular desire to be heartless or hurtful either. There are some incidents in the story that would suggest a villainous side to Henchard, especially at the beginning and in the closing stages of the book, where his alcoholism gets the better of him and he becomes hotheaded and violent. Instances such as the sale of his wife Susan and baby daughter Elizabeth-Jane to Richard Newson, a complete stranger, at Weydon-Priors Fair, and his drink-inspired fight with Donald Farfrae - who was once his friend - in the granary convey this idea.

 However, Henchard also has many negative features that are simply part of his personality, which he finds difficult to curb even when he is sober. He is naturally quick to form opinions and agree or object to things, leading to some rash decisions such as the hiring then firing of Farfrae, and the prevention of his courtship with Elizabeth-Jane. A little more thought, consideration and tolerance on Henchard’s part could have led to a flourishing relationship with the Scotsman, as both a co-worker and a friend.

Other faults in Henchard’s temperament include his egotism, a touch of vindictiveness, jealousy, and low self-esteem at times. His arrogance, along with his bad temper, is displayed at times; Abel Whittle, for example, who is consistently late for work is made to go to work wearing nothing but his underwear. Force is used against Lucetta Templeman, Henchard’s former fiancée to try to make her marry him, and Elizabeth-Jane is scolded for using what he deems to be ‘inappropriate’ language: “I won’t have you talk like that! One would think you worked upon a farm! I’m burned, if it goes on, this house can’t hold us two.”

 Henchard can be spiteful – his vindictiveness is shown after Farfrae’s marriage to Lucetta, when he reads the former letters the latter wrote him while he was courting her.  He displays jealousy towards Farfrae at times when he seems to be overruling him; taking away his daughter and his girlfriend and attempting to make decisions against his own, like the afore mentioned time when Whittle is late one time too many:

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(Henchard) “Hullo, hullo! Who’s sending him (Whittle) back?

(Farfrae) “I am. I say this joke has been carried far enough.

“And I say it hasn’t! Get up in the wagon, Whittle.

“Not if I am manager. He either goes home, or I march out of this yard for good.”

 Having suffering other similar instances also, Henchard consequently dismisses Farfrae, leading to the set-up of Farfrae’s own business.

Henchard’s low self-esteem is displayed from time to time; when he feels particularly miserable, everyone from Elizabeth-Jane to Abel Whittle is told how worthless he is: “What, Whittle, and ...

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