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What caused Henchard's fall in The Mayor of Casterbridge, his fate or his personal weaknesses?
Henchard's poor fate or his personal weaknesses
Henchard is the central character in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy's novel records his tragic personality and complicated life. Henchard rises from hay trussing to become the Mayor of Casterbridge which is a fictional town in Britain. Hardy was a determinist in his own view, who believed in forces outside human control that shaped human life. He believed that all in a man's life was not under his own control but that external forces could have a tragic impact on it. In the Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard's character appears true to this philosophy. His rise and fall are an evidence of the power that rests in the hands of fate. However, not all is straight with Henchard. Hardy has filled him with so many contradictory traits that he often appears a clumsy unrealistic character. Critics of determinism do not believe in fate. It is why Hardy's novel has remained a topic of debate among the critics.
Thomas Hardy presents Henchard as a man of character who has accumulated too many pressures in his life. He succumbs to these pressures and dies a low death at the end. Call it poverty or Henchard's ugly fate, he ends up ruining his life badly. Hardy has filled him with weaknesses that do not fit in a man of character. Henchard is difficult and defies being understood beyond an extent. He is ambitious and caught in a conflict between his personal emotions and ambition. He has abandoned his family or rather his family has abandoned him. Hardy connects things like fate and sin with Henchard's life to show that despite being strong, man is subject to natural forces. In this way, he has added depth to Henchard's character and made him an object of readers' sympathy. Hardy's excellence lies in the facts that he has turned someone who has committed the abominable sin of having sold his wife, a hero worthy of sympathy. At least Henchard remains so during a large part of the novel.
Henchard and his wife Susan are a poor match which becomes clear right in the initial part of the novel. The poor hay trusser drags her around like extra load. He is searching for work when he reaches Weyden Priors with his family. His wife appears a meek and passive woman who does not fit with her husband. She is carrying a young child; their daughter Elizabeth Jane who later dies. The poor worker is feeling frustrated for he is unable to find work. At the end his frustration pours out in the furmity woman's tent. He has gotten drunk and proposes to sell his wife and daughter for five guineas. His wife does not react when he is auctioning her and her child as if lamenting being married to Henchard. A young sailor returns his proposal and pays five pounds to have his wife and daughter. Michael Henchard's wife warns him just once before she leaves with the sailor. "“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.” (Chapter 1) Henchard was trying to tease his wife but she lost her patience. Being auctioned before so many people like a commodity challenges her conscience. She cannot bear to remain with a man who is auctioning her like a harlot. Susan was sobbing when she left and Henchard was too drunk to understand the gravity of his sin. When he rises in the morning, his family is gone leaving him alone to deal with his stubbornness.
Susan is a submissive woman who first submitted to Henchard and let him drag around like dead weight and then to the sailor who has bought her for five pounds. She has passively surrendered to her fate and just takes the path it gives her. "Tis like Susan to show such idiotic simplicity. Meek—that meekness has done me more harm than the bitterest temper!” (Chapter 2) Henchard is annoyed at her simplicity and his annoyance shows up when he is drunk. Had Susan been stronger and less sensitive the entire crisis could have been averted. In herself, she is suspicious and confused which shows in her actions. Still, compared to Henchard, she is less guilty and the evidence is Henchard's irresponsible behavior. It is for this attitude that he loses everything valuable in his life.
Henchard's Personal Weaknesses
To understand Henchard's situation, it would be proper to analyze his behavior. In the initial scenes, he is frustrated at his poverty. In a state of frustration, he ends up messing his situation by selling his wife and daughter. They are the only support he has in his life. Till they are with him, they are a burden and when they have left he feels lost and alone. All does not appear to be caused by fate. Had Henchard been less stubborn and complicated life could have been easier for him and his family. It is not just him who is bearing all the difficulties but also his family. His daughter dies a few months after his wife has left. The sailor who has bought them gives them a better life and more care but is unable to save his daughter who falls ill and dies.
Henchard is also quick to lose temper and betray emotions. When Susan returns to his life with the sailor's daughter whom she has named Elizabeth Jane after their daughter, she does not tell him the truth. When Henchard gets to learn the truth, he becomes cold towards Jane and ends up alienating her. The sailor Newson who was believed to have died in a voyage returns to his life later looking for his daughter. A stunned Henchard replies that she has died while she is alive and well with Donald Farfrae. Newson, who had responsibly treated his wife and daughter well, leaves Henchard's home with an aching heart. Henchard cannot think straight after his family has returned to him. Again he has lost control of his wit and makes amusing mistakes. It is why he ends up losing Elizabeth Jane's sympathy when she learns of his lie from Newson.
He has remained a honest and reliable leader for the people of Casterbridge. However, the picture is not as bright in his personal life which is a deadly mess of tragic emotions. Hardy shows with clarity that Henchard trying to escape one mess lands himself in another. His poor fate shadows him everywhere. By the end, all the light and music in his life is gone and he is lying dead in a pit. Fate has punished him for his sin. The pit signifies a circle of hell to which Henchard's soul has been banished forever. It may appear like it has punished him excessively but then for Henchard, it has always been difficult to balance his act.
In his personal life, Henchard is a compulsive husband, an irresponsible father and a bad friend. None of his relationships work and everyone abandons him. It is because of his emotional volatility and stubbornness. He is not a family man. However, he is an ambitious leader who just finds failure difficult to tolerate. The biggest complexity with him is he cannot retain his hard earned success and happiness. Fate keeps bringing him back to where he had started from. Susan and Elizabeth are his weaknesses whom he brings back into his life and his life crumbles.
Henchard’s relationship with Farfrae is just as ill-fated who becomes the cause of his doom. He hired Farfrae thinking he will bring life back to his business but he turns a competitor and his rise becomes Henchard's ruin. Lucetta also dies because of her relationship with Henchard. She ends up dying a melodramatic death after her love letters are discovered. In her death, she proves that Henchard's ill fate has affected the people around him.
BBC video - The Mayor of Casterbridge Episode 1
Henchard's death proves two things. A man should not lose sight of his weaknesses or he will ruin his own fate. The second thing it proves is that you can hide your weaknesses but to overcome them you need to make sacrifices. Henchard has kept hiding his past from people till Susan comes back. Susan is the punishment fate has imposed upon him. The vicious circle of fate ends only with Henchard's reunion with Susan in the heavens. He has not died a peaceful death but then nothing could have brought peace to his life than death. He dies the most tragic death in the novel; even tragic than Lucetta. Hardy's novel also shows human society in a poor light which is habituated of peeping into people's personal lives.