MICHAEL HENCHARD

Character Profile and Function in the novel

Henchard’s character is the site of ethical division and he mirrors his society. His character is divided:

  • Morality versus unruly passion
  • Tradition versus impulse.
  • His progress is generated from within and exacerbated by the external.

Hardy adventurously writes a tragedy within contemporary bourgeois society.   The essence of tragedy is the sense of deep sense of human loss.  The tragic hero is impelled towards self-awareness: through the wife sale this protagonist recognises his responsibility for his destiny and the narrative shows his progressive degradation.  It is a useful exercise to identify how Henchard meets Aristotle’s criteria of a classical tragic hero.

Character and fate are perhaps interchangeable: Henchard seeks to dominate yet he is slave to impulsive acts and so his fate is thereby internalised.  The words: ‘Tis turn and turn about’ (226/260) reveal Henchard’s own concept of changing fortunes (see Elizabeth-Jane).  Note: the line ‘character is fate’ originates in Heraclitus (fragment 119); it is also translated as ‘character is destiny’

Edward W Said  observes that to be different ‘is to sense most of the time that one’s life has an uncommon, even unhappy destiny.’ The classic nineteenth century protagonist is hungry for originality – no longer part of family or community, but ‘an illicit dream of projected self-fulfilment’.  The classic realism in the Victorian novel therefore seeks to ‘replace the bonds of community with the creative, subjective freedom of unfettered emotion.’  Henchard is seduced from natural procreation to a “novelistic” enterprise, by money. Every relationship in the novel lacks ‘connection’.

Hardy’s fiction concerns those who seek social advancement but who also may be ruined at any time. Henchard is a rural proletarian seeking to sell his labour – later he becomes a capitalist.  Both Farfrae and Henchard show that, no matter how humble, a man could climb the ladder of entrepreneurial society. The self-made man became a popular Victorian myth: Hardy represents the primitive form in contrast to Farfrae the new ‘professional man’ – both are devoted to the doctrine of hard work. Henchard works by ‘rule of thumb’ but recognises the need for ‘just the reverse’ (55).

In the opening. Henchard’s inner life is obscure and distanced from the reader – it is progressively revealed.  He has no family history and he creates/recreates himself through effort of will.  He seeks satisfaction almost exclusively in the public realm.  He depicts himself as ‘something of a woman-hater’ (78/89), having a ‘well-known haughty indifference ‘to women’ (94) and ‘no amatory fire’ for Susan (95); he experiences remorse but no loss of his wife; he proceeds with ‘strict mechanical rightness’ (82/93) towards Susan; he courts Lucetta with ‘interest, if not warmth’ (149/169); his closest relations are brotherly and fatherly. Note how Hardy ironically refers to him being as kind to his returned wife ‘as a man, mayor and church warden could possibly be’ (87/99); Lucetta calls him ‘a man, a merchant and a mayor’ (148/168).  He ironically embodies the communal paternal role when he has disavowed the personal one.

He has a temperament ‘which would have no pity for weakness’ (34/36) and although he abstinently remains ‘stately and vertical’ (40/44), he has an impetuosity which leads to precipitate actions and then repentance e.g. with regard to the wife sale, treatment of Whittle, dismissal of Farfrae, handling of Lucetta’s letters, anguish after the wrestling.

Henchard loses self-confidence:

(a) on opening Susan’s letter where he ‘could neither recover not complete the swoon (128/146)

(b) when hearing of Lucetta’s marriage, he ‘stood as if idiotized’ (210/242).

His self-assertion on the Royal Visit. psalm singing (109?) (which parodically recalls Farfrae’s performance) and the wrestling match lead to reaction, defeat and self-abnegation.  His guilt is heightened by Farfrae’s refusal to believe him about Lucetta after the skimmitv ride.

Relationships as business transactions

He encourages Farfrae to court Elizabeth Jane when she becomes worthless stock.

  • He reinvests in Lucetta.
  • He sells and then buys back Susan for five guineas (79).
  • Settles with Lucetta by sending her money.
  • Gives Elizabeth Jane -Jane annuity. i.e. he repeats original offence of treating relationships like commodities with a market value.

Henchard’s decline is symptomatic of a general decline in rural life from prosperity to immiseration (note the parody in the furmity woman’s decline (24/ 25). His house and garden foreshadow his torment, especially the espaliers in vegetable agony and the ox-skull (77/88). He moves like a tree in the wind (123/141). His changing personal appearance is constantly measured against the early picture of mayoral glory (/37) where the clothes exemplify both prosperity and the rapid changes undermining rural life. The pulling down of houses and the derelict house (383) complete the symbolic cycle of Henchard who ‘stood like a dark ruin’ (376), within an ailing rural way if life.

Elaine Showalter

Showalter suggests that for Hardy’s heroes, there is an assimilation of female suffering.  Having at first attempted to deny the affective life and show no pity for weakness. Henchard then proceeds along a path of ‘unmanning’ 288, self-discovery and acknowledgement of vulnerability.  After the wife sale, he commits himself to a male community and ‘the male codes of money, paternity, honour and legal contract’. He gradually comes to accept the ‘arid limits of patriarchal power’ and the reader sees him move from ‘romantic male individualism to a more complete humanity’.

Apart from the imbroglio with Lucetta, he remains chaste and is ‘enervated by the genteel widow’ (83/94).  His strongest feelings are reserved for the surrogate brother. Bouts of illness or depression open him up to an emotional warmth which he has sought to keep under control: the structure of the novel enacts the deconstruction of the carefully created self.  The process begins with the furmity woman and continues with:

  • inability to carry out threats towards Lucetta and his compunction in the Amphitheatre:
  • the Royal Visit debacle
  • the symbolic wrestling match  in which Henchard declares: ‘No man ever loved another as I did thee’ (271/3 15) and which leaves him ‘crouching’ – a regressive and almost foetal scene, which ‘sat so tragically on the figure of so stern a piece of virility’ (274/318)

    Note the ‘womanliness’ of his attitude  as well as both his shame and self-reproach.  One might for contextual and textual reasons, contrast this scene with that in Lawrence’s ‘Women in Love’ where the sexuality between men is more explicit.

  • Ten-Hatches-Weir where we see the symbolic shell of a discarded male self.

When he dedicates himself to the love and protection of Elizabeth. he is reborn. Towards the end of the novel, the opening scenes are reversed: woman is in the ascendant, he carries momentoes of his daughter and relinquishes the desire to dominate. The heroic will and savage male defiance is broken by stoic female endurance.  The caged bird and swallow symbolically suggest Henchard’s inability to free himself from human ties despite longing for freedom.

Henchard’s business practices

He worked on ‘the old crude viva voce system’ which relied upon his memory (103) being ‘mentally and physically unfit for grubbing subtleties from soiled paper’ (87).  His accounts were like bramblewood’ (122) whilst Farfrae ‘does it by ciphering (122).

Henchard’s Solitary NatureHe has gloomy fits’ due to loneliness (90). His resolution is to ‘castigate himself with the thorns’ (95) of his re-marriage to Susan.  He is ‘an old hand at bearing anguish in silence’ (359).  Henchard comes to place no value on his good name (365): contrast this with the ‘thorn’ of ‘the lowering of his dignity in public opinion’ (90) and ‘a certain shyness’ on how he loses Susan, both of which reflect both his shame and sense of pride.

—oOo—

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