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Since Hardy entitled this book "The Life and Death of the Mayor of Casterbridge - A story of a man of character," it is obvious that Henchard is the Man of Character. With his many flaws, Henchard has all the qualities of a tragic hero. In the beginning, the reader is awed by his raw strength. He cuts a fine figure of a man, "swarthy and stern in aspect." Because he drinks too much, he swears to abstain from alcohol for twenty-one years. Because of his strength and determination, he is able to live up to his promise of abstinence. Also due to his dogged determination, he rises from a mere journeyman hay-trusser to become the richest and most influential man in Casterbridge. Finally, he shows great fortitude in the way he bears his troubles; Hardy states that Henchard accepts his misfortunes with a "defiant endurance of it." Even after losing everything in life he says, "My punishment is not greater than I can bear."
Henchard is a man of extremes; he is impulsive, mercurial, and quick to anger, but he can also easily forgive. His relationships with people are overbearing and possessive, and he can stand no rivalry. It is unendurable for Henchard to slip to second place in Casterbridge. When Farfrae overshadows him in influence, business, and love, his earlier respect and affection for the man turn to hatred. He does everything in his power to crush Farfrae; but whenever he has the chance to harm him, he does not act. Henchard is, above all, a moral man.
By the end of the book, Henchard has a strong attachment to Elizabeth-Jane, but it was not always so. In the beginning, when he thinks she is his daughter, he does everything to win her love and affection. When he discovers she is, in fact, Newson's daughter, his attitude changes. He becomes cold and distant and upbraids her on petty issues. For a long time, he blinds himself to all her good qualities; in so doing, he deprives himself of the very thing he needs and seeks -- love.
Henchard's greatest flaws are his impulsiveness, pride, and jealousy. Impulsiveness causes him to sell his wife and daughter to a sailor. Pride stands in the way of his telling Elizabeth-Jane the truth about her past; and jealousy over losing her causes him to lie to Newson and tell him that Elizabeth-Jane is dead. All of these actions cause Henchard great suffering and loss.
It is amazing that this self-made, strong-willed man is superstitious. He goes to the weather-diviner to find out the weather, and he almost commits suicide at the Ten Hatches Pool when he sees his effigy floating in the water. He also tries to blame his troubles on some larger force that is trying to ruin. In truth, almost all of his suffering is due to his own weaknesses.
Though he is haughty and arrogant, there is an essential kindness and decency in Henchard's personality. The reader sees him berating Whittle for arriving late to work, stripping him of all self- respect; but he is extremely kind to Whittle's aged mother, keeping her well supplied with coal and snuff during winter. Whittle does not forget this and is the only one to minister to his needs when his death nears. Similarly, when he threatens to expose Lucetta's past and ruin her chance for happiness, he stops short of revealing her name to Farfrae, for "such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him." In the wrestling match to which he challenges Farfrae, Henchard has his rival at his mercy, but he cannot give him the decisive push down the loft.
Henchard has a strong, ingrained sense of justice and fair play. Even though he attempts to hide his sin of selling his wife and child, he is always honest and honorable in Casterbridge. When Susan finds him in Casterbridge, he immediately tells her they will re-marry, but he makes certain that there is an appropriate time of courtship so that the townsfolk will not be suspicious. When he has to break off his relationship with Lucetta because of Susan's return, he wants to compensate her for the disappointment. When he challenges Farfrae to a wrestling match, he binds his left arm, for he knows he has the superiority in build and strength over his rival, and he wants a fair fight. When Henchard wants to ruin Farfrae financially, he instructs Jopp that it should be done by fair competition. When the 'furmity woman' makes her dramatic revelation in court, he does not make any attempt to deny the sale of his wife. Even when Henchard faces bankruptcy, he hides nothing about his holdings and even surrenders trifling articles, like his gold watch. As a result of this basic morality, Henchard is shown to be a man of character with a deep sense of justice and honor.
It is undeniable that Henchard commits a grave crime in selling his wife, but it must also be remembered that he is inebriated at the time and is truly repentant the next morning. As a result of the incident, he takes a vow not to drink for twenty-one years and succeeds in abstaining. When Susan seeks him out in Casterbridge, he re-marries her, even though he is engaged to Lucetta, because he is repentant and wants to atone for his wrongdoing. When he lies to Susan about her past, it is an effort on his part to protect her. When he lies to Newson about her death, he is trying not to lose her. Unfortunately, his mistakes cause him to lose his business, his self-respect, and his daughter. He dies a lonely and penniless man.
Hardy's protagonists are usually female, and Henchard is the only fully developed male figure in all of his fiction. He does a splendid job in painting a picture of Henchard as a true tragic hero. His sufferings and misfortunes arouse pity and sympathy; his quiet endurance of his sufferings commands respect. Although he is far from a perfect character, he does possess strength, determination, honesty, resiliency, and kindheartedness. Unfortunately, he is also overbearing, egoistic, jealous, intolerant, impulsive, and short tempered. He suffers due to a combination of Chance working against him, the inherent weaknesses in his character, and his inability to see himself as the designer of his fate; yet his capacity to endure misfortune and defy the forces that work against him raises him to heroic proportions, to become a tragic hero.
Donald Farfrae, the Scotsman, is portrayed as the contrast to Michael Henchard. Whereas Henchard is tall and strong, Farfrae is short and frail. Where Henchard is rash, reckless, impulsive, and Moody, Farfrae is calm, cautious, logical, and practical. Where Henchard is a careless businessman, not given to detail, Farfrae has exceptional business acumen and organization. He is a man of letters with education to back him up. Henchard is very conventional and set in his ways; he does not like change. In contrast, Farfrae is a man of science, excited about new technology; he applies his scientific approach to business and makes it succeed. Because of these differences, Farfrae rises to the top while Henchard begins to sink into disrespect.
Farfrae is a perfect gentleman, good-natured, modest, and amiable. He is also an entertainer, light on the dance floor and quick to sing a song. These qualities, coupled with his wisdom, endear him to the people of Casterbridge, who eventually make him the Mayor. Farfrae can also be a romantic, always believing the best about people. He quickly falls in love with Lucetta and does everything he can to be with her. At Lucetta's suggestion, he marries her secretly, never questioning the reason for haste. When Henchard asks Farfrae whether he should reveal the ignominious sale of his wife and daughter to Elizabeth-Jane and risk her disdain, Farfrae, in a romantic and unrealistic vein, advises him to tell all and risk her forgiveness. When Henchard reads Lucetta's love letters to Farfrae with the intention of disclosing her name to him, he advises Henchard to destroy the letters, for they will only cause pain and unhappiness.
Even after his estrangement with Henchard, Farfrae maintains a sense of fairness in all his business dealings. He does not want any "trade-antagonism" and even refuses his first customer because Henchard had dealt with him in the preceding three months. He also tries to be generous to Henchard, always remembering the earlier kindnesses he had received. After Henchard's bankruptcy, he invites him to stay with him. He wants the town council to buy a seed-shop for Henchard to manage, even when he is aware of the animosity Henchard has towards him. Farfrae is eternally grateful to Henchard for giving him the crucial push in the right direction of life.
Despite his laudable qualities, Farfrae disappoints the reader, for he does not come across as "human" like Henchard. He is too perfect a person to excite pity or sympathy. It is easier to identify with Henchard than with Farfrae, for he seems to lack depth and feeling.