Does Henchard get what he deserves?

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  • Post last modified:November 21, 2018

Is Henchard a sympathetic character? Should we pity him at the end of the novel, or does he seem to get exactly what he deserves?

Henchard is an ambitious character, ill tempered but strong willed. He is good at making mistakes and then dies trying to mend them. Henchard is at the verge of losing the sympathy of the audience at several points in the novel for the way he treats his own people. However, that does not completely end our sympathy for him. Despite being stubborn and ill tempered, he is honest and his end does not look fair. Fate has been cruel to him and he has made wrong decisions at several stages in his life. However, to say that he has led himself to the cruel end is also wrong. He is someone who does not get all that he desires at any point and for this reason we must sympathize with him. After losing his family, he finds wealth and when he has found his family, he again loses his wealth and peace of mind. Fate takes him on a roller coaster ride. A bored and frustrated hay trusser at first, he comes to Catsrebridge where he becomes the Mayor and ends up being  a lot richer.

He is rich and respected in his community. For some years, he enjoys the position he has earned but his past cannot stop chasing him. It brings Susan back to him and then a series of mistakes follow again. His end in the pit is worse than he deserves. Henchard must not have lost all that  he did in the novel which means fate has been unfair to him. He was a poor hay trusser and if he lost his wit at the fair then it was caused by his drink and his poverty. He has repented all his life for his offensive behavior at the fair. However, it seems that was not enough because when he turned back to mend his worst mistake, he ended up making more . He has made his fortune through honest means and life rewards him for his string will and other critical strengths in his character. Henchard has acquired his wealth and position in the society through intelligence, honesty and by his strong will. The worst of the mistakes he has committed is to have sold his wife and his daughter away for five guineas. The memory of that fateless  night keeps chasing him throughout his life. The burden of that one mistake remains on his conscience till the end. So, when he tries to bring his family back together, he once again ends up sacrificing  all that has earned. At the end he is dead in a pit in the countryside. His sin was big and it does prove the value of relationships. However, it also shows that he must have handled his relations with confidence. He falls because he was afraid of falling and his insecurity becomes evident in his interactions with Donald Farfrae.

Henchard again meets Susan when his daughter has grown up. Thinking that  remarrying Susan and accepting his family will end his problems was a grave mistake.  However, this was just the beginning of the second act of the drama in Henchard’s life. His life is a real drama made of tragedy, pun and pain. Rather than getting over, his woes increase since his wife brings back the old set of emotions and weaknesses. Again life is not a fairy tale and Henchard has started losing himself. Even the Scotchman Farfrae upon whom he relied becomes a competitor and brings his ruin. While Henchard himself is responsible for a fair amount of his tragedy, he cannot be held responsible for  all of it. Moreover, as a man he is full of emotions. Upon learning that Elizabeth Jane is the sailor’s daughter, his attitude towards her gets colder. This is  someone who cannot control his emotions for life has never given him all that  he wanted. Luck has also not favoured him so well. It takes him to a height and then drops him from there. The fall ends in the end of his story. 

Another cruel turn in his life comes with the discovery of Lucetta’s letters. The skimmity ride organized by the peasants humiliates, shocks and finally kills her. She was trying to fill the gap Susan had left behind in Henchard’s life. In a way, Lucetta’s death may also seem like caused by Henchard. However, it’s not his doing. Newson’s return marks the final deadly turning point in Henchard’s life.  He lies to him that his daughter has died. This lie costs him much and he has to leave the town when Newson returns and meets his daughter. Henchard is not deceitful. Actually he commits all the same mistakes he has been trying to avoid. Once his deceit is known to Elizabeth Jane he loses her sympathy. At last Farfrae and Jane try to look for him but by then it is too late. In this way, audience  learns that Henchard is not the culprit or the vllain. He is the hero who just failed to retain what he earned whether it was his family’s love or his wealth. So, his death looks pathetic and he seems a man whose tragedy is a result of the factors he cannot influence. For this reason he deserves our sympathy. However, in Henchard we also see a man who seems too good to be real. Hardy has created a complex character who demonstrates both strengths and weaknesses. His strengths and weaknesses are not balanced either. He looks like chasing his own tail which makes sympathizing with him all the more difficult. However, his pain can still be felt throughout the novel. For this reason, the readers cannot help sympathizing with Henchard.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.