Henchard’s Tragedy in The Mayor of Casterbridge

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  • Post last modified:November 21, 2018

Is Henchard a tragic character? Why or why not? Does he possess a tragic flaw that leads to his downfall? If so, what is it?

Henchard is a  tragic character who falls like a bird hit in mid air when he tries to achieve more than his fate.  Till the end, readers have discovered his tragic flaw and his inability to overcome his weaknesses. While trying to escape the shadow of his past, his attitude grows even tragic. Running in circles he keeps coming back to the same point in his life. Every time instead of trying to mend his mistake, he acts in overconfidence and loses. His first mistake is the deadliest sin of his life. The one sin he committed in the tent of the furmity woman follows him for life. As if a dark spell had been cast upon  his life, Henchard remains unable to escape the punishment.

For the rest of his life, he continues to lament his mistake and punish himself. Most of his failure has resulted from his inability to learn from his mistakes. He is caught in a vicious circle of successes and failures.  Trying to find a way out of his frustration and guilt, he succeeds to some extent. However, he fails to seize every opportunity to mend his mistake. The vicious circle ends in his death and  by then all he has earned in his life is destroyed. His one sin against his family has taken peace and joy away from his life. His death is equally melancholic. Like a bird he tries to rise to the heights where his wings betray him and gravity brings him down. His flight does not last longer because once his family is back, the countdown has begun.

Henchard’s tragedy begins at the fair. His wife Susan is a poor match for him. He carries her around, like an albatross around his neck. Susan is also just as annoyed with his attitude. Marrying Susan brings the same turmoil back in his life that  he had somehow cast away long back at the fair. Susan brings back the same weaknesses and emotional turmoil that leave him confused and frustrated as he was as a hay trusser. Once the confusion and turmoil have set back in, Henchard’s failure begins. Susan again proves unlucky. She has all the same weaknesses that  do not match Henchard’s ambitions. However, for Henchard to leave her is as difficult as to keep her. He has found success by leaving Susan and when she returns, he has again embraced his bad luck. Her return is a bad omen and Hardy seems to imply that ambitious men have to make sacrifices to win.

Henchard is not full of weaknesses only. He has some important strengths that have helped him rise. A smart, strong and honest leader, Henchard strives to manage his people’s trust in him. He is not someone who has found success without toil and he values his hard earned new identity. However, inside his heart he is loaded with guilt. With his remarriage with Susan, the guilt becomes overwhelming. It is because he has not learnt from his mistakes and continues to commit them more than once. By the end, the situation has gotten clumsier. Like always he keeps running from his shadow. He is trying to escape everyone from Newson and Elizabeth Jane to Farfrae and the towns’ people.  His temper is a tragic flaw that causes his ruin. It does not let him think clearly and choose wisely. In Farfrae, he tries to find a reliable friend but for someone who cannot trust even his shadow, it ‘s difficult to achieve things stable and permanent in life.

All of his tragedy results from his instability. When he tries to hold his wife’s hand, he starts losing control of his life and business. Unable  to balance, he takes himself to the ruin and his sad death resolves the complexity of his life. The burden on Henchard’s heart is so great that whenever he tries to get rid of it, it ends up doubling. He commits the mistakes he is trying to avoid. When he lies to Newson about Elizabeth Jane’s death, he knows he is trying to keep a father away from his daughter. His conscience would not allow him to do it but his guilt pushes him to. At last his past has overtaken him and with it, he has lost whatever hold he had on his life. In this way, Hardy proves that people who cannot mend their attitude cannot mend their fate.

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.