Hardy described himself as a determinist—in other words, he believed that the course of human life was shaped by forces, internal or external, beyond human control. Does this philosophy hold true in The Mayor of Casterbridge? What forces are responsible for shaping Henchard’s life?
Michael Henchard is a complex character from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. His actions are equally complex and it is why he defies being understood. Hardy was a determinist who believed that external forces affected human lives deeply. Determinists hold that everything is caused. In Henchard’s character Hardy has tried to prove the same belief. Hardy’s words are true to an extent but the plot of Mayor of Casterbridge shows that a man’s own will and character also affect his fate. However, that does not mean he can control everything, otherwise things like society, fate and chance would have had no meaning. Every man has somewhere been forced to change his course for the external forces have made him do so. There are forces that can alter the course of people’s lives and events can take someone to the top and another to the bottom. This is true in the case of Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae. Even a hard-willed person may come across situations where his best efforts cannot bring things under control.
Life changing events may occur by chance. Hardy has shown in his novel, how important role these forces play in human life. The hand of fate pulls Henchard out of the pit he has been lying in since he abandoned his wife and daughter. It rewards him and makes him the Mayor and a wealthy person. A chain of punishing experiences again begins thereafter when his wife returns. Henchard is basically a good man and a poor but honest hay-trusser at the beginning. He gets drunk at the fair and sells away his wife and daughter to a sailor for a paltry sum. He laments and decides to mend his mistake. Several years later, fate brings him face to face with his wife and grown up daughter. Henchard thinks his days of punishment are over and God has pardoned his sin. He decides to get married to his ex-wife Susan once again. Susan is a passive and submissive woman. She must not have forgotten how Henchard had treated her and her child at the fair. She has known him well and his weaknesses too. Still, Susan pardons him for he can give her and her daughter a better life. So, fate has reunited them but the reunion disrupts everything that Henchard has built in the meantime.
While on the one hand, it all may seem to be the game of fate, on the other, it also appears like these characters affect their fate by their strengths and weaknesses. Their personal traits also play a role in deciding the course of their life. Had not Henchard’s wife been so meek and submissive things might have gone another way. Had not Henchard been such a boor and drunkard, he would not have sold his wife and daughter off to another man. He pledges not to drink again after he has incurred the loss. Many things might have been different had Henchard been in control of his temper and his glass at the fair. However, they happened because they were bound to happen. There is a central role of the person in his own life but there are other forces too which affect people and circumstances. If Henchard was not as poor, he might not have been as frustrated that night and not committed the vice he did. His poverty was his fate and he did not have any control over it. Whatever fortune he has made is by dint of his will and hard work. He also lacks foresight and therefore Donald Farfrae proves to be a tough competitor to whom he loses everything.
It is the irony of his fate that he has let everything he has acquired go, just to escape the punishment for his one abominable sin. Hardy shows that there are forces like fate or chance that affect us at every turn of life. It is not always that the expected happens. Henchard never expected to become a mayor someday and neither did his daughter and wife. His meeting with Farfrae and then his family is all ordained by fate. So, in this way, Hardy is right that our lives are affected by forces outside our control. However, it is equally true that we can affect things around us by our will, intention and hardwork. If Henchard becomes successful then it is for he is hardworking and intelligent. The same is true about Farfrae. His rise becomes Henchard’s fall and all that the Mayor had gained is lost. It is because Farfrae can see farther than Henchard.
This may also look like a coincidence but The Mayor of Casterbridge is full of coincidences. If Farfrae has gained and Henchard lost, then it is because Farfrae is innovative and relies on new ideas. He does not tread the wrong path and is more caring and flexible towards people around him. He provides Elizabeth Jane with the space that Henchard could not. It is not a doing of fate entirely that his fortune has changed. Henchard has lost because he made poor calculations and depended on outdated ideas in his business. It always happens that new things disrupt the old norms. Henchard’s loss also seems to arise from his inflexibility. So, while forces like fate and chance play a role in human life, there are things that are still within human control and humans can shape their own fate by their intelligence and foresight.