Sinner

Hardy seems to offer two different theories for Michael Henchard’s tragic life in The Mayor of Casterbridge. On one hand, he suggests that Michael is a modern-day Job, or Cain, forced to suffer for his sins, a view that Michael himself seems to adopt. A more radical theory, one I’ll take up later, is that Fate is nothing more than character, that one’s character determines what happens to one in life. Of course, Hardy wouldn’t be Hardy if he didn’t question his own theories, often immediately after suggesting them.

Early in the novel Michael compares himself to Job when he is explaining his dilemma in choosing between his legal wife, Susan, who has returned many years after he had sold her while drunk, and Lucetta, who had befriended him when he fell ill.

“In the nature of things, Farfrae, it is almost impossible that a man of my sort should have the good fortune to tide through twenty years o’ life without making more blunders than one. It has been my custom for many years to run across to Jersey in the the way of business, particularly in the potato and root season. I do a large trade wi’ them in that line. Well, one autumn when stopping there I fell quite ill, and in my illness I sank into one of those gloomy fits I sometimes suffer from, on account o’ the loneliness of my domestic life, when the world seems to have the blackness of hell, and, like Job, I could curse the day that gave me birth.”

The comparison to Job is an interesting one precisely because of Michael’s rise to a high position as The Mayor of Casterbridge and his rapid fall from grace once his wife and “daughter” return.

Michael wants his daughter to bear his name, and after her mother’s death Elizabeth finally agrees to take Michael’s name. Ironically, in letters she has written to be opened upon her daughter’s wedding, Susan reveals that Elizabeth Jane isn’t really Michael’s daughter but was born after his daughter died. Angered, Michael feels he is being punished for his sins by some sinister force:

Misery taught him nothing more than defiant endurance of it. His wife was dead, and the first impulse for revenge died with the thought that she was beyond him. He looked out at the night as at a fiend. Henchard, like all his kind, was superstitious, and he could not help thinking that the concatenation of events this evening had produced was the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent on punishing him. Yet they had developed naturally. If he had not revealed his past history to Elizabeth he would not have searched the drawer for papers, and so on. The mockery was, that he should have no sooner taught a girl to claim the shelter of his paternity than he discovered her to have no kinship with him.

If there was a sinister intelligence punishing him, it was certainly because he had sold his wife and child. In the end, though, it is never-ending sequence of such ironies that makes the reader feel that Michael might well be a modern-day Job.

Once Michael discovers that Elizabeth really isn’t his daughter he tries to get rid of her by encouraging Fanfare to to court her. This effort backfires, though:

Farfrae’s sudden entry was simply the result of Henchard’s permission to him to see Elizabeth if he were minded to woo her. At first he had taken no notice of Henchard’s brusque letter; but an exceptionally fortunate business transaction put him on good terms with everybody, and revealed to him that he could undeniably marry if he chose. Then who so pleasing, thrifty, and satisfactory in every way as Elizabeth-Jane? Apart from her personal recommendations a reconciliation with his former friend Henchard would, in the natural course of things, flow from such a union. He therefore forgave the Mayor his curtness; and this morning on his way to the fair he had called at her house, where he learnt that she was staying at Miss Templeman’s. A little stimulated at not finding her ready and waiting–so fanciful are men!–he hastened on to High-Place Hall to encounter no Elizabeth but its mistress herself.

Instead of getting his daughter out of the house, this meeting results in Lucetta falling in love with Farfae. After meeting Farfae, Lucetta loses interest in Henchard just as he begins to think he will marry her.

Lucetta had come to Casterbridge to quicken Henchard’s feelings with regard to her. She had quickened them, and now she was indifferent to the achievement.

Not only does Henchard lose Lucetta, he ends up losing her to the man he hates most in the world:

But he was disturbed. And the sense of occult rivalry in suitorship was so much superadded to the palpable rivalry of their business lives. To the coarse materiality of that rivalry it added an inflaming soul.

After a number of disastrous business deals that nearly bankrupt him while making his arch-enemy Farfrae rich, Henchard again feels the gods are working against him:

“I wonder,” he asked himself with eerie misgiving; “I wonder if it can be that somebody has been roasting a waxen image of me, or stirring an unholy brew to confound me! I don’t believe in such power; and yet–what if they should ha’ been doing it!” Even he could not admit that the perpetrator, if any, might be Farfrae. These isolated hours of superstition came to Henchard in time of moody depression, when all his practical largeness of view had oozed out of him.

The major blow, though, comes when the furmity woman from the opening chapter is brought in front of the city council for trial and reveals that Michael had sold his wife years earlier and was unfit to judge her:

The retort of the furmity-woman before the magistrates had spread; and in four-and-twenty hours there was not a person in Casterbridge who remained unacquainted with the story of Henchard’s mad freak at Weydon-Priors Fair, long years before. The amends he had made in after life were lost sight of in the dramatic glare of the original act. Had the incident been well known of old and always, it might by this time have grown to be lightly regarded as the rather tall wild oat, but well-nigh the single one, of a young man with whom the steady and mature (if somewhat headstrong) burgher of to-day had scarcely a point in common. But the act having lain as dead and buried ever since, the interspace of years was unperceived; and the black spot of his youth wore the aspect of a recent crime.

Although the magistrates are quick to dismiss the furmity-woman’s charges, Henchard immediately admits the charges and steps down from his office. He’s ready to accept his sins, even though he’s worked for years to atone for them. He believes he deserves punishment for those sins.

His one consolation after his many losses is that his “daughter” Elizabeth has become more attentive to him than before:

The effect, either of her ministrations or of her mere presence, was a rapid recovery. He soon was well enough to go out; and now things seemed to wear a new colour in ahis eyes. He no longer thought of emigration, and thought more of Elizabeth. The having nothing to do made him more dreary than any other circumstance; and one day, with better views of Farfrae than he had held for some time, and a sense that honest work was not a thing to be ashamed of, he stoically went down to Farfrae’s yard and asked to be taken on as a journeyman hay-trusser.

Considering how things have gone in the novel, both the reader, and Michael Henchard himself, wonder how long before Elizabeth discovers that she really isn’t his daughter at all and that when he had learned that he had tried to get rid of her.

Meanwhile Henchard is determined to get even with Fanfare and lures him up to the barn to fight him. After struggling with Farfrae and gaining the upperhand, he is unable to strike him:

“Now,” said Henchard between his gasps, “this is the end of what you began this morning. Your life is in my hands.”

“Then take it, take it!” said Farfrae. “Ye’ve wished to long enough!”

Henchard looked down upon him in silence, and their eyes met. “O Farfrae!–that’s not true!” he said bitterly. “God is my witness that no man ever loved another as I did thee at one time….And now–though I came here to kill ‘ee, I cannot hurt thee! Go and give me in charge–do what you will–I care nothing for what comes of me!”

He withdrew to the back part of the loft, loosened his arm, and flung himself in a corner upon some sacks, in the abandonment of remorse. Farfrae regarded him in silence; then went to the hatch and descended through it. Henchard would fain have recalled him, but his tongue failed in its task, and the young man’s steps died on his ear.

While this incident may raise Henchard in the reader’s esteem, it has the opposite effect on Farfae. So much so that when Henchard desperately tries to fetch Farfae after Lucetta collapses Farfae refuses to believe him and suspects Henchard of trying to entrap him again. This failure causes Henchard to curse himself:

The gig and its driver lessened against the sky in Henchard’s eyes; his exertions for Farfrae’s good had been in vain. Over this repentant sinner, at least, there was to be no joy in heaven. He cursed himself like a less scrupulous Job, as a vehement man will do when he loses self-respect, the last mental prop under poverty. To this he had come after a time of emotional darkness of which the adjoining woodland shade afforded inadequate illustration. Presently he began to walk back again along the way by which he had arrived. Farfrae should at all events have no reason for delay upon the road by seeing him there when he took his journey homeward later on.

Henchard has fallen so low that only one thing keeps him going, Elixabeth’s love

But about Elizabeth-lane; in the midst of his gloom she seemed to him as a pin-point of light. He had liked the look on her face as she answered him from the stairs. There had been affection in it, and above all things what he desired now was affection from anything that was good and pure. She was not his own, yet, for the first time, he had a faint dream that he might get to like her as his own,–if she would only continue to love him.

Considering how important Elizabeth is to Henchard, it’s not surprising that her real father Newson soon shows up nor that Henchard lies and tells Newson that his daughter is dead in a vain attempt to hang on to her:

I’ve never returned to this country till a month ago, and I found that, as I supposed, she went to you, and my daughter with her. They told me in Falmouth that Susan was dead. But my Elizabeth-Jane–where is she?”

“Dead likewise,” said Henchard doggedly. “Surely you learnt that too?”

But neither the reader nor Henchard’s attempt to hang on to Elizabeth will work:

But the emotional conviction that he was in Somebody’s hand began to die out of Henchard’s breast as time slowly removed into distance the event which had given that feeling birth. The apparition of Newson haunted him. He would surely return.

When Newson finally does return and Elizabeth learns of Henchard’s attempted deception, she finally t

urns against him, too, compounded by the fact that she is about to marry Farfae.

Banished from Casterbridge, Henchard once again sees himself as Cain:

He went on till he came to the first milestone, which stood in the bank, half way up a steep hill. He rested his basket on the top of the stone, placed his elbows on it, and gave way to a convulsive twitch, which was worse than a sob, because it was so hard and so dry.

“If I had only got her with me–if I only had!” he said. “Hard work would be nothing to me then! But that was not to be. I–Cain–go alone as I deserve–an outcast and a vagabond. But my punishment is not greater than I can bear!”

It would be easy to assume that Henchard’s seeing himself as Job or Cain is merely a personal delusion, a way of exaggerating his self-importance, but it seems unlikely that it is pure coincidence that the novel ends at precisely the place it began, as Henchard returns to the precise location where he first got drunk and sold his wife and child:

And thus Henchard found himself again on the precise standing which he had occupied a quarter of a century before. Externally there was nothing to hinder his making another start on the upward slope, and by his new lights achieving higher things than his soul in its half-formed state had been able to accomplish. But the ingenious machinery contrived by the Gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum–which arranges that wisdom to do shall come pari passu with the departure of zest for doing–stood in the way of all that. He had no wish to make an arena a second time of a world that had become a mere painted scene to him.

Was this ending inevitable after Henchard committed the original sin of selling the two most important people in his life for a few shilling? Does such a horrible sin demand such an ending? What is the reader to make of Hardy’s line “But the ingenious machinery contrived by the Gods for reducing human possibilities of amelioration to a minimum–which arranges that wisdom to do shall come pari passu with the departure of zest for doing–stood in the way of all that.”

2 thoughts on “Sinner

  1. As I read your post, I still see THE MAYOR OF CASTORBRIDGE as taking place in the shadows of alcoholism. The story hinges on a mindless drunken moment for which a man could not forgive himself and which he kept secret for many years and which irrevocably determined the course of his life. Seems to me that alcoholism plays a huge part in this story. Michael’s life and despairing perceptions are those of a suffering alcoholic, whether sober or not, especially with the ending where he has a glimpse of the wisdom that could lead to amelioration but not the “zest” to go on. That is a haunting description of late stage alcoholism. My perspective is that what people do under the effects of alcohol is not sin but certainly tragedy.

    Makes me think of the main character in Clint Eastwood’s film, THE UNFORGIVEN. Falling, rising, drinking, falling. Haunted by the past. Even if forgiveness were to be offered by the “Gods,” it would not change that he was unable to forgive himself.

    And I noticed for the first time that the name “Henchard” could be a combination of the names “Henry” and “Richard,” and thought of the kings of England with those names.

    And thought of “Michael” as an archangel, a “prince of light,” his heart broken beyond repair in a moment of drunkenness. That he was not so much condemned by the punishing “Gods” he projected as he was condemned by himself. A harrowing story that lends itself to compassion.

    Thanks for writing in depth, loren.

What do you think?