I’m sure many of Hardy’s Victorian readers read The Mayor of Casterbridge as a morality tale: those who sin are invariably punished for their sin. While it would be hard to disprove such an interpretation, especially since Hardy alludes to it himself, Hardy offers a much more interesting possible interpretation when he cites Novalis:
Character is Fate, said Novalis, and Farfrae's character was just the reverse of Henchard's, who might not inaptly be described as Faust has been described--as a vehement gloomy being who had quitted the ways of vulgar men without light to guide him on a better way.
I suspect that it would be possible to trace this statement out not only through the life of Henchard, but through the life of Farfae and Elizabeth as well. To me, the more interesting argument is that although Henchard thinks he is being punished for past sins, he really fails because he has learned nothing from his failures and fails because of his character, or, perhaps, because of his lack of character.
The first time we see Henchard after he has risen to become the Mayor of Casterbridge, we see his anger when merchants accuse him of cheating them by selling bad wheat:
Henchard's face darkened. There was temper under the thin bland surface--the temper which, artificially intensified, had banished a wife nearly a score of years before.
He may have given up alcohol for twenty years after selling his wife while drunk, but he still hasn’t overcome his temper, a deeper source of the problem.
In fact, you could easily make the argument that the beginning of his fall from power in Casterbridge again came as the result of a fit of temper when he dismissed Farfae because other people preferred Farfae, thinking he was no only nicer but more competent:
Henchard went home, apparently satisfied. But in the morning, when his jealous temper had passed away, his heart sank within him at what he had said and done. He was the more disturbed when he found that this time Farfrae was determined to take him at his word.
It was exactly this kind of irrational anger that caused him to sell his wife and child, and this decision ends up equally bad. Though it’s not a sin to fire an employee, this decision ends up costing Henchard his business, his lover, and, finally, Elizabeth as much as his first rash act did.
Henchard, who had been hurt at finding that Farfrae did not mean to put up with his temper any longer, was incensed beyond measure when he learnt what the young man had done as an alternative. It was in the town-hall, after a council meeting, that he first became aware of Farfrae's coup for establishing himself independently in the town; and his voice might have been heard as far as the town-pump expressing his feelings to his fellow councilmen. These tones showed that, though under a long reign of self-control he had become Mayor and churchwarden and what not, there was still the same unruly volcanic stuff beneath the rind of Michael Henchard as when he had sold his wife at Weydon Fair.
It’s certainly no accident that Hardy ends with this final observation. The parallel is too obvious to ignore.
Lucetta gives a fairly accurate portrayal of Henchard when she is talking to Elizabeth:
"Do you know the impression your words give me?" she said ingenuously. "That he is a hot-tempered man--a little proud--perhaps ambitious; but not a bad man." Her anxiety not to condemn Henchard while siding with Elizabeth was curious.
"O no; certainly not BAD," agreed the honest girl. "And he has not even been unkind to me till lately--since mother died. But it has been very much to bear while it has lasted. All is owing to my defects, I daresay; and my defects are owing to my history."
Although this summary misses a few important character flaws that contribute to his downfall, the novel at times comes close to a tragedy precisely because Henchard is not just a villain. Like most of us, he is simply morally flawed. Just when we expect the worse from him, he acts admirably, as he does here:
"Well," said the senior Commissioner, addressing Henchard, "though the case is a desperate one, I am bound to admit that I have never met a debtor who behaved more fairly. I've proved the balance-sheet to be as honestly made out as it could possibly be; we have had no trouble; there have been no evasions and no concealments. The rashness of dealing which led to this unhappy situation is obvious enough; but as far as I can see every attempt has been made to avoid wronging anybody."
Henchard was more affected by this than he cared to let them perceive, and he turned aside to the window again. A general murmur of agreement followed the Commissioner's words, and the meeting dispersed. When they were gone Henchard regarded the watch they had returned to him. "'Tisn't mine by rights," he said to himself. "Why the devil didn't they take it?--I don't want what don't belong to me!" Moved by a recollection he took the watch to the maker's just opposite, sold it there and then for what the tradesman offered, and went with the proceeds to one among the smaller of his creditors, a cottager of Durnover in straitened circumstances, to whom he handed the money.
It seems remarkable that someone who has just had virtually everything taken from him would sell what little he has left to pay off one his neediest creditors.
In fact, like his neighbors we may even find ourselves admiring how much he has done with so little:
When everything was ticketed that Henchard had owned, and the auctions were in progress, there was quite a sympathetic reaction in the town, which till then for some time past had done nothing but condemn him. Now that Henchard's whole career was pictured distinctly to his neighbours, and they could see how admirably he had used his one talent of energy to create a position of affluence out of absolutely nothing--which was really all he could show when he came to the town as a journeyman hay-trusser, with his wimble and knife in his basket--they wondered and regretted his fall.
When Farfae returns Henchard’s furniture that he bought from the creditors, Henchard seems genuinely moved by the gesture:
"What--give it to me for nothing?" said Henchard. "But you paid the creditors for it!"
"Ah, yes; but maybe it's worth more to you than it is to me."
Henchard was a little moved. "I--sometimes think I've wronged 'ee!" he said, in tones which showed the disquietude that the night shades hid in his face. He shook Farfrae abruptly by the hand, and hastened away as if unwilling to betray himself further.
Even when he gives into baser motives, as when he goes to Farfae and Lucetta’s to expose Lucetta, he is unable to carry through with his original intent
He opened a third and fourth letter, and read. This time he approached the conclusion as if the signature were indeed coming with the rest. But again he stopped short. The truth was that, as may be divined, he had quite intended to effect a grand catastrophe at the end of this drama by reading out the name, he had come to the house with no other thought. But sitting here in cold blood he could not do it.
Such a wrecking of hearts appalled even him. His quality was such that he could have annihilated them both in the heat of action; but to accomplish the deed by oral poison was beyond the nerve of his enmity.
because he could not consciously wreck another’s heart. Even at his worst moment, when he physically attacks Farfrae because he thinks Farfrae has ruined his life, Henchard is unable to carry through with the attack:
"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.
Henchard took his full measure of shame and self-reproach. The scenes of his first acquaintance with Farfrae rushed back upon him--that time when the curious mixture of romance and thrift in the young man's composition so commanded his heart that Farfrae could play upon him as on an instrument. So thoroughly subdued was he that he remained on the sacks in a crouching attitude, unusual for a man, and for such a man. Its womanliness sat tragically on the figure of so stern a piece of virility.
Unfortunately, this man who seems incapable of directly hurting anyone he likes, seems quite capable of hurting them indirectly. For instance, when Elizabeth’s real father comes looking for her after her mother’s death, Henchard has no problem telling him that Elisabeth is:
"Dead likewise," said Henchard doggedly. "Surely you learnt that too?"
He knows what he has done is “wrong,” but he rationalizes his action in many different ways:
To satisfy his conscience somewhat Henchard repeated to himself that the lie which had retained for him the coveted treasure had not been deliberately told to that end, but had come from him as the last defiant word of a despair which took no thought of consequences. Furthermore he pleaded within himself that no Newson could love her as he loved her, or would tend her to his life's extremity as he was prepared to do cheerfully.
for, as Hardy makes clear, Henchard is only concerned with his own well being. If he were really concerned with Elizabeth’s happiness he would have been happy later that Farfrae wants to marry her:
Henchard went away, thinking that perhaps there was nothing significant after all in Farfrae's look at Elizabeth-Jane at that juncture. Yet he could not forget that the Scotchman had once shown a tender interest in her, of a fleeting kind. Thereupon promptly came to the surface that idiosyncrasy of Henchard's which had ruled his courses from the beginning and had mainly made him what he was. Instead of thinking that a union between his cherished step-daughter and the energetic thriving Donald was a thing to be desired for her good and his own, he hated the very possibility.
That “idiosyncrasy” is none other than pure selfishness. It doesn’t take long for Henchard to prove his selfishness again when he learns that Elizabeth and Farfrae are planning on getting married.
There is an outer chamber of the brain in which thoughts unowned, unsolicited, and of noxious kind, are sometimes allowed to wander for a moment prior to being sent off whence they came. One of these thoughts sailed into Henchard's ken now.
Suppose he were to communicate to Farfrae the fact that his betrothed was not the child of Michael Henchard at all--legally, nobody's child; how would that correct and leading townsman receive the information? He might possibly forsake Elizabeth-Jane, and then she would be her step-sire's own again.
Henchard shuddered, and exclaimed, "God forbid such a thing! Why should I still be subject to these visitations of the devil, when I try so hard to keep him away?"
While it’s comforting to know that he didn’t give in to this urge, it’s more disturbing to think that the thought even crossed his mind. And not very comforting that he blames these thoughts on “visitations of the devil” rather than considering his own selfishness.
Henchard ends up dying a poor man’s death, alone except for a single boy whose mother he had been kind to, which is hardly surprising because people who use people are the unluckiest people of all.