The purpose of this essay is to examine and to describe the character of Michael Henchard as well as the character of Donald Farfrae. This essay will also try to find out the differences between the two men, in particular as far as their character traits are concerned. The subtitle of the novel suggests that the Mayor of Casterbridge is a ‘Man of Character’. A Man of Character’ is a person, in this case a man, who has a good character. However, the problem is that the man is not called by his name and there are two different mayors of the town- Michael Henchard and Donald Farfrae. For this reason all the information and details have to be gathered carefully in order to eventually find out to whom of them this term would apply and why.
As a first step, one needs to consider what Hardy wants to tell us with the opening paragraph. Even more attention has to be paid when it comes to a first description of Michael Henchard and his character. Henchard is described carefully in the opening paragraphs in order to have a strong picture of him in mind and to have a detailed look at him as he enters the novel. However, the main reason for Hardy to do so is that he wants the reader to pay attention to details. Even small details matter if one wants to understand the novel and its characters, in particular Henchard and Farfrae, completely. Therefore a summary of the plot will not do and it is not enough to comprehend what is happening and why the characters act the way they do.
Hardy wants us, the reader of his novel, to be more than casual observers. Another reason why the opening paragraph is of significant importance is the fact that most good novels will tell how to read them in the opening paragraphs. And the Mayor of Casterbridge certainly does belong to these kind of novels. Due to this, we have to pay attention to small details in the novel in order to get things right and not to misjudge someone.
In the opening paragraph, Michael Henchard and his wife Susan are approaching the village Weydon-Priors with their child Elizabeth-Jane on foot. The family looks like they are poor. However, they are plainly dressed, not badly dressed. The reason why their clothes look bad is not due to the fact that they are shabby or broken. Their clothes look bad simply because they are full of dust. For this reason, Henchard and his wife look worse than they usually do at that moment. Therefore the two of them are at a disadvantageous situation now.
Right after, Hardy not only tells us what Henchard does for a living, but he starts to look and to describe him carefully. He tells us that Henchard is not only “stern in aspect”, but he also describes him as “swarthy”. The latter term definitely does have a negative connotation since it means something like “dark”. As we normally associate mostly negative things with the term “dark” and “darkness”, this could be read and understood as one of the first hints to Michael Henchards character given to us by Hardy. At least the first impression we get of Henchard is not a very pleasant one.
The opening scene continues by telling us more of the relationship between Henchard and his wife Susan and thus allows us to get a clearer picture of the two of them and their characters. Even though the couple is walking next to each other, neither Michael nor Susan utters a word. As they are walking in total absence of conversation, Henchard is reading- or at least he is pretending to be reading. He is not paying any attention to his wife or his child at all.
His wife on the other hand is the one who makes them walk together, even though she is not happy at all with the situation and does not feel comfortable. However, Susan does not touch Henchard, for example by taking his arm while walking, for he might would not like it. It seems like she does not want to make things difficult for her husband, maybe she can be considered to be a weak woman.
The situation and the relationship is not like this just now, but rather all the time: Henchard and Susan are always quarrelling. Even their attitude towards the landscape is negative. They see nothing pretty in it and it is always the same, just like their relationship.
To sum up, the opening paragraph is not a very happy scene, but rather a quite nasty way for a novel to start. However, the opening scene gives us crucial and important information about the character of Michael Henchard. We get to know Henchard as a pretty unlikeable, grim fellow. It is obvious that he is stuck in an unhappy and bad marriage.
Nevertheless, Michael is not willing to change anything in order to improve the current situation. He refuses not only to talk to her, but also to walk close to her. It is Susan and not Michael who makes the couple walk next to each other. Therefore, his wife and not Henchard is the one who at least tries to work on their relationship. In contrast to her husband, Susan did not give up hope totally and at least tries to keep the family together. Henchard on the other hand would certainly prefer to escape from this unhappy marriage, if he were only given the chance to. He sees the marriage as a burden, and as a divorce is not possible, selling his wife is the only way out.
For Henchard, “bearing” things is a crucial issue of his life. It seems like that he thinks that he leads a life of hardships, and that he always has to take on a burden (like his marriage for example). It also sometimes creates the impression that Henchard feels like that he is the one who has to endure things, who has to suffer and to face plenty of problems. However, when Michael is talking about “bearing” it also often is like an excuse to avoid responsibility. When there is something that he needs to do, he frequently says that he cannot bear it anymore in order to avoid his responsibility and to shuffle out of it.
When using this strategy, Michael is a really irresponsible and selfish person as he thinks of himself first and only. Thomas Hardy was often considered to be an immoral man. Although he was not religious, he insisted on human responsibility. The characters in his books in contrast often avoid this responsibility- just as Michael Henchard does.
As “bearing” things is a big part of the novel, just as it is a big part of Henchard’s life, it will occur again in different other scenes throughout the novel. Also the end of the novel is about “bearing” things again, just like at the beginning of the novel. This creates some sort of frame which encloses the story.
The rest of the the first chapter focuses on and emphasises how Henchard, who is completely drunk, sells his wife to a sailor named Newson. When Michael is “selling” Susan, he says that it would be simple as “Scripture history”. By doing so he wants to justify his actions. However, this is not the only thing he wants to imply with this remark. Michael also suggests that selling his wife is nothing odd, that people have always done this. Therefore Henchard wants to make clear that what he does is nothing abnormal or strange.