Mayor Of Casterbridge In Thomas Hardys The Mayor Of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard represents an incarnation of the Classical tragic hero. In Greek literature, a tragic hero is a well-known and respected individual whose tragedy usually involves some kind of fall from glory. His downfall has been precipitated by his own flaw of character or judgment, some mistake or series of mistakes that has serious consequences. A key element is that the hero’s experiences don’t simply end with the mistake or catastrophe; true tragic heroes must come to discover or recognize what has happened to them and ultimately pay their ramifications. Surely such a description fits the hubristic Michael Henchard and maps out the tale of events set forth in The Mayor Of Casterbridge. The definition of a tragic hero includes his fall from glory, which in early 20th century literature would be social-class related.
Henchards rapid decline from Mayor to pauper qualifies as such a fall. It is even more of a tragedy since there was so much embarrassment and scandal surrounding his deterioration from a pillar of the town of Casterbridge. “Everybody else, from the Mayor to the washerwoman, shone in new vesture according to means; but Henchard had doggedly retained the fretted and weather-beaten garments of bygone years.” (Page 261) His ragged appearance at a royal procession shows just how deep he had fallen into depression and oblivion. Though modern usage of the word hero indicates a nobler persona, at its roots a hero is simply the main character of any story, and not necessarily a knight in shining armor. A tragic heros sad story comes from his own flaws, and Michael Henchard was certainly not lacking in faults and poor judgments.
Often he displays impulsiveness, which always results in bringing him closer to his demise. As with selling his wife, deciding to hide his past grievances, and buying over-priced grain, Henchards lack of self-control worsens each situation. He is also a very proud man, which turns into simple stubbornness. On page 259 he indignantly proclaims: “Ill welcome his royal highness, or nobody shall!” showing his childish need for control and superiority. His poor judgment in dealing with his feud with Donald Farfrae shows what a weak character he really is.
All of Henchards offensive qualities gradually alienate all those around him. The final characteristic of a tragic heros saga is his realization of his mistake as well as the endurance of the consequences. In Henchard’s case, the original mistake was the sale of his wife Susan two decades prior. His affliction begins almost immediately as his mistake is realized; he vows to abstain from alcohol for twenty-one years (“..being a year for every year that I have lived.” Page 25) But, as the reader begins to realize, Henchard has only gone through the motions of repentance, and as soon as he is faced with adversity, his rougher qualities still surface. “..it was still a part of his [Henchards] nature to extenuate nothing, and live on as one of his own worst accusers.”(Page 322) So since his self-inflicted punishment is only half-hearted, Hardy has Fate or Consequence step in to sufficiently burden him with hardships until his death.
The theme and spirit of tragedy found a new vehicle in the novel in the 19th century, its form being originally used only in plays. Thomas Hardy has been quoted as comparing the rural setting of this and other of his novels to the stark and simple setting of the Greek theater, giving his novels something of that drama’s intensity and sharpness of focus. This grimly pessimistic view of man’s nature qualifies Michael Henchard as a Classical Tragic Hero; his own inner faults ultimately bring him down from his high post. Darkness and doubt blanket the tale with Michael Henchards forever unresolved and unpredictable capacities for good, and for evil.