What characteristics justify one who is viewed as a perfect and morally profound man by society? In the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge: A Story of a Man of Character by Thomas Hardy, one who is seemingly moral and of great character is analyzed. The character in question is Michael Henchard, a man who has risen from his low status as a hay-trusser to the top of society as the mayor of his town. Hardy tries to represent Henchard as a "man of character;" however, the effects of his morality and character remain ambiguous as the novel progresses. Throughout the entire story of Henchard, it is clear that his morality is questionable and that his moral ambiguity is essential in the development of the plot of the novel.
Michael Henchard is a mysterious character in The Mayor of Casterbridge. His motives and actions are of the utmost immorality, yet they are done with seemingly good intentions. Hardy introduces Henchard at the commencement of the novel, saying, "The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular" (Hardy 5). Clearly, Henchard appears to have façade of a man of character. It is evident that he strives to impress his peers with the way he carries himself day in and day out. On the other hand, his foolish sense of confidence and fake exterior of an honorable man may be a result of a lack of true character. During Henchard's act of selling his wife, the ambiguity of his moral attributes is exploited. For example, it is obvious that if a man even considers selling his wife, he is on the route to becoming seen as an immoral man. In Henchard's case, however, the act can be viewed as beneficial for Susan as he reveals that he is not truly fit for maintaining a family. The sailor's ability to pay for Susan acts as proof that he is capable of doing what Henchard cannot; the sailor is well equipped to giving Susan a life of comfort and fortune. Had Henchard realized this concept, the act would be capable of being seen as moral. Nevertheless, Henchard did not sell his wife for these reasons, negating any chance of him living up to his character and moral expectancies. On this situation, literary critic John Goode explains, "â€¦Henchard is not self-evidently more deserving than as his fate treats him. But Henchard never learns to articulate this pessimism" (Goode 78). It is clear that Henchard does not deserve to realize any positives to this series of events. Still, the positives of the situation do exist, making Henchard somewhat close to character and morality and thus contributing to the moral ambiguity of Henchard as a whole. Henchard exhibits qualities that undoubtedly demonstrate moral as well. For instance, his self-confidence and determination to turn his life around after the selling of his wife is honorable on many levels. He remains sober from alcohol for twenty-one years and proves his capabilities of leading a morally acceptable life. In addition, he becomes the mayor of his town as a result of his new and pure moral qualities. As literary critic George Levine explains, "â€¦he is clearly a man who, however firmly his will keeps him under controlâ€¦, acts outside the limits that confine ordinary people" (Levine 184). Henchard definitely does embody the strength and ability to overcome hindrances which others cannot. Once he becomes committed to a goal, he will not let anything stand in his way of accomplishment. Up to this point, it can be acknowledged that Henchard has truly moral intentions; however, the actions which result from them are without any moral binding whatsoever. Another major occurrence which proves this is when Henchard lies to Elizabeth -Jane about him being her father. It is justified by Hardy as he says, "[Henchard] was the kind man to whom some human object for pouring out his heat upon-were it emotive or were it choleric-was almost a necessity" (Hardy 117). Without a doubt, Henchard believed that he was doing the right thing in this situation, and it can be proven that he was. By telling this to Elizabeth-Jane, he is concealing her true and dishonorable identity and keeping her worthy of the affection of good men such as Farfrae. Conversely, it is never morally acceptable to lie to anyone, especially to someone who is as close to Henchard as Elizabeth-Jane is. Henchard obviously exhibits characteristics that remain morally ambiguous as a result of his good and honorable intentions.
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The entire novel revolves around Henchard's moral ambiguity. His actions and intentions move the plot and create an interesting opposition to the perfection of the character Farfrae. For example, Hardy explains that, "Character is fateâ€¦and Farfrae's character was just the reverse of Henchard's" (Hardy 109). Henchard was linked to fate all his life as a result of his being a man of character. Furthermore, his character and morality were indefinite and could be seen as evil as well as good at various instances in the novel. Farfrae represents everything Henchard strives to be. Unfortunately, Henchard's actions while trying to attain Farfrae's excellence are unsuccessful because it is immoral to imitate someone else, especially for someone who is supposedly a man of character. Levine explains, "Everywhere, of course, Farfrae acts so as to represent a practical alternative to Henchard's egoist passion for the absolute" (Levine 188). Whereas morality comes naturally to Farfrae, it is not always effortless for Henchard to obtain character. Hardy uses these two characters as foils in order to give Henchard intuition to make himself a better man. The reader must come to realize and understand that if one strives to achieve true character and morality, he or she must look to oneself and reach pure goodness on their own. Hardy also uses Henchard's moral ambiguity to show that life is not based exclusively on one's ability to have character and morality. For example, Levine explains, "But plot is not merely-if it is also-a vehicle for the display of 'character.' It is the means through which Hardy imposes a structure on the world and animates it" (Levine 180). For the novel as a whole, Henchard's moral ambiguity adds another dimension to life in this world. At some points, it is used as a supplement to the wild ride which life takes people on. Hardy makes it clear that there is a significant difference between Henchard and Farfrae, and therefore a difference in what is truly moral and what is not. Henchard's own quest for character moves the plot and keeps the reader engaged in the novel; the novel would be uneventful and unenlightening without the moral ambiguity of Henchard.
Hardy does not resist the temptation to create Henchard to be a man of moral ambiguity. On many occasions in the novel, the reader observes the good intentions of Henchard, as well as his unpopular actions. At times, Henchard seems to have pure goodness, character, and morality; however, there is no clear indication that he fully embodies these traits to become "A Man of Character." Hardy enables the reader to ponder whether or not anyone in this world can in fact be a man of character, and if it is possible to be purely good or purely evil. According to the life of Henchard, the odds of that happening are very slim.