Many critics believe that Michael Henchard, the “Man of Character” to whom the subtitle of The Mayor of Casterbridge refers, is one of Thomas Hardy’s greatest creations. Henchard is constructed with a great deal of ethical and psychological complexity, and the first two chapters show some of the contradictions of his character. As a young man, Henchard is volatile, headstrong, and passionate. Even before Henchard works himself into a fury in the furmity tent, Susan’s meek behavior as she walks along beside him (“she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact”) implies his volatile and potentially violent nature.
The events that take place in the furmity tent at the fair demonstrate a cycle into which Henchard falls frequently throughout the novel. After finding himself in a shameful situation—this time, having sold his wife and child—he takes full responsibility for his mistakes and sets out to correct them. In fact, his desire to make amends is overpowering. He spends several months searching for his wife and child, proving that his remorse is not halfhearted. This audacious spirit is a hallmark of Henchard’s character, as he switches quickly from ungrateful misogyny to sincere penitence. Ultimately, though, critics have remained interested in Henchard because his success in atoning for his transgressions is ambiguous.
Although Henchard’s search for his wife seems to be an example of honest contrition, his true motivation is more likely concern over his personal honor. When Henchard wakes, his remorse stems more from a fear of being disdained than from any sense of moral irresponsibility. His interest in his good name plays a significant role in his sacrifice of personal satisfaction when he swears off alcohol and determines to find his wife.
Before he begins to scour the English countryside for his wife and child, he reflects that it is not his own but rather his wife’s “idiotic simplicity” that has brought disgrace on him. As he stands outside the fairgrounds at WeydonPriors, anxiously wondering whether he revealed his name to anybody in the furmity tent, Henchard displays an obsession with public opinion concerning his character that greatly shapes his actions and personality. Critic Irving Howe refers to this trait as Henchard’s “compulsive and self-lacerating pride.” Henchard’s initial irresponsibility suggests that the novel’s subtitle may not be an accurate description of him. In a way, then, the subtitle foreshadows Henchard’s transition to a man of character.
Though Hardy resented being labeled a pessimist, the The Mayor of Casterbridgeis at times bleakly realistic. Hardy described himself as a meliorist—one who believes that the universe tends toward improvement and that human beings can enjoy this progress as long as they recognize their proper place in the natural order of things—but the world that the novel describes seems pessimistic and difficult.
Hardy uses Susan Henchard, who has “the hard, half– apathetic expression of one who deems anything possible at the hands of Time and Chance except, perhaps, fair play,” to demonstrate the importance of realistically understanding the natural order of things. We get the sense that the natural world, embodied by “Time and Chance,” has little interest in human life or misery. Hardy substantiates this idea by inserting an image of several horses lovingly rubbing their necks together after the ridiculous scene in the furmity tent. Juxtaposing compassion and heartlessness, Hardy shows us that love and violence are competing aspects of both human behavior and the natural world.