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At the end of The Mayor of Casterbridge, the
ruined Michael Henchard wills that no one remember his name after
his death. This request is profoundly startling and tragic, especially
when one considers how important Henchard’s name has been to him
during his lifetime. After committing the abominable deed of selling
his wife and child, Henchard wakes from a drunken stupor and wonders, first
and foremost, if he told any of the fair-goers his name. Eighteen years
pass between that scene on the heath of Weydon-Priors and Henchard’s
reunion with Susan in Casterbridge, but we immediately realize the
value that Henchard places on a good name and reputation. Not only
has he climbed from hay-trusser to mayor of a small agricultural
town, but he labors to protect the esteem this higher position affords
him. When Susan and Elizabeth-Jane come upon the mayor hosting a
banquet for the town’s most prominent citizens, they witness a man
struggling to convince the masses that, despite a mismanaged harvest,
he is an honest person with a worthy name.
As he stares out at an unhappy audience made up of grain
merchants who have lost money and common citizens who, without wheat,
are going hungry, Henchard laments that he cannot undo the past.
He relates grown wheat metaphorically to the mistakes of the past—neither
can be taken back. Although Henchard learns this lesson at the end
of Chapter IV, he fails to internalize it. If there is, indeed,
a key to his undoing, it is his inability to let go of his past mistakes.
Guilt acts like a fuel that keeps Henchard moving toward his own
demise. Unable to forget the events that took place in the furmity-woman’s
tent, he sets out to punish himself again and again. While he might
have found happiness by marrying Lucetta, for instance, Henchard
determines to make amends for the past by remarrying a woman he
never loved in the first place. Possessed of a “restless and self-accusing
soul,” Henchard seems to seek out situations that promise further
debasement. Although Donald Farfrae eventually appropriates Henchard’s
job, business, and even his loved ones, it is Henchard who insists
on creating the competition that he eventually loses. Although Henchard
loses even the ability to explain himself—“he did not sufficiently
value himself to lessen his sufferings by strenuous appeal or elaborate
argument”—he never relinquishes his talent of endurance. Whatever
the pain, Henchard bears it. It is this resilience that elevates
him to the level of a hero—a man, ironically, whose name deserves
to be remembered.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Mayor of Casterbridge!