experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly,
that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world
hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly
irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But
her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less
than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others
receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to
class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the
persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken
tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose
youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional
episode in a general drama of pain.
These lines make up the final passage
of the novel and provide a thoughtful, balanced summary of its proceedings.
Elizabeth-Jane decides to honor Henchard’s last wishes as best she
can. She does not mourn him or plant flowers on his grave. She does,
however, come close to honoring him inwardly, when she reflects
here on the unfair distribution of happiness, which she considers
the most valuable human currency. Her reflection mitigates Henchard’s
obsession with the worth of his name and reputation, for in the
face of such a “sorry world,” all honor seems “doubtful.” But it
also grants the fallen mayor a quiet, unassuming kind of forgiveness.
She certainly has Henchard in mind when she thinks of the many people
who “deserved much more” out of life. Indeed, given that the world emerges
as “a general drama of pain,” both we and Elizabeth-Jane begin to
understand better Henchard’s disastrous mistakes and missteps. Even
his lie regarding Newson becomes less grievous when we consider
that he meant only to secure a happiness that had, for so many years,
eluded him. In such a bleak world, the course of Henchard’s life
seems not to merit punishment so much as it does pity.