Analysis: Chapters XXXIX–XLII

In these chapters, the full complexity of Henchard’s character reveals itself. Despite his hatred for someone who now enjoys all the benefits he once did—his business and his lover—he cannot bring himself to enact the vengeance he desires. Instead of seeking revenge, Henchard takes it upon himself to fetch Farfrae and urge him back to Lucetta’s bedside. When Henchard declares to Farfrae, “I am a wretched man but my heart is true to you still,” his words point not to the fickleness of his affections but to the deeply conflicted nature of his psyche. His motivations are as muddled as his emotions: given his previous efforts to protect his name and reputation, Henchard may hope to mend his damaged image in the eyes of those who “would not believe him, taking his words [regarding Farfrae’s whereabouts] but as the frothy utterances of recklessness.” But a self-imposed desire to restore his good name is not the only thing that sets Henchard on the road to Weatherbury. As his unwillingness to pummel Farfrae when he has him pinned down in Chapter XXXVIII shows, he still harbors genuine affection for the man.

Like Farfrae’s budding romance with Lucetta when Henchard is ready to take Lucetta as his wife, Newson’s unexpected arrival at Henchard’s house disrupts Henchard’s life noticeably. His newfound desire to have a close relationship with Elizabeth-Jane, like his desire to marry Lucetta, constitutes a heavily considered and deliberate change of attitude on his part. The unpredictable obstacle Newson presents to the happiness Henchard seeks with Elizabeth-Jane is made painfully clear by Hardy’s melodramatic rendering of Newson’s reappearance:

In truth, a great change had come over [Henchard] with regard to [Elizabeth-Jane], and he was developing the dream of a future lit by her filial presence, as though that way alone could happiness lie.
He was disturbed by another knock at the door. . . .

By juxtaposing Henchard’s apparent sole way to happiness and Newson’s knocking, Hardy suggests that Newson’s intrusion actually disturbs Henchard’s “dream of a future.” Given the structure of the novel thus far, wherein peripheral characters, such as the furmity-woman, tend to appear at the most inopportune times, Newson’s reappearance can only bode ill.

Henchard’s selfish and deceitful means of dealing with Newson threaten to rob him of his last bit of self-respect. Despite all this deception, pettiness, and his rabid temper, Henchard remains an essentially sympathetic character. Given his deep, newfound love for Elizabeth-Jane, and the desperateness of his desire to have that love returned, we understand Henchard’s deceitful behavior. Like so many of Henchard’s decisions, fooling Newson has nothing to do with calculation or manipulation and everything to do with “the impulse of a moment.” In this light, Henchard’s treatment of Newson is the frantic act of a scared, lonely, and highly pitiable man.