There is an element of self-destructiveness in Henchard’s character. For example, Henchard could have easily denied the accusations of the furmity-woman in the courtroom and spared himself from insult and injury. His willingness to suffer is an important thread in the fabric of his character. His sense of what is right trumps his desire for comfort and makes it impossible for him to live a life he is convinced he has not earned. Henchard believes that he must suffer, as though misery were a means of becoming worthy of such love and comfort. As he leaves Casterbridge, having alienated Elizabeth-Jane and therefore destroyed his last hope of happiness, Henchard compares himself to Cain, the son of Adam and Eve whom God, according to the Bible, condemned to a lifetime of suffering for killing his brother, Abel. His resolute exclamation that, unlike Cain, he can bear his punishment reflects his willingness to do so.
It is through defeat that Henchard becomes a man of true character. His willingness to bear the brunt of his suffering and his continual refusal to foist his misery on others and resist suicide mark him as a hero. Indeed, in many respects, Henchard conforms to the tradition of the tragic hero, a character whose greatest qualities or actions ultimately lead to his or her downfall. In the novel’s last chapters, Henchard’s determination to spare Elizabeth-Jane any sorrow elevates him into this admirable realm. As he faces a lonely death in a humble cottage, his resolve lies in his desire not to burden any further a world that seems so bent on human suffering. The tragic irony of Henchard’s story is that leaving Elizabeth-Jane to live her life in peace is his greatest and most selfless act, proof that he is a man of worthy name and reputation. Instead, the novel ends with the promise of his obscurity. There is no greater punishment for a man whose every struggle has been to secure his public standing than the dictum that he be forgotten; in keeping with his character, Henchard has already embraced this punishment.