Critics through the decades have agreed that Michael Henchard is one of the towering figures of literature. Henchard is powerful because he is both an individual and an icon. He seems to readers to be a real person—a person who evokes sympathy and compassion because he has the same kinds of weaknesses that readers themselves have and experiences the same kinds of loneliness, guilt, fear, and defeat. At the same time, Henchard seems larger than life—like a symbol, rather than a mere example, of humanity.
Hardy uses many techniques to give Henchard these dual aspects. This essay explores two of these techniques: Hardy’s grounding Henchard in a reallife setting to make him human, and Hardy’s associating Henchard with other larger-than-life characters to make him iconic.
Hardy’s perennial Wessex setting and his exact historical details help to make Henchard seem like a real person who lived and suffered just as Hardy’s story has it. After all, if the place is real and the way of life is real and all the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes described are really part of history, then any character who is set down in the midst of it all will seem not like a character at all but just as much a part of history as the scene itself. Hardy’s specific details and historical accuracy earn him so much credibility that it is easy for readers to believe that his narrator is relating a story from memory, not from imagination, that is, that Michael Henchard’s life is history, not story.
When Michael and Susan enter a shop to have dinner, Hardy tells readers that they eat furmity and then describes the archaic dish, even listing the ingredients. The author takes pains to be specific and authentic. He could have written that Michael and Susan ate potato soup and saved himself the trouble of explaining an unfamiliar meal. But Hardy is telling about a real time and place, and he feels bound to tell what people actually ate there. By doing so he makes the reader’s suspension of disbelief automatic and complete. The story that contains such minute and peculiar detail must certainly be a true story, and the people in it must, therefore, be real people.
Making Henchard real and human is important because Hardy wants readers to identify with him and care...
(The entire section is 936 words.)